I recently found myself watching an episode of Highway to Heaven, a series originally released in the 1980’s. There were several things that stood out. The first was the fashions of the day, which I recall only too well, including “big hair”, leg warmers and over-sized tops with shoulder pads. Cellular phones were not commonplace and some of the “political correctness” was lagging behind today’s standards. However, what struck me most of all was just how thin everyone was.
Around the same time, I came across an article in The Atlantic by Olga Khasan referring to a study published in 2016 in the journal, Obesity Research & Clinical Practice, that asserted that “it’s harder for adults today to maintain the same weight as those 20 to 30 years ago did, even at the same levels of food intake and exercise”.
“Your gut is astonishingly clever. It contains millions of neurons – as many as you would find in the head of a cat. It is also home to the microbiome, trillions of microbes that influence your mood, weight and immune system.” Words of Dr. Michael Mosley from his book, “The Clever Guts Diet”. This book was my first introduction to the concept that our guts may play an important role in many aspects of our overall health.
What is “Microbiome”?
The microbiome consists of trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes that live mainly in our large intestine or colon and it is believed that the foods we eat can help feed and reinforce the army of microbes that live in our guts.
Dr. Mosley refers to research over the last few years which has shown the value of having the right mix of “good” bacteria in our gut and describes it as “a bit like rainforests being vital for the overall health of the planet.” He suggests that junk food and overuse of antibiotics have wiped out many good gut bacteria leading to a rise in allergies, food intolerances, and weight issues.
Benefits of a Healthy Gut
There are multiple benefits to having a healthy, happy gut. These include obvious ones, such as “being regular” (constipation and diarrhea). It can also reduce inflammation in the gut which may lead to an increase in the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
The less obvious benefits include improved mood, better sleep, control over cravings, reduced bloating, and weight loss. The gut and our brains are intimately connected by the vagus nerve and gut bacteria can produce a range of chemicals that influence our brain including “feel good” hormones like serotonin and hunger hormones that influence how hungry we get and what we eat.
What can you do?
The good news is that we can influence the health of our gut by the foods we eat. One of the best way to create and maintain a healthy and diverse microbiota is to eat a wide range of whole grains, and fresh foods mainly from plant sources like fruits, veggies, legumes, and beans. Some other suggestions include :
Eat fermented foods including natural plain yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha since they can benefit the microbiota by enhancing its function and reducing the abundance of disease-causing bacteria in the intestines.
Limit artificial sweeteners since they may negatively affect the gut microbiota.
Eat foods rich in pholyphenols such as cocoa and dark chocolate, red wine, grape skins, green tea, almonds, onions, blueberries and broccoli. Polyphenols are plant compounds that have many health benefits, including reductions in blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol levels and oxidative stress.
Take a probiotic supplement although probiotics do not significantly alter the composition of the microbiota in healthy people, they may improve microbiota function and help restore the microbiota to good health.
As the full significance of the relationship of our guts to our overall health is a concept that had never occurred to me before, I found the idea a lot to digest. However, it has caused me to rethink the way I approach eating and now when I am unsure of what to eat, I am more inclined to listen to my gut!