Despite being one of the most important systems in the human body, the workings of the human gut are still not well understood and subject to considerable research and development. As consumers, we can all improve our knowledge too. After all, the trillions of bacteria that make up the gut microbiome can influence much more than just digestion! These bacteria can influence other areas of your health and wellbeing including your sleep, brain health and mood – even your immune system!
World Microbiome Day is a great opportunity to get better acquainted with your gut! It’s a day that focuses on the powerful science that is driving human health and wellness today and aims to help build a fuller understanding of how each piece of the gut health puzzle fits together. The theme for 2020 is ‘diversity’. But in terms of gut health, what do we mean by diversity?
The role of bacteria
Inside the digestive system, it’s believed there are up to a thousand different kinds of bacteria, each with a different role to play. Some, such as bifidobacteria, are particularly beneficial to us (the ‘good bacteria’), and others are less useful, or benign. In the world of gut health, when we talk about bacterial diversity, this is the ratio of bacteria in the gut microbiome. We hold a finite level of bacteria in the gut, what changes are the amount of each kind. It stands to reason therefore, that we should aim for more of the important good bacteria that we need, and less of the ones we don’t. We can use the bacterial diversity of the gut microbiome as a predictor of general health. While much of how the gut works has yet to be uncovered, we know that certain illnesses or conditions can affect the diversity of bacteria in the gut. In the future, this may mean that altering the bacteria levels in the gut could play a role in how we avoid, treat or soothe the symptoms of certain diseases.
What are the benefits of the gut microbiome?
Bacterial diversity is one way that gut health is monitored and addressed. In order to understand the benefits of diversity in the gut microbiome, first we need to understand the impact an imbalanced gut microbiome can have. A lack of diversity can lead to larger amounts of less useful (or sometimes harmful) bacteria. A gut microbiome with a less than favourable bacterial composition is a condition known as Dysbiosis and has been associated with some disease states. Essentially, a high level of bacterial diversity is protective against instability1 in the gut microbiome, therefore diversity is important for health.
What causes an imbalance in gut bacteria?
There are a few potential influencing factors to consider when looking to support a diverse and thriving gut microbiome. It has been suggested that overuse of antibiotics can have a damaging effect on certain kinds of good bacteria, and liver complications has also been considered but the most likely and significant influence is lifestyle and diet. We can even see this in various communities around the world. Populations that reflect the hunter-gatherer lifestyle or land subsistence of the Western world’s ancestors are understood to have a higher diversity of bacterial species in their gut microbiome. This is believed to contribute to greater microbiome stability, and a more powerful ability to withstand pathogens and illnesses.
Notably, with a diet so focussed on pastoral and arable farming, the gut microbiome responds to seasonal changes and fluctuations as certain foods go in and out of growing season. With year-round access to processed foods and the import and export of foods from around the world, many modern western diets don’t share this same seasonality. Over 70% of the immune system is in the gut, and while science has yet to fully connect all the dots and break down the precise nature of the relationship, a gut microbiome that is more resilient can return to equilibrium after physical, chemical and microbial influences, and is often associated with higher microbial diversity. In essence, recent scientific research shows that there is some connection between how bacterially diverse our microbiome is, and how well we can fight off disease and illness.
How can we support diversity in the gut microbiome?
Because the composition of the gut microbiome can shift and change, there are a number of ways we can support a diverse range of bacteria.
- Start your children early! We can begin developing a diverse microbiome during infancy. The bacteria in breast milk can influence the development of the gut microbiome. Because of the bacteria in human milk, breastfeeding is associated with a decreased risk of allergy in infants2.
- Exercise more! Physical activity is associated with positive effects on gut microbiome diversity. There are kinds of bacteria in the gut that produce butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that is believed to support digestive health - and could even reduce the effects of inflammation. A higher level of physical activity is thought to support the growth of these important bacteria3.
- Look out for your essential nutrients! A diet high in plant-based foods, particularly complex carbohydrates, and lower in fat and animal proteins, is protective against inflammation and leads to a preferable composition of bacteria in the gut4.
- Aim for a more varied diet! Dietary diversity has decreased over generations as our manufacturing and food production methods have changed. Increasing the variety of foods included in a weekly dietary pattern can feed and promote a greater diversity of beneficial microbes in the gut.
- Consider supplements! Supporting the diet with prebiotic and probiotic foods can improve gut microbiome composition and, in some cases, using supplements is recommended where prebiotics can’t be obtained from diet alone.
- Learn about the power of prebiotics! Prebiotics are usually defined as ‘a substrate that is selectively utilised by the host microorganisms conferring a health benefit’ and importantly, they can promote growth of beneficial bacteria. Consuming a variety of foods in a dietary pattern that is rich in complex carbohydrates and plant-based foods can provide naturally occurring prebiotics.
However, there is a notable fibre gap, with only 9%5 of UK adults consuming the recommended daily intake of fibre. In cases where it may be difficult for people to raise their fibre intake significantly, a prebiotic supplement could be recommended, such as Bimuno®. So, what are you waiting for? This World Microbiome Day is a great opportunity to get in tune with your gut and find out more about the benefits of a diverse, happy gut microbiome!
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