It is becoming increasingly understood that our gut microbiome is the foundation of our overall health. Our microbiome is made up of trillions of microscopic organisms (up to 2kgs!) – bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes, all with different roles to play in our bodies. Our gut contains good bacteria (that is helpful to us) and bad bacteria (that can be harmful). Having a healthy gut microbiome means keeping a constant balance of bacteria, ensuring that the bad bacteria is kept at bay.
Why is this important for us?
Aside from digesting food correctly and absorbing all the important nutrients we need, our gut health is the cornerstone of how well our immune system is functioning. It is incredibly important in the production and regulation of hormones and serotonin. You might have heard the phrase “the gut is the second brain”. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that acts as a mood stabiliser, and most of us know it as one of the “happy chemicals” that makes us feel good. Serotonin also plays a part in the modulation of brain development, sleep, appetite, and temperature regulation. 95% of our body's serotonin is produced in the gut – so if you have an unhealthy gut, chances are this will affect more than just your mood.
Your gut is also in charge of expelling metabolic waste and toxins – if it is unhealthy, it will struggle to do this, which can lead to inflammation in the body, chronic illnesses and fatigue. Recent research suggests that gut health can influence, and even improve chronic illnesses, rheumatoid arthritis (and other autoimmune illnesses), cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
What negatively affects the health of your gut?
There are many lifestyle factors that can affect the health of your gut, beyond the role of genetics; These include:
- A non-varied diet with poor nutrition
- Excessive use of antibiotics
- Excessive consumption of alcohol
- Lack of regular physical activity
- Lack of sleep
What are the signs of an unhealthy gut?
Your gut will usually make it uncomfortably obvious if it is unhappy, with symptoms ranging from gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and general discomfort. Other symptoms may include headaches, brain fog, poor concentration, memory fatigue, chronic pain, trouble sleeping, cravings and bad moods. Having an auto-immune disorder may also be a sign of an unhealthy gut.
How to improve your gut health
If you think you may have an imbalance in your gut – good news! There are plenty of ways to improve your gut microbiome, in as little as a few days.
Prebiotics vs Probiotics
Prebiotics are typically high-fibre foods that, when ingested, feed the population of good bacteria in our gut. Anything rich in fibre is generally a prebiotic – such as legumes, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
Probiotics, on the other hand, are food or supplements containing live good bacteria. When ingested, probiotics repopulate the good bacteria in our gut. Foods high in probiotics include fermented food, such as yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kimchi and sourdough bread. It is also easy to get probiotics through over-the-counter supplements.
Including sufficient amounts of both prebiotics and probiotics in your diet is crucial for repopulating, creating variety and feeding the good bacteria in your gut.
This is one of the most important factors for improving gut health. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables provides a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals, as well as prebiotic fibre. Foods rich in polyphenols have been shown to be beneficial for our gut as they are packed full of antioxidants, and are found in green tea, dark chocolate, olive oil, whole grains, and berries. New Zealand-grown blackcurrants have the highest levels of polyphenols compared to berries grown anywhere else on earth! Thankfully, blackcurrants happen to be a key ingredient in our Red Shot and Double Shot!
Including seeds, legumes, and whole grains in your diet are also great for fibre and protein. A rule of thumb is that if it’s a plant-based whole food, your gut will love it!
There are a few foods that have a negative effect on your gut, which should be minimised as much as possible. These are refined white sugar, artificial sweeteners, processed and fried foods, dairy, red meat, eggs and caffeine. Gluten and soy can also have inflammatory effects if you are intolerant.
The key is diversity in your diet. The more diverse the foods you are eating (whole foods that is) the more diverse your gut flora, which can happen in as little as a few days!
Reducing stress through exercise & mindfulness
Regularly finding time to exercise, practicing meditation, and deep breathing exercises can all help to reduce your stress levels. Cortisol, a hormone released into the body when it is under perceived stress, disrupts almost every bodily function that is non-essential in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters your immune system, suppresses the digestive system and reproductive system, and restrains growth processes. Left unchecked, cortisol can wreak havoc on your body and mind. That’s why it is so important to regularly check in with your mental state, and practice stress-alleviating activities when you feel the need. The more often, the better!
Getting good, high-quality sleep can improve your gut health, as well as overall mood and mental cognition. When we don’t get enough sleep, our hormones can become unbalanced leading to a potential increase in the stress hormone cortisol. Ideally 7-8 hours of sleep every night should be the goal. If you struggle to sleep, spend time working on a structured sleep routine using tools that work for you to sleep better. Read our article on how to get a better night’s sleep.
Be careful with Antibiotic use
Antibiotics are incredible tools in this modern age, allowing humankind to eradicate harmful bacterial infections that would have killed us centuries ago. They work by killing off the bacteria infecting us, and while this is a good thing, unfortunately, antibiotics cannot differentiate between good bacteria and bad bacteria. So, they kill everything. This leaves our gut microbiome depleted and barren. This is why it is incredibly important to ensure you are repopulating your microbiome with bacteria after a course of antibiotics with probiotics. Try to limit antibiotic use unless absolutely necessary.
For us, it looks like a healthy gut is a key pathway to staying healthy and happy. Scientists, doctors and researchers are increasingly looking to the gut as a key source in understanding human physiology and mental wellbeing. It’s important to remember that improving your gut health is a journey, and will not happen overnight. Consistency is key – in keeping stress levels down, and in monitoring what you put through your body every day. You’ve got this!