Mamahood & Me

Nutrition: Gut Health

Gut Health

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The rich array of microbiota in our gut is key to good health.

Microbes including bacteria colonise the entire gastro-intestinal tract from the lips all the way to the anus. Due to the hydrochloric acid in the stomach there is a very low population of microbes present in that section of the tract. The duodenum and the rest of the small intestine have a quite rich population of microbes but the greatest population resides in the large intestine or colon.

There are trillions of bacteria from thousands of different species that can reside in your gastro-intestinal tract, these organisms along with their collective genetic material,  is known as the microbiome and is as individual to you as a fingerprint. One third of our gut microbiota is common to most people, while two thirds are specific to each one of us and is a reflection of who your parents were, where you've been, your age, who you spend intimate time with, what you eat, how you live, whether or not you put hands in soil and grow vegetables and much more.

A diverse range of beneficial gut microbes is essential for a healthy mind and body. Evidence is growing that our modern diet, overuse of antibiotics and an obsession with cleanliness are damaging the microbes that live in our gut.  This collection of micro-organisms collectively known as our gut microbiota is a complex eco system which to be strong, healthy & resilient thrives like all eco systems, on diversity. 

A healthy gut microbiota influences our immune system and mood, helps digestion, makes vitamins including vitamin K, breaks down dietary toxins, nourishes the gut wall and keeps pathogenic bacteria in check. When the gut microbiota is out of balance it can wreak havoc with our health playing a role in the development of obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.

The microbiome is important in regulating your hormones, especially your oestrogen levels. Oestrogen-dominance, as a result of a poorly functioning microbiome, leads to every hormonal imbalance symptom or sickness you can think of including infertility.

Until recently it had been thought that babies are born with a sterile gut and the gut microbiota begins to develop at birth, without a doubt the mode of birth is a big influence over baby's gut bacteria as is breast feeding. However a recent study led by Dr. Kjersti Aagaard looked at the role the placenta might play. The placenta is the organ that forms inside the uterus and acts as a life support system for the foetus. It provides oxygen and nutrients, removes wastes and secretes hormones. The study revealed that the placenta has its own, all be it small, microbiome and some of a babies intestinal bacteria may come from the placenta before birth. Good nutrition prior to conception and in the first few weeks of pregnancy is key to a healthy placenta plus drinking lots of water. 

The type of birth, vaginal delivery or cesarean, will alter the gut bacteria that take up residence in a new born.  A vaginal delivery will pick up the bacteria residing in the birth canal whereas a baby delivered by C section will pick up bacteria residing on the skin of the mother and others in the delivery room.  Breast milk plays an essential role in the composition of the gut microbiota in a baby and we now know that colostrum contains more than 700 different bacteria to support the gut. Spanish scientists from The Institute of Agrochemistry & Food Science discovered that the mode of birth of a baby affected the composition of the mothers breast milk. Breast milk from women who elected to have a C section had a different composition to those who had a vaginal delivery or a non elective C section suggesting the hormonal status during labour played a significant role in the diversity of gut bacteria.

Concern however over the mode of delivery, has given rise to the number of parents requesting  'vaginal seeding' for babies born by caesarean section. The practice, which is also known as microbirthing, involves taking a swab from the mother’s vagina and wiping this over the baby’s mouth, eyes, face and skin shortly after birth by caesarean section.

The idea is that vaginal seeding allows a baby born via caesarean section to come into contact with bacteria from the birth canal. The hope is this will encourage the colonisation of beneficial gut bacteria, and reduce risk of conditions such as allergies or obesity. There are many doctors that are dubious about this process.

Dr. Martin Blaser has studied the role of bacteria in human disease for over 30 years. He is the director of the Human Microbiome Program at NYU, and they believe one of the causes of  a  less healthy microbiota is antiseptics.  Many would agree that we have created a too sterile world for our young ones, including not allowing them to play in the soil which would enable soil based organisms to further support the gut microbiota. 

By the time a youngster is 3 years old the bacteria in the gut will be fully matured. In the months after weaning it is important to establish healthy eating habits. There is much evidence that the food we eat plays an essential role in maintaining the diversity and proper functioning of our gut microbiota, fresh organic produce supports a healthy gut microbiota whereas fast, processed foods do not.

Physical, mental and emotional health is regulated by the gut microbiota.  The mother's gut microbiota will influence the health of her baby and a babies gut microbiota will influence the health of the future adult.

How to support healthy gut microbiota

*eliminate processed foods (especially processed meat) sugar and refined grains all of which encourage the growth of the wrong bacteria

*avoid antibiotics, if you have a choice, research has shown that the microbiome composition is rapidly &  detrimentally altered by exposure to antibiotics not just through medical use but also due to their utilisation in farm animals.

*avoid non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and advil as these can derail gut bacteria.

*eat organic, research by Dr. Stephanie Seneff has shown that glyphosates have a detrimental effect on our gut bacteria leading to a weakening of  the immune system. This is because glyphosate residues in our food can kill beneficial gut bacteria, allowing pathogens to grow in their place.  

*eat probiotic foods – try to eat a couple of spoons of lacto-fermented vegetables like sauerkruat or kimchi every day.

* eat prebiotic rich foods - onions, chicory, Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus & globe artichoke.

* eat plenty of polyphenol rich foods – red grapes, blueberries, linseed, cacao.

* include glutamine rich foods - grass fed beef  & poultry, spinach, cabbage and organic milk.

balance omega 3, 6 (and 9) fats – one of the best seeds to include in your diet is hemp.

Stress is a big factor in overall gut health, find ways to eliminate excessive stress in your life and learn to get a good nights sleep.

These are the first obvious symptoms and signs you might see to suggest you have a gut microbiome imbalance:

Bloating and gas

Constipation or diarrhoea

Foggy headedness and headaches

Frequent illness – from colds to yeast infections

Difficulties losing weight

Making changes to diet and lifestyle may be all that is needed to bring the gut back into balance but if you are concerned seek the help of a qualified nutritional therapist that offers stool analysis so your gut health can be ascertained.