Eating healthy has far more reaching consequences than you could imagine. Aside the direct effect of eating healthy on your health through the nourishment the carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins provide, the food you eat also affects the community of microorganisms (mostly bacteria, but also includes yeasts, viruses and protozoa) in your gut (digestive system). Yes, a community of microorganisms! There are about 100 trillion of these microorganisms in each person’s gut and this community of microorganisms is what is called gut microbiome (or gut flora).
It is well-known that microorganisms cause diseases and are harmful to human health. That is true to an extent – some microorganisms are harmful. There are also some of these microorganisms that are very beneficial for human health. In this post, I explain the role gut flora plays in promoting health and how diet can influence the effects of gut flora on your health. Now, let’s dive in.
Why gut microbiome? Why is it important?
Gut microbiome is a complex community of microorganisms that reside in the gut. Microorganisms reside all over our bodies; in the mouth, on the skin and other parts of our bodies. However, the majority (about 99%) of microorganisms in relation to the body, live in the gut – mostly in the large intestines. These microorganisms comprise a balance of beneficial microorganisms and harmful microorganisms. The development and modifications of the microorganisms that make this balance are established and influenced by factors such as the process by which a child is born, the method by which an infant is fed, exposure to stress, medications and diet. In effect, no two people can have the same gut flora – just like a fingerprint.
The beneficial microorganisms in the microbiome help with the digestion of food to nourish the body. In addition to that, they help to keep the harmful microorganisms under control. They do this by multiplying very fast so that the harmful ones do not have space to multiply and cause harm.
When the gut has the right balance of microorganisms, it is described as a healthy gut. It has been found that a healthy gut boosts the immune system, prevents type-2 diabetes and contributes to a healthy brain. The benefits of a healthy gut are so many, some scientists at the University of California-Davis indicate that a healthy gut could be the treatment for skin conditions like acne. On the other hand, studies have shown that an imbalance in gut microbiome can lead to health conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, gout, depression, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and cancer.
Gut microbiome is able to influence the development of these diseases in an individual by interacting with the genetic make-up of the individual (your genetic make-up isa factor you cannot do much about) and the individual’s diet (diet is a factor you can do something about).
How does the combination of gut microbiome and food affect your body?
When food enters the digestive system, the microorganisms also feed on components of the food producing certain chemicals (called metabolites). Depending on the food you eat, the metabolite the gut microbiome produces could promote good health or trigger the development of diseases. One of the metabolites produced by gut microbiome that promotes good health is called propionate. This propionate has been shown in some studies to reduce cholesterol levels, make you feel less hungry, thereby reducing the chance of obesity, and prevent the progression of cancer.
Also, some foods contain some good bacteria called probiotics. These probiotics once they get into the digestive system encourage the growth of the beneficial microorganisms, hence, reducing the risk of some diseases such as ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
Which foods can improve gut health?
It is clear that certain foods promote gut health. Before I get to that, there are some diets that have been shown to cause an imbalance in gut microbiome, triggering the development of diseases. A 2015 study conducted at Oregon State University showed that a diet that is high in fats and sugar causes an imbalance in gut microbiome which can affect the brain and behaviour. Hence, it is important to control your intake of fried foods and food products with added sugar. Further, the consumption of artificial sweeteners was shown to cause a change in gut flora in another study. This change in gut flora was observed to increase blood sugar level, though these sweeteners do not contain any sugar.
Beyond these, several studies have shown the role of dietary fibre in promoting gut health. Diets that are high in dietary fibre contain a variety of non-digestible carbohydrates (or prebiotics) that are fed on by the beneficial microorganisms in the gut flora to produce metabolites that are healthful like propionate. Examples of foods that are rich in these prebiotics are fruits (the prebiotics are in the roughage), vegetables, whole grains like fonio, sorghum, millet, maize, oats, quinoa, barley and wheat. Other foods that contain prebiotics include soybeans, dandelion leaves, banana, cocoa, flaxseeds, garlic and onion.
As I mentioned earlier, foods that contain probiotics also boost gut health. Foods that are high in probiotics include yoghurt with active or live cultures, cheddar cheese, mozzarella, cottage cheese and sauerkraut,
While it is important to start eating a healthy diet now to enjoy the positive effects of gut microbiome, the uncontrolled use of antibiotics can destroy some of the beneficial microorganisms – not all the microorganisms bounce back after the use of antibiotics. Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, control your intake of fried foods, eat less sugar and sweeteners and use antibiotics only when it is prescribed.
A healthy diet is necessary for a healthy gut and a healthy gut necessary for a healthy body. Start eating a healthy diet now. STAY WELL NOW!
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