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A guide to good gut health

IKIGAI contributor, plant-based chef and culinary consultant, Filippa Harrington, investigates. We unpack gut health, delve into what we do know about microbiome and its overarching effects, and highlight some key lifestyle habits that can help us improve our gut health.

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Photo by Tom Rogerson

The old adage, ‘listen to your gut,’ could not be any more relevant than today, as following decades worth of clinical trials and research into ‘our second brain’, the gut is showing itself to be at the core of our mental, emotional and physical wellness. Many of us know that gut health is something we should care about but are a little stumped when it comes to recognising just how healthy (or unhealthy) our gut is.

IKIGAI contributor, plant-based chef and culinary consultant, Filippa Harrington investigates, and highlights some key lifestyle habits that can help move us towards gut health. But first, let’s take a brief (as the research field is extensive, and is exponentially increasing) look at what we do know.

How to recognise a healthy gut

The phrase ‘healthy gut’ is something that most of us are used to hearing but what does one feel like? And how do we know if ours is in need of a little TLC?

Although gut-based symptoms are only the tip of the iceberg, it’s irregularities in gut function that are the most familiar to recognise. According to Dr. Stephen Collins, gastroenterologist and a researcher at McMaster University, a ‘normal’ gut is one that displays little to no consequence in eliminating waste. In other words, the experience of going to the toilet is frequent, pain-free and smooth – on all fronts!

Dr. Jason Hawrelak, a Naturopathic doctor with a pHd worth of research into gastrointestinal microbiota behind him, goes a little further to say “that an individual living without any significant allergies, or food intolerances, would also likely point to a healthy microbiome (the collection of the microorganisms in your gut). He summarises that, “if you are able to eat a large plate of legumes, and at most experience flatulence – not tension, bloating, cramping and pain that others with a challenged microbiome may experience, this would also point to the healthier range of gut-health.”

However, it is important to look beyond gut-centric symptoms when thinking about our own bodies because the impact of poor gut health affects so much more than our bowel movements. Moving beyond gut-centred symptoms, Dr. Hawrelak also notes that someone living with a healthy microbiome would be in a balanced metabolic zone, which means they would have no issues with blood sugar levels, and no issues with weight gain, their mood would be pretty stable, and they’d be less perturbed by stresses.

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Over the past 50 years, science has proven the link between our gut and our brain, and connects 80% of our immune function to our gut health. Mental health issues, the production of serotonin, the onset of autoimmune disorders (like coeliac, colitis, IBS and thyroid imbalances) and Type 2 Diabetes, all point to origin in the gut or an imbalanced microbiome (often referred to as dysbiosis).

Recognition of the gut-brain axis, the information pathway between the gut and brain, is a ground-breaking development for the way we look at mental health. The gut-brain axis is a bi-directional pathway, where information is transmitted via nerves, hormones and products of our immune system, and the bacteria present in our guts.

Therefore, intestinal bacteria can influence the brain – a discovery that is so irrefutable, that it is calling health practitioners to completely re-evaluate how they treat both physical and mental ailments. Dr. Will Busiewicz, gastroenterologist and microbiome expert, details this shift “in the past, when a patient would present with IBS and anxiety, they would assume that the impact was brain down, that mental disposition, or neurosis was creating the digestive disorder. However, with recognition of the gut-brain axis, and the fact that 95% of serotonin is produced in the stomach, doctors are reviewing their treatment and understanding of this ailment.”

It’s little to no surprise that, with our microbiome having such wide and varied knock-on effects outside of our digestion, that it also can affect (positively or negatively) our largest organ: our skin.

Carla Oates, IKIGAI Thought Leader and founder of The Beauty Chef – a range of prebiotic and probiotic supplements created to boost gut-health – explains the link:

“A healthy [microbiome] has been proven to have positive impacts on immunity (therefore reduce the severity of skin allergy conditions such as eczema), reduce skin inflammation (a leading cause of prematurely ageing skin), boost cellular antioxidant capacity, defend the lining of the intestine, increase the bioavailability of nutrients and improve the assimilation of nutrients such as amino acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.”

As Carla affirms, “the gut is where you make neurotransmitters, metabolise hormones, neutralise pathogens, eliminate toxins and manufacture nutrients. So, the state of your microbiome has a profound impact on your mood, weight, skin, immunity and overall wellbeing”.

With this research behind us, it sends a strong message that, whoever we may be and whatever health issues we may or may not be experiencing, even the healthiest of us can benefit from taking steps to support our bodies in maintaining a healthy gut.

Five gut-health habits to keep in mind:

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Eat your probiotics

The Beauty Chef products are guided by the tenet that ‘beauty begins in the belly,’ and this starts with what you put in there. “Food doesn’t just feed your cells,” Carla explains, “a healthy diet, rich in prebiotics and probiotics also feeds the microbes in your gut.”

Many of us will have taken probiotic pills before but are less familiar with ingesting them through food we eat. Yet, if there is one message that is repeated time and time again when it comes to gut health and probiotics, it’s diversity. We need not only the high dose of a small amount of strains that a probiotic pill provides but a variety of those strains. And, this is where eating your probiotics through food, as opposed to swallowing down a pill, comes into play.

