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Gut Health – Back to the Basics

“There are bugs inside you. Gut bugs.” Shocking? Maybe not. But it’s not what you think – read on!

Gut Microbiota

There are more than trillions of teeny-tiny diverse organisms both inside and outside your gut. This is known as your gut microbiota. So, you literally have a universe inside you!

Imagine a forest full of biodiversity – plants and animals in the mix. Now, the forest is your microbiota and the individual species would be the microorganisms. 

Our microbiota has co-evolved with us from the day we were born. But what influences the kind of microorganisms that will be dominant in our body? 

  • Your environment
  • The medications you’re on
  • Your age
  • Your genes
  • How you were born (C-Section or a normal delivery)
  • The types of food we consume (Your diet)

The fingerprint of your stomach?

5 years ago, if word spread that every single one of us has a unique microbiota, researchers would have called BS. 

But a new study by Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health reveals that every individual has a unique microbiota much like our unique fingerprint! Shocked yet? 

Studies estimate that these microorganisms outnumber our own cells and include more than 8 million genes which amounts to more than 300 times the number of genes we may contain in our own DNA. 

“But that’s pretty normal right?”

Let’s put things into perspective. If you combine all the microorganisms in your body into a single mass, it would weigh as much as 5-6 pounds! That’s twice the weight of your brain.

What does the microbiota do?

Surely, it doesn’t simply exist. These smart organisms perform a number of vital functions in our body. 

Some of them are:

  • Production of chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These can influence our mood and behaviour.
  • Aid nutrient and mineral absorption
  • Ensure proper digestive function
  • Produce Vitamin K and some B Vitamins
  • Increase your immunity (Yes! Your immunity depends on the gut too)
  • Strengthens the intestinal cell barrier (This builds your protection against pathogens.)
  • Influences the gut-brain communication to optimize their functions

Microbiota – is it limited to the gut?

Many experiments have been performed to conclude that when organisms are raised in a sterile (bacteria-free) environment they perform differently in tasks related to learning, memory and social behaviour. (Note: Different isn’t always good)

They also show defects in the functioning of the immune system. That’s how important your gut microbiota (gut bacteria) is!

But does that mean that bacteria is magically the hero of the story? 

Absolutely not. The efficiency of these processes is ensured by the proper balance of healthy microbes in the intestine – the keyword being healthy.

Sounds pretty straightforward.

However, quite often, due to certain factors, the balance of these microorganisms can go haywire.

What’s responsible for the chaos in your gut bacteria balance?

  • Antibiotics

They are prescribed to kill harmful microbes. However, they tend to wipe out the healthy bacteria in this process. (A double-edged sword?)

  • Processed foods and added sugars:

They create an imbalance by supporting the growth of bad bacteria. (Who’s the villain now?)

  • Low Carb Diet

Fancy diets and crash courses often promote the elimination of carbs from your nutrition. 

Let’s fast forward to reality! Dietary fiber and other plant nutrients feed your good bacteria by acting as a prebiotic. This encourages the growth of healthy microbes. Thus, a diet low in fiber can hinder the growth of these good bacteria. (Everyone loves food! – Gut bacteria included)

  • Sleep deprivation:

 It can reduce the microbial diversity and decrease certain good microbes as well. (Rest and digest!)

  • Pesticide:

Glyphosate is a pesticide which is notorious for inhibiting the growth of healthy microbes.

  • Age:

 The gut microbiota changes according to our age. It is influenced by our lifestyle and diet. As we age, the diversity of microbes decreases and a decline of protective microbes like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus is noticed. 

  • Stress:

It releases certain chemicals that damage our intestinal cells and also changes the composition of gut bacteria, increasing the risk of pathogens. (Everyone hates stress – gut bacteria included!)

  • Travel: 

We aren’t saying sitting in an airplane imbalances your gut. But the probability of having junk food, alcohol and decreasing water intake on a vacation increases the risk of bad bacteria growth.

