There is a rather loud rumble going on, and we’re not talking about the one in our tummies. It’s the gut that is causing all the noise and it’s getting louder with each new study. Recent research has linked our gut to allergies, Alzheimer’s disease and depression, and it seems that’s just the beginning.
Thankfully, the world is starting to notice that the gut is the root of our health and wellbeing. For instance, this year, the Australian Federal Government announced $4 million funding for the country’s first dedicated micro-gut health research centre.
The gut is the gastrointestinal tract that starts at the mouth, runs through the oesophagus to the liver, gall bladder, pancreas and stomach, then the small intestine and large intestine. And it is busy. It takes in food, digests it to provide our body with energy and nutrients, and removes the remaining waste. But more recently it’s the connection between the gut and our brain that seems to be at the top of the research agenda.
Findings from deep down inside
In February of this year, researchers at Lund University, Sweden, reported they had found that mice suffering from Alzheimer’s disease have a different composition of gut bacteria compared to healthy mice.
Meanwhile, a study from the University of Alabama in the USA, published in February in the journal Movement Disorders, shows Parkinson’s disease, and medications to treat it, can affect the composition of the trillions of bacteria that make up the gut microbiome. However, the researchers were unclear as to which comes first: does Parkinson’s disease change the gut microbiome or are changes in the microbiome an early warning sign of the disease?
There’s still a lot of work to be done before we can fully understand the power of the gut, but there is no doubt that our health, and indeed our happiness, is dependent on the healthy functioning of this digestive organ. Thankfully, there does appear to be a bit more clarity around what we can do on a day-to-day basis to keep this essential organ working well.
The power of Fibre
The virtues of dietary fibre are many, especially when it comes to our gut, ranging from keeping us regular to promoting healthy cholesterol levels. The two types of fibre we most often hear about are insoluble fibre or roughage, and soluble fibre. The former is found in high-fibre cereals, brown rice, nuts and seeds, and wholemeal breads, while soluble fibre, which slows digestion and can have a positive impact on both cholesterol and blood glucose levels, is mainly found in oats, barley, fruit and vegetables.
According to the Dietitians Association of Australia, we need at least 25g to 30g of fibre each day to help reduce the risk of bowel cancer, heart disease and more. High fibre diets can also help with controlling weight and managing diseases such as diabetes.
The deal with Prebiotics
Resistant starches also have an important role to play. Nutritionist Anthia Koullouros explains that although most starch is digested in the upper part of the gut, resistant starch goes all the way to the large intestine. Here, friendly bacteria ferment resistant starch and this process produces gas that helps keep the bowel healthy. Another term for this type of food is prebiotic, which basically refers to the non-digestible fibres that feed good bacteria. Prebiotic resistant starches include legumes, cold cooked potatoes or pasta, firm bananas and whole grains.
Probiotics – the good bugs
In our germ-fearing society it is worth remembering that good bacteria help keep our bodies healthy. That’s why it’s important to keep the trillion or so microorganisms in the gut happy and why probiotics should be on the menu. The most common ones include lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, so keep an eye out for these on labels when buying supplements and yoghurt.
Foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut, which are made using a fermentation process that converts sugars to lactic acid, also provide the gut with ‘good’ bacteria. But beware, the supermarket versions have usually been pasteurised or fermented using vinegars to improve shelf life. It might be time to try your hand at pickling at home.
Tip: To heal your gut naturally, try our homemade delicious and nutritious recipe for the Korean fermented dish, kimchi.
In her bestselling book, Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ (2014), German writer and scientist Giulia Enders, who studied at the Goethe Institute Frankfurt, discusses the “impressive results” of treating incurable diarrhoea caused by clostridium difficile infections with faecal bacteriotherapy. This is basically a medical stool transplant, in which a healthy donor’s faeces is taken, treated and transplanted into a person’s bowels. Enders suggests that this therapy holds the greatest potential in the future, although the unregulated procedure has been labelled “extreme” by some experts who point to a lack of sufficient evidence. Studies are still ongoing
in terms of the therapy’s use for treating other diseases. For example, research that is currently being conducted at the University of Minnesota is looking at how faecal transplants may assist people with prediabetes.
Take a look at 6 of the best foods for gut health here.