We are all familiar with “gut feelings”, “gut reactions” and “gut instincts”, but how much do we really know or care about our guts? As we become increasingly more aware of what we put in our stomachs, it’s striking how ignorant we remain of what takes place in our intestines. And it turns out there is an awful lot going on down there.
Microbiologists have made some startling advances in revealing our innermost secrets. It turns out that there is a complex ecosystem deep within us that is home to a fantastic diversity of life – of which very little belongs to our species.
The fact is, there are about 100 trillion organisms living in the gut. If you put them all together they would be about the size of a football. The gut microbiome is a vast ecosystem of organisms such as bacteria, yeasts, fungi, viruses and protozoans that live in our digestive pipes, which collectively weigh up to 2kg (heavier than the average brain). It is increasingly treated by scientists as an organ in its own right. Each gut contains about 100tn bacteria, many of which are vital, breaking down food and toxins, making vitamins and training our immune system.
Though it sounds totally gross and even unhealthy, gut bacteria have many very important functions in the body, including supporting the immune system, producing the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, making energy available to the body from the food we eat, and discarding of foreign substances and toxins, though we always have a mixture of good and bad bacteria, sometimes the bad guys get the upper hand, causing an imbalance in gut bacteria, which can play a role in a number of health conditions.
Diarrhea, constipation, bloating, nausea, and heartburn are classic symptoms of problems in the gut. Gastrointestinal discomfort—especially after eating carbohydrate-rich meals—can be the result of poor digestion and absorption of carbohydrates. Reflux, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel disease, and colitis have all been linked to an imbalance in the microbiome.
Craving sweets and sugar can mean you may have an imbalance of gut bacteria. If there’s an overgrowth of yeast in the system, which might happen after a course or two of antibiotics where you wipe out all the good bacteria, then that overgrowth of yeast can actually cause you to crave more sugar.
Roughly 80 to 90 percent of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, social behaviour, sleep, appetite, memory, and even libido, is produced in the gut. When less serotonin is produced, it can negatively impact mood.
Skin rashes and eczema, a chronic condition characterized by inflamed and itchy red blotches on the skin, can also develop when there is an imbalance in gut bacteria.
Eating right is the first step in improving your microbiome. In fact, the types of foods we eat can change our gut bacteria in as little as 24 hours. To feed your good bacteria and starve the less desirable bacteria, swap out processed foods, bread, and pasta for more plants, fruits, seeds, and nuts. And consider adding fermented foods to your diet, including yoghurt, kombucha, kimchi, and kefir, which contain natural bacteria or healthy bacteria. It’s also a great idea to fill up on prebiotic foods, which actually feed the good bacteria. Try pistachios, bananas, garlic, onion, wheat, and oats, plus ancient grains such as quinoa, millet, or chia. Try to avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics as this knocks off the healthy balance of bacteria in your gut. If you must take antibiotics, consider taking a probiotic supplement to recreate a healthy bacterial community in your gut.