A high quality probiotic may boast hosting millions of microorganisms but where they fall short is in diversity. Shelf and fridge-bought probiotic supplements contain between an average of 10 and 14 strains of bacteria, whereas a single spoon of lacto-fermented vegetables could contain up to 600 different strains, albeit in lesser numbers.

Fermented foods are repeatedly shown to be the best way to populate your gut with good bacteria, steadily and consistently. Although many foods are fermented, such as wine, beer, cheese and chocolate, in this case, we are referring to primarily vegetables, that have undergone the process of lacto-fermentation to boost their nutritional capacity and become host to hundreds of strains of good bacteria and enzymes. Unpasteurised Kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles are good examples (but not the kind you can find on shop shelves, that have been preserved by way of hot vinegar, unfortunately). In terms of beverages, fermented drinks, like dairy- or plant-based kefir, and kombucha, can also assist in creating a diverse diet of fermented foods.

A recent study published by the science journal, Cell, presents information to support the notion that we are better off eating our probiotics through food, rather than taking them in pill form.  The study details that there is risk within the uniformity of store bought probiotic supplements, such as pills and inoculated probiotic yoghurt drinks, that not all of us are able to colonize, or intake the probiotic strains that are within them. There is a difference in uptake depending on each individual’s existing microbiome and immune system. With the hundreds of different strains of bacteria that are symbiotic with a healthy gut, it is understandable that a pill containing only 10 of these strains couldn’t be a one-size-fit-all for all of our bacteria inadequacies or imbalances.

Sandor Ellix Katz, pioneer of home fermentation and author of the essential, The Art of Fermentation, reminds us that this is important, even in the range of fermented food and drink we may be implementing into our diets: “Eating a variety of fermented foods is essential, rather than just getting comfortable with a singular fermented food, eat a variety.”

Don't forget the prebiotics

Probiotic supplements, therapies and foods get most of the attention when we’re speaking about gut health but it’s important to remember the prebiotics that are also critical for your microbiome. Prebiotics are integral to boosting positive bacteria in the gut.

To break down the difference between the two, we can look at it like this: Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when consumed, have a health benefit to the host – if you imagine we were organic farmers, they would be our seeds.

Prebiotics are selectively fermented fibres that increase levels of certain bacterial species that benefit host health. To go back to our farmer metaphor – prebiotics act as our fertilizer and water. Prebiotic fibre moves through the small intestine undigested, where it ferments in the large colon.

Although not all dietary fibres are prebiotics, many high-fibre foods are. Welcome legumes, grains, vegetables and fruits into your diet to boost your intake of prebiotics.

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Chew your food

IKIGAI Thought Leader, Eve Kalinik (Nutritional Therapist and author of Be Good to your gut) encourages us to start with the basics and simply chew your food properly. She explains, “The first thing to practise is chewing food thoroughly. If we are gobbling furiously and swallowing food that hasn’t been broken down in the first part of the gut (yes, that’s the mouth) then it can put extra ‘burden’ further down the chain of digestion. Aiming for around 30 chews per bite, so that food is liquid before swallowing, would be a good indication. Just doing this simple process can alleviate unpleasant symptoms such as reflux, bloating and gas.”

Be mindful of antibiotics

Many of us are aware that taking a course of antibiotics can have an ill-effect on our gut bacteria and doctors may prescribe a probiotic alongside them. However, Dr Harwelick explains that the potential damage is greater than we may estimate and a risk that a probiotic supplement can’t eliminate. “Taking antibiotics, in the event of a gastrointestinal issue, increases the risk of post-infection IBS by approximately five times, and there is a huge increase in the risk of long-term gut dysfunction and, sadly, this information is not widely known, which means people may be causing themselves long-term harm whilst they are trying to help themselves. It’s essentially adding insult to an already compromised part of your body.”

What can you do if you don’t want to take antibiotics in the case of a gastrointestinal upset or diarrhoea? Of course, there are cases when there are no other routes but for the treatment of certain ailments, there are alternative options, and other healthcare specialists that can assist that won’t compromise our gut-health with as much intensity as antibiotics. A naturopathic doctor, for example, may prescribe you a specific set of anti-microbial herbs, that will target the pathogens in question but won’t impact the beneficial bacteria, and thus won’t have the collateral damage that taking a dose of antibiotics might.

Avoid long-term, limiting diets

A key message throughout the discourse on good gut-health is diversity. When looking to nourish our microbiota, keep in mind the goal to both boost and nourish a large range of bacteria within our gut. Echoing the foundation of nature, biodiversity in our guts is just as important as we know it to be in the natural world.

It’s for this reason that restricting or limiting food diets (like low Fodmap and Ketogenic diets) can be problematic to overall gut-health, when followed long term.

As Dr. Harwelick notes, diets of “high protein or high fat inadvertently feed a bunch of pro-inflammatory species in our gut, and you may not get overt symptoms but this can have long-term negative impacts.” And, with prebiotics being an essential piece of the healthy microbiome puzzle, diets that limit or restrict whole foods dietary fibres put us at risk of rendering certain species of gut-bacteria that feed on these critical fibres, extinct.

The takeaway? Our microbiome is our central processing unit. Take care of it. Good care of it. Be sure to include probiotics and prebiotics in your diet, think twice when it comes to antibiotics, and be mindful of limited diets that restrict enzyme and bacterial diversity.

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