If gut health was a religion, it’s fair to say I grew up among devout believers. Homemade sourdough, sauerkraut and – the sourest of them all – the giant gelatinous kombucha pellicle bubbling away on the kitchen shelf were my toast and tea growing up.
A saintly diet was not my priority when I flew the nest but the frivolity was disappointingly short-lived. Within a year my energy plummeted to alarmingly lethargic, and a painful eczema cracked the skin on my hands with such ferocity that I couldn’t hold a pen to take lecture notes.
I was eventually declared intolerant to pretty much everything bar breathing but, despite doggedly sticking to a holier-than-thou elimination diet, there was no real improvement. I was, in a very literal sense, a misery guts.
“Even a small change in our microbiome can have a snowball effect,” explains Professor Phil Hansbro, author of The Good Gut Anti-Inflammatory Diet (Pantera Press, $32.99), and Director at the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation.
“Inflammation and damage to the gut creates an opportunity for more ‘bad’ bacteria to grow. These bad bacteria species take more and more space, resulting in a loss of immune tolerance and chronic inflammation.”
Although processed and sugary foods are linked to feeding inflammatory-producing bacteria in your gut, the damage they do is very individual because it depends on what other microbes you have that could tip the balance in your favour. “There are about 4000-6000 bacteria species in our gut,” says Professor Hansbro.
“Incredibly, each species has its own specific nutritional needs and produces its own metabolites. Some are pro-inflammatory – they produce toxins and metabolites that cause inflammation in our body.”
Pick a health problem and you can bet that those pro-inflammatory gut microbes play a part.
“When things are absorbed through our gut wall they are transported throughout our entire bodies through the blood stream,” says Professor Hansbro. “So anything that is produced by our microbes can affect the health of each part of our body as a whole.”
University of Sydney microbiologist Dr Erin Shanahan researches bowel cancer (the third most diagnosed cancer in Australia) and says eating the wrong diet can encourage a proliferation of bacteria that, over time, push surrounding gut cells to become potentially cancerous.
“What we eat is what they eat!” reports Dr Shanahan. “But we don’t understand why, if you put 100 people on a ‘bad’ diet, they won’t all develop bowel cancer. And the answer to that might lie in the microbiome.”
“The food choices you make in 24 hours will impact the evolution of over 50 generations of gut microbes,” says nutritionist Anna Mitsios.
Finding those definitive answers is tricky because our gut bugs are as individual as our fingerprint – even twins don’t share the same intestinal bacteria. We often talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria but it’s far more complex than that – some bugs can be beneficial for certain people but cause havoc for others. Some can be harmless in small numbers but bullies in big groups. It can be hard to predict how individual bacteria will get along with other bugs – not only are the trillions of gut germs influenced by genetics, environment and lifestyle choices, they’re even influencing each other.
When they do work well as a team, their combined diversity means there is less room for pathogens to muscle their way into the community. We desperately need these germs to keep us alive – they control everything from our ability to digest food to fighting off viruses and infections (an estimated 70 per cent of the body’s immune cells are in the gut). The bacteria in our belly produce a variety of vitamins, synthesise hormones like serotonin, and turn the fibre we eat into short-chain fatty acids that can lower inflammation.
Scientists have identified gut microbes that are linked to insulin resistance, obesity and metabolic disease, and gut dysbiosis is a common denominator among many autoimmune diseases.The research on how gut microbes affect our brain and mood is ballooning. Gut bacteria even controls our cravings – they tap into the nerve pathways that link your gut and brain. The good news is that we can change our gut health by changing our lifestyle.
“The life cycle of our gut bacteria is so quick that the food choices you make in 24 hours will impact the evolution of over 50 generations of gut microbes,” says Anna Mitsios, a naturopath and founder of Edible Beauty. “When we nurture a diverse ecosystem of bacteria our gut becomes incredibly resilient, and so does our overall health and immune system as they are linked.”
Other than the obvious (good health does not lie in the bottom of a bag of crisps, and so forth) feeding your ‘good’ microbes can genuinely involve a bit of trial and error because, without testing, you can’t know exactly what you’re dealing with. Generally speaking, a diverse diet high in fruit, veg, whole grains and nuts will put you on the right path.
