A decade ago, no-one was talking about gut health. Today, it has many medical experts excited including British scientist Dr Michael Mosley, who was among the first to put it on the map. Mosley says it’s akin to discovering the wonders of the universe — except it’s within us.
Yes, your digestive system, and in particular the large intestine — gut health’s pin-up — is now hailed as one of the best ways to achieve good health. Who would have thought?
Achieving gut health is all about taking care of the “microbiome” which is the go-to word to describe the healthy bacteria that live in our gut. And with more than 50 trillion creatures, representing at least 1000 different species, comparing it to discovering the universe is not totally far-fetched.
Recent studies show that a healthy gut can have an impact on your mood, and may also help reduce depression and anxiety.
Some researchers, including Professor John Cryan, a neuropharmacologist and microbiome expert from University College, Cork in the UK, believe microbiome research could lead to the development of new mental health therapies. He says the term “psychobiotic” has been coined as a way of describing a targeted intervention of the microbiome for brain health.
“We are in a really interesting time — the evidence about gut health is growing all the time and we’re still scratching the surface. What excites me the most is what we’re learning about how gut health improves your mental health,” says Chloe McLeod, an accredited practicing dietitian. “Studies are showing that getting your bad bacteria under control can have a direct impact on your mental wellbeing.”
So how do you know if you have a healthy gut?
It’s not rocket science to work out that it starts with what we eat. And a bit like a superhero action film with goodies and baddies, some foods will help your microbiome thrive, while others are the “enemy”.
These baddies are the usual suspects such as junk food, and packaged foods and snack foods high in salt and sugar, as well as too much alcohol, caffeine, and deep-fried foods. Unsurprisingly, the goodies include fresh fruit and vegetables as well as a few new candidates such as fermented foods and certain types of fibre.
McLeod says it’s easy to incorporate the right good-gut foods into our diet. And no, it doesn’t mean to you have to eat volumes of sauerkraut or stuff that tastes like cardboard!
For example, if you’re already eating veggies, make sure you include some that are high in prebiotics — a type of fibre that stimulates the growth of good bacteria in the large intestine — such as fresh asparagus, onions, leeks, and beetroot. Other foods high in prebiotics are legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and soybeans, and fruits like nectarines, white peaches, grapefruit, and green bananas.
“We need to eat about 30 grams of fibre every day [the average Aussie gets about 18 grams of fibre per day]. We need a mix of soluble fibre such as insoluble fibre, and resistance starch,” McLeod says.
Soluble fibre can’t be digested so it helps to slow the emptying process in our stomachs, making us feel fuller. It’s found in foods like rockmelon, pears, berries, oranges, broccoli, carrots, oats, barley, and legumes.
Insoluble fibre absorbs water to help soften the contents of our bowels and helps regular bowel movements. It is in foods like wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts, seeds, wheat bran, and the skin of fruit and vegetables.
You will probably have seen probiotics in the supermarket and health food store, so what are they all about? They promote healthy bacteria in the gut, and they can be useful if you’ve been ill and have been taking antibiotics as they can wipe out a lot of the gut’s good bacteria. Probiotics are found in foods such as the aforementioned sauerkraut, kimchi [pickled cabbage], homemade kombucha tea, miso soup, and kefir, a probiotic milk drink.
McLeod says the new hero on the block in relation to gut health is another form of fibre, the aforementioned resistant starch. This is food that is slightly undercooked but has been cooled down, and is later reheated. The main examples of this are al dente pasta, brown rice, and rolled oats which have been soaked overnight.
A typical day of eating foods to boost gut health might be:
- A breakfast of rolled oats that have been soaked overnight in water, eaten with milk of your choice with some fresh fruit;
- A small handful of unsalted mixed nuts and seeds, and plain, unsweetened yoghurt;
- Lunch of a mixed salad with chickpeas;
- Dinner could include plenty of vegetables, some sweet potato (cooked and cooled for resistance starch), and a piece of grilled salmon or lean red meat about the size of your palm.
“If you haven’t been eating a particularly healthy diet and you switch over to this style of eating, you will notice a difference in a matter of weeks,” says McLeod.
“You’re likely to think more clearly, have more energy, your mood will improve, and as a result — you’ll get more out of life.”
What have you done to improve your gut health that works for you?