The importance of gut health
Gastrointestinal health (GI), or gut health and digestive capability is an integral part of overall health and wellbeing. Gut health refers to the condition of the digestive tract starting from the oesophagus (food pipe), down to the stomach and right through to the small and large intestine, and out at the colon, rectum and anus. The whole system is about 30 feet (9 metres) long, so that’s a lot of bodily tissue to keep healthy. If gut health is below par then the individual will be made aware, the gut will become inflamed and stressed resulting in griping, aching and pains in the short term. Chronic repercussions of poor gut health include pain, relapse/ remitting inflammation and malabsorption and malnutrition to name a few.
Common gut complaints
Gut complaints can stem from digestive conditions, allergies and full blown diseases such as coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, crohns disease and diverticular disease to name some of the better known ones. Other conditions that may exert similar symptoms and pains include ulcerative colitis, whilst other complaints which aren’t full blown diseases include irritable bowel syndrome, better known as IBS. IBS is perhaps one of the most common of all gut and digestive complaints, it used to be considered a get out clause for doctors and nutrition experts who may be at a loss for a definitive diagnosis of gut disorders. In recent times IBS has been recognised as a very real gut health disorder in its own right. IBS can stem from stress, poor dietary habits, inappropriate consumption of alcohol, caffeine and sugary drinks, excessive intake of sweeteners and so on. One of the main causes of IBS include imbalances between bacteria growth and activity within the gut, this is known technically as an imbalance in gut microbiota.
How might you restore healthy gut bacteria balance?
Probiotics are commonly confused with prebiotics, a similar sounding nutritional component that exerts similar effects on the gut. However they are distinctly different…a prebiotic refers to a ‘non- digestible food ingredient that effects the growth and/or activity of bacteria in the colon’ (Thomas & Bishop, 2007). A probiotic is by definition ‘a substance that is secreted by one micro- organism which stimulated the growth of another’. It is now widely accepted that the introduction of a probiotic into ones diet in sufficient amounts, can in time alter the microflora (bacteria) in a hosts gut and beneficially alter gut health. Therefore should you wish to improve your gut bacteria balance then consider consuming foods naturally high, or fortified with healthy bacteria such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.
Sources of probiotics
Good options include yoghurt, look for those that contain ‘live’ or ‘active cultures’, or opt for yoghurts such as Actimel or Yakult which have the healthy bacteria added to them. Other good examples include ginger beer, Kefir (an interesting, high protein yoghurt like drink), Kombucha, Miso (a fermented soy bean, salt and fungus dish), and Sauerkraut (fermented shredded cabbage). Should you wish to, you can also get your probiotics from a probiotic nutritional supplement.
How do probiotics help gut health?
Probiotics appear to exert their beneficial effects in a number of ways, chiefly by inhibiting pathogenic (bad) bacteria by producing inhibitory compounds, they reduce gut pH, and act as competitors for bacteria binding sites in the gut (meaning less bad bacteria can colonise in the gut).
NOTE: When trying to restore healthy bacteria balance in the gut, do be aware that adequate colonisation of healthy bacteria in the gut can take up to 5-6 weeks, so don’t expect to see improvements in gut health right away…it will take time so persist with it.
Thomas, B & Bishop, J. (2007). Manual of dietetic practice. 4th Ed. Prebiotic, Probiotics and Synbiotics. Oxford: Blacwell Publishing.