Although you can change your microbiome in as little as a week, if your gut is seriously out of whack it can take much longer as the microbes cleverly adapt, “favouring those that tolerate an inflamed gut environment,” says Professor Hansbro. “If the by-products they release are also pro-inflammatory, those microbes keep the gut in a vicious circle of inflammation, effectively maintaining a state of inflammation in an endless positive feedback loop.”
I can attest to the misery of that loop, but I eventually came full circle: I learned to cook like my mum (minus the bubbling ’booch). I ditched the restrictive diet – turns out I was probably also starving the anti- inflammatory bugs I really needed – and switched to a plant-dominated wholefood diet. It wasn’t a fast fix but it slowly restored my gut bugs to a state of relative harmony.
We all get along just fine now.
The best diet for gut health
Most of us will experience a gut-related issue at some point, but there are several ways to avoid discomfort.
A survey of 73,000 adults in 33 countries found that more than 40 per cent had gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome or constipation. And according to Agnesa Simcic, accredited nutritionist and founder of Wholefood Mama, people have a tendency to ignore abdominal discomfort.
“Symptoms like bloating and constipation are so common they’re often dismissed as insignificant but it affects so much more than just digestion,” says Agnesa. “The digestive tract is a major player in immune function, detoxification, hormone production and energy levels, so it pays to nip those niggling discomforts in the bud.”
This is how to do just that:
Low-fibre diets have been linked to many allergic and inflammatory diseases, while high-fibre diets are thought to reduce inflammation.
“Fibre is fermented by certain gut bacteria to produce short-chain fatty acids, which suppress inflammation,” says Professor Hansbro.
The trouble is, 83 per cent of us are not meeting the suggested dietary fibre target for good health. Whole grains are a good source, and Professor Hansbro says it’s not necessary to avoid gluten if you’re not coeliac.
“Most people are not sensitised to gluten and so it’s fine in moderation.” What’s more important is to get both soluble fibre (like oats, apples, peas and citrus) and insoluble fibre (such as whole grains, nuts, broccoli and beans)
Some studies suggest that intermittent fasting increases the diversity and number of microbes in the gut.
“Allowing enough time between meals allows food to be digested and moved along the digestive tract efficiently. It has been shown to reduce blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity,” says Alexandra King, certified nutritionist for Wednesday Cleanse Day.
“The gut plays a major role in regulating brain activity and cognitive function, and some research suggests that fasting can improve mood and cognitive function.”
Pre, pro and postbiotics
We don’t yet know exactly how and why probiotics work, but what we do know is this: When we consume prebiotics (which feeds the probiotic bacteria) we make postbiotics.
“Postbiotics are technically the waste product after digesting prebiotic and probiotic foods, however their health benefits are far-reaching for both gut health and overall wellbeing,” says Chloe McLeod, Meluka Australia’s Consulting Dietitian.
“Postbiotics include nutrients, for example vitamin K and certain B vitamins, amino acids as well as anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids.” Meluka make a postbiotic tonic for convenience but it also happens organically if you eat prebiotic-rich foods (fibrous grain, fruit and veg) with probiotic foods (fermented foods, like sauerkraut, miso and live natural yoghurt).
“To improve digestion, start meals with foods that stimulate stomach acid, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and pickled vegetables,” says Agnesa.
“Then add foods that actually contain digestive enzymes, like pineapple, mango, papaya and kiwi fruits.”
Although alcohol is technically a fermented food, the jury is out on whether it’s beneficial for your gut. “There are lots of antioxidants such as resveratrol in red wine, less so in white wine and beer,” says Professor Hansbro. “As long as you drink in moderation and have some nights off, its fine.”
Sugar & salt
Keep it to a minimum. “Excessive sugar leads to an increase in a small number of bacteria which makes our microbiome less diverse and throws it out of balance,” reports Professor Hansbro. “Excessive salt intake can damage our microbiome’s ability to produce anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids.”
