Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you’ll know that gut health is a rapidly evolving area of health and nutrition. With more than a trillion cells and more neurotransmitters than our brain, the gut is amazingly intelligent and a healthy one is fast becoming recognised as fundamental for good health – linked to good digestion, hormonal regulation and even mental health and mood. Heal your gut, heal your health! Sounds good, right? If only it was that simple…
We’ve come a long way in a short period of time in understanding the role of gut health, and some amazing breakthroughs are (hopefully) just around the corner. For now though, dietitian, and ambassador for the Jodi Lee Foundation, Themis Chryssidis’ advice is to not put all your eggs in one basket, because the science in this space is rapidly evolving. Instead, get up to date with these three concepts.
Microbiome vs Microbiota
Your gut microbiome refers to the trillions of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi) and their genetic material that coexist in your intestinal tract. These microorganisms start populating your gut while you are still in the womb and the quantity and type of microorganisms is affected by factors like genetics, stress, diet and also whether you were born vaginally or by caesarean and whether you were breast or bottle fed.
Your gut microbiota refers to bacteria microorganisms found in your gut and is commonly referred to as your ‘gut flora’. Gut microbiota play an important role in digestion, metabolism, immune function and brain health. We each have a unique gut microbiome and microbiota but the aim is to ensure that, through stress management, exercise, a healthy diet and limiting some medications, we maintain a healthy balance of good bacteria and bad bacteria in our gut microbiota.
Good vs Bad Bacteria
We’ve all heard about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria, but it’s important to know the difference, especially when we’ve been conditioned to think that all bacteria are bad.
Good and bad bacteria exist throughout our body. A healthy microbiota ensures that bad bacteria – otherwise known as pathogens – don’t rapidly multiply and spread disease and infection by secreting toxins that affect how our cells function. Good bacteria help us maintain a healthy immune system and ultimately slow and prevent the rate of growth of bad bacteria. When our good bacteria fail, we use antibiotics to destroy or inhibit the growth of pathogens. Unfortunately, these antibiotics often destroy the good bacteria along with the bad bacteria. This is why probiotics are often recommended after a course of antibiotics.
Probiotics vs Prebiotics
Probiotics are live microorganisms, which when consumed in large amounts, offer a health benefit to the host. Probiotics have to be consumed alive in food or supplements and remain alive as they pass through the highly acidic environment of our gut to our large intestine where they can multiply and have positive health effects. The type and quantity of probiotics that exhibit the most benefit to our gut microbiota though is still unclear, with some strains showing no clinical effect and others showing differing levels of effectiveness on different people.
While probiotics are healthy bacteria, prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrate (fibre) that pass into our large intestine and acts as a food source for probiotics. When probiotics break down prebiotics the by-product is short-chain fatty acids which are a valuable fuel source for many cells lining the colon. These cells help build and promote a strong healthy gut.
The take home message
Our gut microbiome begins populating from before birth, and our gut microbiota is comprised of trillions of good and bad bacteria. Diet, exercise, medications and stress impact our balance of good and bad bacteria. Repopulating our microbiota with new strains of good bacteria is difficult, so focus attention on maintaining a healthy gut microbiota by feeding your existing healthy bacteria lots of prebiotics found in everyday foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Just make sure you go and see your GP if things don’t feel right.