Gut health is a big trend in health and wellness, that’s certain. It’s a popular area of study, and emerging research is quickly gathering to support the suggestion that gut health may have flow-on effects to other parts of our wellbeing, from mental health to immunity.
Most of the research is focused on understanding the microbial tenants that call our gut home. Bacteria – some good, some bad – occupy our digestive system, and in great numbers. The question is then, whether it’s time to start considering the health of not just the human organism, but the entire human ecosystem.
It makes sense that diet can have a direct effect on the structure and function of the digestive tissues. That means there are potentially opportunities to take charge of our daily wellbeing by focusing on the gut. Here are some of the biggest trends in gut health – and which ones are worth trying.
Fermentation, in this case, is a process of introducing bacteria to organic molecules in food. The bacteria then breaks the food down for energy, and the end result is a food product that contains live probiotics. Probiotics are an effective intervention for multiple digestive complaints, including IBS, so it makes sense that increasing them in our diet would be beneficial too.
So which fermented foods should you try? Yoghurt and other dairy-based fermented foods have the most research to back up their use, but you can also easily make your own sauerkraut and kimchi to include in your diet, which can be good options if you’re avoiding dairy.
The downside of fermented foods, when compared to specially manufactured probiotic supplements, is you can’t be sure of the level of active bacteria they contain. Due to lack of available evidence, the jury is still out on whether fermented and probiotic-containing foods are as effective as supplements for improving digestive symptoms. However, if you enjoy fermented foods in your diet, keep them up, as there will no doubt be some benefit to your gut.
Where dietary interventions show far more promise, however, is with prebiotics. Probiotics and prebiotics sound similar, but they play different roles in the gut. While probiotics are live beneficial bacteria, prebiotics are a type of fibre that moves through the digestive system undigested.
When prebiotic fibre reaches the gut bacteria intact, they ferment it themselves. That’s right – they do the fermentation for you in the gut! Research shows that certain types of soluble prebiotic fibre can stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in your bowel. For example, fructooligosaccharides (FOS) such as those found in leeks, onion, asparagus, chicory and Jerusalem artichokes are thought to increase numbers of a good species of bacteria called Bifidobacteria. There is also hope around raffinose from lentils, and resistant starch from oats too.
It makes sense to start increasing these foods in your diet if you tolerate them, and consider a prebiotic supplement if your healthcare provider recommends it.
MORE: How to feed your gut flora.
This one receives a big ‘no’ from me. Colonic enthusiasts swear that the procedure – which involves inserting a hose into your rectum and flushing out your bowel with water – will remove bad bacteria and detoxify the body. As delightful as that sounds, for now there’s no research to suggest that’s the case, but there are plenty of potential risks. I recommend sticking to increasing good bacteria through probiotics and prebiotic-rich plant-based foods instead.
No matter which trends tickle your fancy – remember to go and see your GP if things don’t feel quite right.