Studies have shown that plant-based proteins increase beneficial bacterial species.
“Incorporating a mix of fruit, veg, whole grains, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices is the best way to encourage a healthy microbiome,” says Chloe.
“Your microbiome can start to change in as little as a week! By following a wholefood plant-based diet consistently, you will notice huge benefits to your health.”
“A lack of sleep affects food digestion and alters our stress and hormone levels. That affects our gut microbiome and gut health,” says Professor Hansbro.
How to treat gut inflammation
Anna Mitsios, nutritionist and founder of Edible Beauty Australia, explains how to calm inflammation if you’re dealing with digestion issues.
- Remove triggers: That means anything exacerbating bloating, indigestion, constipation or an irritable bowel. This is often sugar, yeast, gluten and dairy; however, everyone’s gut is different so keep a food diary.
- Add variety: Eating healthy foods repetitively is great but it doesn’t nurture all of your gut microbiome. Change your greens and veggies every day and add nuts, seeds, seaweed and healthy whole grains.Munch on enzymes Glutamine has a wonderful ability to restore and repair your gut lining. Bromelain and Papain are natural enzymes found in foods like pineapple and papaya that can reduce inflammation and support digestion.
- Stress less: Stress can deplete key nutrients that support a healthy gut lining zinc and vitamin C. A lack of sleep can also mean that our body’s healing mechanisms are compromised.
- Herbs & spices: Chamomile, aloe vera and slippery elm reduce inflammation. Golden seal, garlic and oregano can be helpful in eliminating any potential yeast overgrowth.
How to treat bloating
A healthy digestive system isn’t just about what you eat, it’s also about movement.
Gentle exercise, such as yoga, is a simple way to stimulate the colon, which can provide both immediate and long-term relief.
“Improvements in digestion should help improve nutrient absorption, waste and toxin removal, sleep quality, sleep hormone regulation and better balance of certain mood-calming hormones,” says nutritionist and yoga teacher Agnesa Simcic.
“Not to mention the freedom of simply being free of bloating, which can cause distention, foul gas and foul moods, too.”
In yoga, the combination of stretches targeting the abdominal organs and twists that massage the colon stimulates muscular contraction so that things are gently moved along the digestive tract.
“Sometimes the results are immediate – the famous yoga fart! – but it’s mostly about being consistent over time as that increases and maintains digestive flow,” says Agnesa.
“Improve imbalances in your digestive health and you’ll notice improvements everywhere. Of course, you will have more energy too!”
Between yoga sessions Agnesa suggests incorporating any form of light movement into your routine after eating a main meal, whether it’s hanging out the washing or vacuuming the floor for 15 minutes.
“Traditional cultures do this well,” says Agnesa. “In Italy, the ‘passeggiata’, a walk around town after dinner, is part of daily life.”
Below, Agnesa shares her six favourite exercises to improve digestive health:
Seated side bend
Start seated with your legs crossed. Place your left hand on the floor with your elbow slightly bent. Reach your right arm up and overhead and lean to the left side. Repeat on the right side.
“When done on both sides, it stimulates key digestive organs: stomach, gall bladder, pancreas, spleen and liver.”
Knees to chest
Bring both knees to your chest, keeping your lower back pressed to the floor. Hold for at least 30 seconds.
“It is used to relieve many digestive issues, commonly gas and bloating.
Lie on your belly and grab the outer edges of your ankles with your hands. On inhalation, press your ankles into your hands, lifting your chest and thighs. Breathe into your chest and ribs. On exhalation, release your ankles and gently lie down on your belly for a few breaths.
“The combination of pressure and compression on the lower digestive organs can help increase bowel movements and reduce congestion.”
Keep your hands shoulder-width apart and your knees directly below your hips. Inhale deeply while curving your lower back and bringing your head up, tilting your pelvis upwards like a cow. Exhale deeply and bring your abdomen in, arching your spine and bringing your head and pelvis down like a cat. Repeat several times.
“The forward-and-back motion means the abdominal muscles contract and release, like a gentle massage for the lower digestive organs.”