Health in the Gut of the Beholder

By Guest Contributor, Rupy Aujla

Why has ‘gut health’ become so popular amongst nutritionists and wellness experts in recent years? What’s going on in nutritional science giving rise to this paradigm shift?

You may have heard of the ‘Microbiome’, which is essentially the term for microbes that live in or around our bodies. On our skin, in our nasal passages, along the huge length and capacity of our digestive tracts; we live in a symbiotic relationship with foreign organisms. Although only weighing a few kilograms, we could think of this living microenvironment as another organ. They protect us from pathogens, release nutritional content from our food and allow us to break down molecules we would otherwise be unable to digest.

Researchers are now providing more evidence in support of dysbiosis (the imbalance of gut bacteria in the human body) as being the common denominator in the functional process for every chronic inflammatory disease. Dr. Macfabe, a neuroscientist at Western University in Canada, has presented compelling research from his laboratory where the focus is on Autism. The latest data lends even more support to how the microbiome may impact our general health and specifically our brains. Certain types of bacteria (found in Autistic children) produce a neurotransmitter, Propionic acid. Dr. Macfabe discovered the remarkable effects of this compound when he administered it to rats. He observed specific behaviors – tics, preferred objects, peculiar mannerisms similar to autism, inflammatory changes, and social isolation. This research has given rise to a belief gaining popularity that autism could potentially be treated by ‘resetting’ an imbalanced gut microbiome.

Obesity, cerebrovascular disease, mood disorders and sleep disturbance are other conditions that have been linked to gut health. However, it’s important to remember that these are currently no more than associations. Lots of mechanisms have been described in animal models, as demonstrated in Dr. Macfabe’s lab, but it’s still unknown which are important in humans and therefore, which health interventions would be most appropriate.

There’s no doubt that the continent you grew up on, your genetics, and diet all impact the diversity of the microbiome in your body and we’re still trying to understand what an optimal microbiome is. This is a field of study in its infancy. We still don’t know, for example, which strains of microbes are responsible for disease processes, making it difficult for a physician like myself to implement evidence based practical suggestions. Nurturing our microbiome is what the current research lends itself toward, so here are some safe interventions to improve your gut health and potentially reduce your overall risk of disease.

Methods to Improving Your Gut Health:

Probiotics – Lactobacillus, bifidobacteria are the most common genii
These are supplements that contain live bacteria which we introduce into our systems, but despite its burgeoning popularity, I suggest using these with caution.

First, no probiotics are created equal. There have been studies that show the actual content of probiotic strains in supplements is vastly different than what its packaging claims. Currently, probiotics are not regulated with the same rigor as pharmaceuticals, and thus the actual content could vary immensely.

Second, as I alluded to earlier, we don’t actually know the impacts of certain strains on health outcomes. There are thousands of species living in our gut and most supplements contain only a handful of varieties. There are studies demonstrating the impact of better glycaemic control in diabetics and reduced incidence of common infectious disease in children with some probiotics. But most of the meta-analyses conclude that we don’t know which strains are responsible and further research is required.

So take with caution and the knowledge that it may not be doing anything at all. If you’re otherwise a healthy individual and don’t have any suggestion of a compromised immune system it may be worth a shot!

Dairy probiotics – Yogurt with live cultures, labneh, unpasteurised, organic cheese
A natural method of introducing probiotics is commonly through dairy products and as a food obsessed wannabe chef, it’s how I would prefer to take my daily dose of health food for the gut!

Prebiotics – Broccoli stems, asparagus, artichokes, banana, brassica vegetables, oats, flaxseed, chia seed
I’m a big fan of the theory behind prebiotic fibers. These are non-living compounds that support the growth and establishment of beneficial microbes already residing in our gut. Prebiotics are quite simply plant sources rich in fiber and you’ll find most of these in the vegetable section of your supermarket. You don’t need to remember a huge list of specific items, any plant source rich in fiber is likely a prebiotic. Get them into your diet!

Fermented foods –Miso (my favorite), sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled vegetables
These are foods created by encouraging lactic producing bacteria to make the food taste sour. Essentially these are ‘natural’ probiotics as we are ingesting microbes into the gut. It has the same caveats as I mentioned before, but they taste great anyway!

Synbiotics – Combination of pro and prebiotic supplements
Strictly speaking kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir (a dairy based drink with fermented grains) are also types of synbiotics – a combination of both pro and prebiotic. It is hypothesised that ingesting live bacteria with a ‘packed lunch’ of goodies to keep them nourished is more likely to keep them alive in transit through the digestive tract. There are multiple products on the market claiming better delivery of microbes to the gut…but I prefer getting these benefits from eating real food.

Varied Diet – 

It’s thought that different microbes thrive on different plant fibers, so it’s incredibly important to eat a variety of fruit and vegetable prebiotics to feed your microbiome. A selection of brassicas and plant based fiber should decorate your dinner plate on a weekly basis…experimenting with unfamiliar ingredients is likely to do you more good than you think!

Raw foods – 

The structure of foods and how we prepare them drastically changes the nutritional content as well as how microbes treat them. Along the same lines as varying your diet, it’s important to have a mix of cooked and uncooked food as well…I’ve got lots of raw food recipes on my YouTube channel, have a look for inspiration!

Digestive support – Vitamin D, ginger, caraway seeds, pineapple, cardamom, cumin, fennel, mint

I could write a whole other article on compounds that can aid digestion as claimed by the literature in peer-reviewed journals. Interestingly, there’s an association between low Vitamin D and IBS, which is why I regularly test for vitamin D levels in patients with gastro symptoms. Foods rich in enzymes such as bromelain found in fresh pineapple and papaya and spices like caraway are all great…so get your Jamie Oliver (British celebrity chef) on and experiment with spices!

Just say no to Processed Food –
Processed food is devoid of beneficial bacteria and has low prebiotic content amongst a whole host of other negative characteristics. You would be doing yourself a huge favour by avoiding this category of food as much as possible…always eat real food!

Avoid the unnecessary use of Antibiotics –
One of the most pivotal discoveries in modern medicine was penicillin, revolutionizing our ability to treat disease. Its overuse fuelled by public belief that it is beneficial for viral induced illnesses is causing more than the scary impact of bacterial resistance. It’s likely to have drastic impacts on our gut microenvironment. I educate patients about this on a daily basis and it’s important to be aware of when to use antibiotics appropriately as recommended by your doctor.

Practice Mindfulness –
For years doctors have been aware of stress, anxiety, low mood and its association with gut conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but this ‘Gut Brain axis’ is still not fully understood. It’s going to seem odd for a conventionally trained doctor to suggest meditation as a method for improving physical health, but some studies demonstrate a significant improvement in gut dysmotility symptoms with breathing exercises performed on a daily basis…Start with just 10 minutes of meditation per day and see how you feel.

Eat Organic –
This is a really contentious issue. So far there isn’t hard evidence to suggest an overwhelming nutritional benefit of organic over non organic food. What’s lacking in the research is long-term studies looking at potential harm from pesticide residues and exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria found in conventional produce and foods. Additionally, some compounds used in industrial farming have antibiotic effects which are likely to disrupt the microbiome.

If you were to extrapolate that information to what we currently know about the importance of dysbiosis, you may come to the conclusion that it’s beneficial to eat organic. I, for one, am certainly mindful of this information and try and eat organic products as much as possible.

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