When our digestive system works, we don’t even stop to consider the amazing work it does to transform the food we eat into fuel and nutrients for our body. But when things are upset it can be a real belly ache, from pain or discomfort to downright embarrassment at the noises, upsets and strange smells your body produces. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Looking after your gut health is the first step to healthy digestion.
What scientists now call the ‘microbiome’ is a parallel universe of all kinds of different microorganisms running right through your digestive tract, that runs from your mouth to… well, the other end.
Most of these organisms are bacteria, and there are about 10 times as many of these as there are cells in your body. The balance of the bacteria in your digestive system has implications for your health in general and not just your tum.
In short, its important to have the right kinds of bacteria in the right places. It matters that the ratio of good to bad bacteria works – when you’re out of balance (ie when there are more unfavourable than beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms) we call this ‘dysbiosis’.
Dysbiosis can result in your digestive system becoming a more favourable environment for yeasts like candida, or parasites.
There are some places you don’t really want many bacteria, whether good or bad, and that’s in the small intestine. Your body really should do a daily swoosh of all bacteria from the small intestine down to the colon (called the Migrating Motor Complex).
There are many reasons why this might not happen – like having had food poisoning in the past – and the result is that the bacteria left behind feast on the food you’re eating, causing bloating, wind, feelings of nausea, diarrhoea and constipation (or a combination of the two). Essentially, all those things you might be linking to your IBS and belly ache.
The friendly bacteria that live in our gut play a part in the health of our digestive system of course, but let’s stop to consider just how amazing these little bugs are. Here are five benefits of a healthy microbiome:
Natural anti-biotic effects
Once the good bacteria set up home in your gut, they work hard to protect you against bad bugs and hostile bacteria that can cause unpleasant symptoms or disease – like the ones that cause food poisoning or stomach ulcers.
Sixty per cent of your immunity is in your gut and the immune tissue in your digestive system is very sensitive to bacterial activity. The good bacteria also encourage the body to make a particular kind of antibody that stops you getting sick.
Some bacteria help you break down particular foods and even help with the muscular contractions that move food through your system – thus keeping you regular.
Make vitamins and help you absorb nutrients
Gut bacteria are responsible for making many B vitamins and also help you absorb minerals in the food you eat better.
Protect against disease
Some bacteria produce enzymes that turn fibre into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These SCFAs can help protect against heart disease by regulating cholesterol and having a positive impact on fats in the blood. A particular type of SCFA called butyrate has been shown to be protective against cancer.
Help your healthy bugs thrive and survive
Eat fermented foods – live yoghurt, kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut help repopulate your gut with healthy bacteria.
Chew your food – take time to savour your food and chew well. This is the first step in digestion. Take your time.
Eat some fibre – soluble fibre will help feed the good bugs. Oats, flaxseed, root vegetables and stewed apple are some of my favourites for balanced bugs.
I have a ‘Good Gut Guide’ Zoom class on Wednesday November 4 – details here!
This blog post first appeared as my column in The Irish News on Saturday 24 October 2020.