  • Smoking: 

Smoking lowers the diversity of beneficial bacteria. Studies showed that those who quit smoking showed a decrease in bad bacteria called Firmicutes and increases in good bacteria called Bacteroides. (Not bad, huh?)

Your gut is speaking. But are you listening?

Relate to something in this list? You’re not alone. If your gut health is compromised owing to these factors, it starts giving you signals. These come in the form of mood disorders, poor concentration, skin problems, fatigue, immunity issues, bad breath, sugar cravings. The signals also appear in the form of direct digestive issues like bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea.

Phew!

Nevertheless, our body is so wonderful (and forgiving) that incorporating healthy strategies can help you optimize your gut health and fix the worries gradually. 

How do I fix my gut health? 

Apologize for not eating mindfully. Just kidding. Or are we..? 

Practice these good gut-certified habits to get on the good side of your gut. (Tongue in a twist? Let’s sync your gut feeling!)

  • Eat more fiber:

Why: Fiber nourishes the good microbes in our gut. Sort of like a food for our gut heroes. They ferment the fiber and produce short chain fatty acids (SCFA) which act as a nutrient for the intestine.

This increases immunity, blood flow and muscle activity. Along with this, SCFA reduces inflammation that can decrease the risk of heart diseases and diabetes.

How: Include a wide range of different plant-based foods such as vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fruits. This contributes to a diverse community of microbes.

  • Include Omega 3 Fats:

Why: Studies suggest that Omega 3 increases the number of SCFA-producing bacteria in our gut. How: Good sources of Omega 3 are fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, and fish oil supplements

  • Eliminate packaged and processed foods:

Why: Processed foods are broken down more easily into sugar. This can hamper the growth of good bacteria, causing inflammation.

How: Well, that’s an exercise for your willpower. But try setting goals for yourself. Try not to completely restrict yourself from your favourite junk food – cut it down gradually. Introduce your gut to healthy and tasty meals! 

  • Include fermented foods: 

Why: Fermented foods like curd, dhokla, idli, dosa etc. are packed with natural healthy bacteria that can increase the gut microbiota diversity.

How: A pan, a pot, a stove and some light music to cook along to! 

  • Curb Stress: 

Why: Stress = a big NO to the overall functioning of your body.

How: Meditate, practice mindfulness, yoga, go on walks etc. Whatever floats your boat!

  • Exercise Regularly

Why: Regular exercise encourages the growth of the microbes that assist in the production of Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA) which play a role in reducing inflammation in the body. They also help release feel-good hormones combating stress.

  • Avoid Antibiotics Unnecessarily:

Why: Antibiotics destroy both good and bad microbes and it can take weeks to restore the normal balance.

How: Try out natural remedies instead of antibiotics whenever you can.

  • Avoid Smoking:

Why: Smoking lowers the diversity of good bacteria.

How:  Identify the triggers, change them. Grab a fruit or some nuts or sugar-free chewing gums when it clicks

  • Stay Hydrated

Why: Hydration maintains the health of intestinal cells and the balance of good bacteria in the gut.

How: Set reminders to hydrate yourself periodically. 

  • Polyphenols:

Why: Polyphenols are antioxidants that act as fuel for microbes. They are known to increase good bacteria strains like Lactobacillus. Examples are nuts, seeds, berries, green tea and red, purple and blue foods. 

How: Include these foods in your routine regularly.

  • Spices:

Why: Spices like garlic, ginger and turmeric hamper the growth of harmful bacteria owing to the presence of powerful antibacterial chemicals.

How: Incorporate traditional spices in your diet. Traditional is always the best!

  • Sleep:

Why: Inadequate or poor-quality sleep could adversely impact your gut flora

How: Try to make sure that you get at least 8 hours of sleep at night.

Bottomline: Our gut is an absolutely wonderful creation. It’s a universe within itself. Be sure to shower it with the love it deserves – through healthy lifestyle and nutrition habits. A healthy gut is a healthy immune system, a healthy heart and a healthy brain! 

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