The Gut, Your “Second Brain”
In the last article, we discussed how the gut is essentially a “second brain”, affecting everything from your mood to your overall health. Because the gut microbiome plays such a central role in the human body, it’s crucial to keep it healthy and flourishing.
It may sound obvious, but diet is one of the most important factors to consider when it comes to gut health! Growing research confirms that diet is a “pivotal determinant of gut microbiota community structure and function”. In other words, what you eat can literally change the types of microorganisms found in your gut, which subsequently affects your own health and metabolism.
Though everyone’s gut microbiota are unique, and people’s bodies often respond in various ways to various foods, there are general guidelines and principles that you can follow to eat your way towards a healthier gut microbiome.
- Aiming for diet diversity: A diet filled with a wide range of many diverse foods leads to a gut microbiome flourishing with diverse microorganisms. High microbiota diversity is generally a hallmark of a healthy gut microbiome, while reduced diversity is linked to numerous diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
- Eating more plant-based foods: Adding more fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains to your diet boosts the health of your gut microbiome in part because these plant-based foods contain lots of fibre. Fibre plays a major role in the health of your gut because it acts as food for beneficial gut microorganisms, helping them reproduce and multiply. Also, many fruits, vegetables, and nuts are proven to increase populations of beneficial gut bacteria, improving gut health (7, 8, 9, 10).
- Avoiding processed foods: Whole foods—that is, foods in their natural, unprocessed, state—are much healthier because the fibre, vitamins, and nutrients in them are still intact. Processed foods, such as refined grains, often include lower levels of fibre and nutrients. In addition, pre-packaged, shelf-stable processed “foods” often contain added sugar, fat, and salt, as well as artificial additives and preservatives, all of which are associated with various diet-related diseases (12, 13).
There are many lifestyle choices you can make to increase the health of your gut microbiome. For example, managing stress effectively, and having healthy outlets to release stress, is crucial for the health of your gut (14,15). Luckily, regular exercise is like a 2-in-1 deal, in that it is proven to both reduce stress, as well as provide a whole host of its own myriad benefits for gut health.
Swimming is a great example of a full-body workout that can both reduce stress and improve gut health, but don’t worry if you don’t have access to a pool or lake nearby! Although regular vigorous exercise is best, even light exercise if beneficial. The most important factor to reap the benefits exercise has to offer is to commit to exercising consistently. This is much easier to do when you enjoy the exercise activity, so make sure you pick something you like!
Another lifestyle choice that can help improve gut health is limiting your use of tobacco and alcohol, as both are associated with decreased gut health.
Additionally, although antibiotics often play an important role as life-saving drugs, over-prescription is a major problem contributing to growing antibiotic resistance. How is this related to gut health? Well, because antibiotics don’t discriminate between good and bad bacteria, they can act as a nuclear bomb to your gut, wiping out whole populations of microbiota and diminishing your overall gut health. Although the effect of antibiotics on the gut varies from person to person, in some cases it took longer than 6 months for the gut microbiome to regain its diversity and richness prior to antibiotic treatment. Next time your doctor prescribes antibiotics, have a conversation with him or her to determine if they are really necessary.
Though perhaps not as obvious as the connection between diet and the gut, sleep and the health of the gut microbiome are actually deeply interrelated, and there’s evidence that chronic sleep disruption can negatively alter gut microbiota. Yet another reason to prioritise getting enough sleep! Keeping sleep times and wake up times consistent, as well as avoiding electronics and glowing screens before bedtime, are some of the ways you can increase the quality of your sleep. Another tip is to put your phone on silent mode before you sleep, to avoid being woken up by notifications or calls.
If you’ve read this far, congratulations! You are now armed with a whole repertoire of tips and knowledge to keep your gut microbiome happy and healthy. Interested in learning more about gut health? Check back often for new content 🙂
Cover photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@di_oborska