Gut health is more important than most people realise. The good news is that you can improve gut health. Your gut contains hundreds of species of bacteria, many of which can be very beneficial for your health. Beneficial species are beneficial because they produce substances such as vitamins. However, another important role is that they also keep disease-causing microbes in check.
These tiny organisms, known collectively as the gut microbiota, can make a huge difference to the overall health of your body. Scientists are still learning about this and just beginning to understand their importance. For instance, many beneficial bacteria have the ability to manipulate our immune systems so that we have a healthier response to infections and disease. They can also reduce inflammation that may otherwise lead to heart disease, obesity or other common conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. In fact, some evidence suggests that a healthy microbiome may even prevent some types of cancer.
So, to improve gut health and our gut microbiome, we need to think about quality not just quantity. It is more about the types of bacteria in your gut, rather than just the quantity. In other words, the diversity in your gut microbiome is what is most important for gut health.
The Gut Microbiota and your health
The average human gut contains as many as 10 times more bacteria than human cells in the body and every person has a different composition of species. That means you are host to trillions of bacteria with an amazing microbiota diversity. A bit like your own fingerprint, your gut microbiota is unique to you.
Each type of bacteria has different effects on our health and the overall composition of your microbiota is affected by many different factors, and especially by the foods you eat. Over time, eating certain foods can mean that certain species can become over-represented. By the same token, some healthy bacteria may be under-represented in your gut microbiota.
The balance and diversity of the microbiota are important because a healthy community of bacteria makes it less likely for a particular species to become dominant. If your diet is diverse and you eat a wide range of vegetables and some fruit daily, your microbiome is likely to have more diversity.
Foods such as vegetables and fruits contain lots of fibre which the beneficial bacteria thrive on. Human health studies found that eating a varied diet, high in fruits and vegetables prevents the growth of some disease-causing bacteria. For instance, eating foods such as apples, artichokes, blueberries, almonds and pistachios increases the numbers of beneficial Bifidobacteria.
Eating a diet that contains fermented foods such as yoghurt or sauerkraut can also be beneficial because they provide probiotic bacteria. But, it is important to consume natural, plain live yoghurt, rather than flavoured yoghurts which are often full of refined sugar and may contain no probiotic bacteria.
The opposite can be true if your diet is not so good. A diet too high in saturated fats and sugar, means you may find that you have fewer and less diverse species of gut bacteria.
The immune system and the gut
One of the ways in which healthy gut microbiota can protect your health is by influencing your immune system. In addition, many of these bacteria can produce chemicals that can help your immune system respond more effectively to infection.
The microbes found in the gut can even affect the body’s response to toxins and carcinogens. The theory is that a diverse microbiota helps to prevent the absorption of some of these harmful substances.
Furthermore, there is evidence that women who have a more diverse microbiota are less likely to develop breast cancer. While men who have a more diverse microbiota are less likely to get prostate cancer.
So, eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits to ensure your diet is full of healthy fibre is a good way to ensure that your gut microbiota is as diverse and healthy as possible. This means that you are less likely to be affected by a wide range of health conditions.
Read more about gut health and digestion here.