Imagine the lot of them! I mean, we’re talking trillions here – 39 or so, and more than 2,000 species! They are happily inhabiting the gut space and living off your offerings (food, mostly, but not only). However, gut bugs are no freeloaders. Here’s why.
That thing they do…
A reasonably balanced diet that includes plenty of whole foods will keep the good gut bacteria thriving, and will have them more than outnumber the bad guys.
We want the good guys in high numbers because they:
- Help with digestion and nutrient absorption,
- Boost our immune system,
- Produce metabolites such as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that have anti-inflammatory properties, serve as food for colon cells and brain support cells, are involved in cholesterol metabolism,
- Are responsible for producing vitamins (specifically, B and K).
But when things don’t go well…
On the other hand, when there is an imbalance (also called dysbiosis), inflammation is most likely present, which increases the risk of inflammatory bowel diseases, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, mood disorders and it can ultimately affect brain function too. Not pretty.
Why the brain, you may ask. That’s because the gut communicates with the brain via the largest nerve in the body called the vagus nerve.
Through their continuous chatter, our brain gets updated on the gut situation and the other way around. The ‘gut feeling’ you have about something, the ‘butterflies’ you feel when you’re excited or anxious – it’s those bugs and their by-products, which are pretty much the equivalent of text messages between your gut and your brain.
Their friendly demands
If they could speak, the good ones would ask for the following:
That you eat good food. Real, fibre-rich and colourful whole foods rather than fibre-poor, processed foods. Oh wait, they can speak, though they do so not with words but by influencing our cravings. Sneaky, right? And a bit scary too, given that the last thing we want is trillions of organisms influencing our food decisions.
Think of it as a garden you’re tending to. The good guys love good food – soluble fibre, resistant starch, and polyphenols. All found in plant-based foods. The bad guys, on the other hand, thrive when you eat diet high in animal foods, which brings about side effects such as inflammation and a higher risk of chronic disease.
So, when you shape your meals to include whole foods, and you do so consistently, you are encouraging the good guys to multiply and outnumber the bad guys.
That you move regularly. Make time to be active, ideally outside, if possible, at least five days a week. Whether you run, walk, hike or cycle, or whatever your preferred type of movement is, your dedication will benefit you and your gut bacteria.
Aerobic exercise will increase the diversity and abundance of beneficial bacteria, particularly the kind that produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).
While the research has yet to back it up fully, there is a high chance that the bugs that produce serotonin (also called ‘the happiness molecule’) are also boosted by exercise. Don’t forget, when the gut is happy, your brain will be too.
That you chill out. By now you know that the gut and the brain are tightly connected. That means two things: when your diet is less than ideal, your risk of experiencing depression and mood disorders goes up.
On the other hand, when you are stressed, you risk of gut imbalance is higher. Seems like a checkmate of sorts, but here’s the good news: you get to have a big say in it.
A few suggestions to get you started
- Don’t eat when you’re under a lot of stress or angry. Take a few deep breaths or go for a walk before you have your meal.
- Don’t eat on the run. Sit, chew!!, and give thanks for having food on the table. It matters.
- Address stress (the things you have a say on), and consider adopting one or more of the following, either daily or weekly as stress busters: deep breathing, spending time outside, making time for hobbies.
- Get enough sleep every night.
Your gut bugs are not asking for much. And when you give in to their demands, you’ll find yourself handsomely rewarded: your digestion will improve, your inflammation levels will go down and so will your risk of chronic disease.
If healthy aging in on your to-do list, do make sure that you keep your good bugs happy.