Let’s take a look at the microcosm of the human gut, how it serves to protect our health and how we can adapt our diet to support their positive influence on our intestinal health.
Bacteria have a reputation of being the villains of almost every health story ever told, and deservedly so. Certain strains of these microorganisms can wreak havoc on your health in specific conditions, causing infections, inflammation, and various diseases. However, these same bacteria, along with numerous other strains, happily coexist inside our intestines with other friendly microbes, with their primary role to support in maintaining the balance of your overall health.
The Microbial Ecosystem of your Gut
The Human Microbiome Project (HMP), whose aim is to map out and explore all the microbial communities on the human body as well as their role in human health, was kind enough to share some of their most significant research findings regarding our symbiosis with our intestinal health. We know that over 10,000 species of microbes inhabit our bodies, including our skin, teeth, saliva and intestines.
According to the European Society of Neurogastroenterology and Motility (ESNM), our gut is home to at least 1000 different bacterial species in varying numbers, they have a different composition in every person’s gut, and they outnumber human cells by 10 to 1.
It’s important to note that their roles and numbers change depending on our state of health, diet and other factors. Despite their infinitesimal size, they have an enormous and irreplaceable physiological role in our health.
Both the HMP and ESNM agree that without these tiny creatures, our bodies wouldn’t be able to perform numerous functions such as:
- Digesting food properly
- Producing crucial nutrients, such as vitamins K and B,
- Supporting our immune system by protecting us from various diseases
- Maintaining our mental health
While we have much to learn, the existing research points to food as one of the key influences on our intestinal microbiome enabling proper health.
Intestinal Health: Feeding the Friendly Bacteria
A healthy gut is brimming with a wealth of diverse bacterial species, and in order to maintain balance, our diet needs to be equally diverse and healthy.
As different environments encourage certain types of diets, the typical Western diet can be based primarily on animal fat and protein, while rural regions encourage a selection of fruits and vegetables on the daily menu, all of which affects your gut health. For instance, another research published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS) shows that kids living in Bangladesh have a more diverse intestinal microbiome thanks to their carb-rich diet, based on rice and lentils, as opposed to US children, whose diet revolves around protein and saturated fats.
So how can you make sure that your diet is feeding your gut and promoting a healthy intestinal balance?
Focus on Fiber
Including fiber-rich foods into your diet will help feed your intestinal bacteria, promoting their diversity and optimal function. They use the fiber to produce healthy fatty acids, such as acetate, propionate, and butyrate, which help your immune system regulate potential inflammation, but we need to make sure that we consume whole foods and natural as opposed to processed sources of fiber.
This is because chemically processed foods predominantly contain refined, artificial ingredients, high amounts of sugar that has no nutritional value, and most of the healthy fiber has been removed.
Plants and vegetables provide a rich in diversity of healthy fiber such as cellulose, lignin, and pectin, as are legumes, nuts and seeds, so adapt your daily meals to incorporate 30 to 35g of healthy fiber that promotes intestinal health. A fiber-filled diet is essential for lowering your risk for developing:
- Inflammatory bowel diseases
- Type 2 diabetes
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Autoimmune disorders
- Colon cancer
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Prebiotics serve as food for your gut, or more precisely, the soluble fiber that can be processed by your gut bacteria. You can find them in plant foods such as bananas, onions, and garlic, but in low quantities. Therefore, it could be potentially beneficial to consider adding a prebiotic supplement to your diet if you are unable to meet your daily requirements only with food.
Probiotics, on the other hand, are living microorganisms belonging to the same bacterial families found in your intestines. Some of them are able to survive the digestion journey all the way to your gut and contribute to your friendly bacterial colony. You can find them in yogurt, kefir and other fermented dairy products. However, steer clear of sugar-rich yoghurts, which in fact aren’t as beneficial to your gut health.
To Sum up
Unlike processed sugar and saturated fat, foods that are rich in fiber, probiotics and prebiotics are perfect for a diet that will boost your intestinal health and optimal function.
Once again, a diet based on a variety of powerhouse fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds for your daily needs of prebiotics, but also fermented dairy for probiotics will help you maintain a diverse and healthy gut microbiota.
Since our bacterial variety is crucial to our health and general disease prevention, and each of our microbiotas are structured differently, there is no “template” for a perfect diet. We need to listen to our bodies, be mindful of general health guidelines and tailor our nutrition according to the way our bodies react to certain types and amounts of food.