Your gut: it gets butterflies when you’re excited, rumbles when you’re hungry and might actually be the headquarters for much of your body’s health. Overwhelming research says that learning how to improve your gut health to promote a healthy digestive system, with balanced levels of the trillions of bacteria that inhabit it, a.k.a. your microbiome, is the key to creating all those wellbeing benefits we crave at this time of year.
‘Your gut is directly linked to your brain via the vagus nerve, and the bacteria that live in your gut send signals through this nerve and around your bloodstream,’ says Tim Spector, professor of genetics at King’s College London. ‘We’re still really at the start understanding the importance of these signals, so it’s all exciting stuff.’
If you want to lose a little weight, feel more relaxed, get sounder sleep and improve your health overall, start showing your intestines some love! We take a closer look at how to improve your gut health and optimise its related functions…
Gut health and weight management
‘Your personal gut bacteria is crucial when it comes to maintaining weight,’ says Tim. ‘We each have a different microbiome make-up, which is why two people can eat the same diet and have completely different results.’
At first it was thought that bacteria controlled weight because they absorb calories, so the more calorie-absorbing bacteria you had the harder you might find it to control weight. Now we’ve realised this only scratches the surface – there are far more roles for your bacteria.
Let’s start with blood sugar: when you eat, especially carbs, blood sugar increases, and we all know it’s not good to have high blood sugar for too long as it can lead to insulin resistance. But how much blood sugar rises in relation to any single food is controlled by the bacteria in your gut, according to Israeli scientists.
Next up comes satiety. ‘Bacteria release chemicals that make you feel less hungry after eating, meaning the right mix can reduce your appetite,’ says Tim. The bacteria also seem to control how many calories you burn all day.
The final piece of the puzzle is something that Tim thinks is going to become big news this year: the bacteria also seem to produce inflammatory chemicals. ‘We now suspect this inflammatory response is also very important in weight management’. In fact, high levels of inflammation may make us resistant to leptin, the hormone that tells us we’re full. Watch this space!
How to improve your gut health for weight management
Research isn’t quite at the point of being able to tell you to take a supplement of a certain bacteria, so you never have to think about weight again. ‘However, we are at the stage where we think that encouraging levels of good bacteria is more powerful than trying to lower levels of the bad ones,’ says Tim. Here’s how to improve your gut health for better weight management….
Eat veggies, drink wine:
‘Gut bacteria feed mostly on the fibres in plant foods,’ says Tim. But it’s not all about the veg – red wine contains more than 100 chemicals that microbes love. Just stick to one glass!
Avoid junk food:
Higher levels of a bacteria called Firmicutes are associated with a greater risk of obesity. Processed foods can increase levels of these in a matter of days.
What is the gut-brain connection?
The gut-brain axis is a phrase scientists are now using to explain how signals are passed between the bacteria in your gut and your brain – and the role this might play in stress, anxiety and moods. ‘Once we identify exactly what they are doing, it could identify new treatments for certain mental health conditions,’ says Dr Emeran Mayer, gastroenterologist and neuroscientist.
Much of the power of bacteria comes from them producing natural chemicals that alter mood. These include GABA, which acts similarly to anti-anxiety medication in your brain, as well as serotonin. This is the main neurotransmitter associated with mood. Manipulating bacteria via diet is a potential treatment that is being regularly researched.
In one trial by Dr Mayer, eating a yoghurt containing four specific strains of bacteria twice a day helped people react more calmly to stress. The relationship is a two-way street though. ‘Stress and anxiety change how bacteria in the gut behave,’ says Dr Mayer.
For example, when E.coli are exposed to stress hormone noradrenaline, they multiply. ‘As such, mental tactics such as mindfulness may also help create a more balanced mix of bacteria,’ says Dr Mayer. In other words, balanced bacteria can lead to a more emotionally balanced you, and vice versa.
How to harness the benefits of the gut-brain connection
Manipulating specific bacteria can affect stress, anxiety and emotional health. Here’s how to harness the benefits of the gut-brain connection…
Try some B-GOS:
This prebiotic sugar is shown to lower cortisol levels, and it also has a positive effect on anxiety. Anxious people tend to dwell on negative things around them. However, after taking a supplement of B-GOS in a trial, they were more inclined to focus on the positive. Find it in Bimuno DAILY Prebiotic Powder (from £19.99 for 30-day supply).
Don’t cut out healthy carbs:
When gut bacteria break down carbs they create a fatty acid called butyrate. We know this fatty acid helps raise levels of serotonin in your body, thus raising mood. Wholegrains create a more balanced bacterial mix than refined carbs, so focus on these. Also, if you cook then cool foods such as pasta and potatoes, their levels of resistant starch increases. Gut bacteria particularly love this!
The link between gut health and sleep
Having the right mix of bacteria can improve your sleep, because bacteria are involved in regulating your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s natural control of sleep and waking times. Some strains also produce the sleep-promoting chemical melatonin.
As with emotional health, this is a two-way relationship. When you wake up in the morning you have a slightly different set of gut bacteria than you had when you went to bed at night. This is because of changes to your microbiome overnight.
‘Sleep is a time for clearing the brain of toxic by-products that have built up during the day. We suspect that this also happens in the gut,’ says Dr Mayer. In fact, just four days of poor sleep was shown to tip the mix of two types of bacteria – Firmicutes and Bacteroides – to a less favourable ratio in new trials by Uppsala University in Sweden.
In other words, the better you sleep, the better your balance of microbes and then the better your microbe mix, the better you’ll sleep. Plus, that ratio is also linked to weight – so if you don’t get enough sleep, the balance of bacteria starts to favour those that cause weight gain.
How to improve gut health for better sleep
You can manipulate your bacteria in ways that are more likely to send you off to the land of nod. Here’s how to improve your gut health for a better night’s sleep…
Watch your fat intake:
Gut microbes have internal clocks that control what they do at different times of the day. It’s believed this clock may play a role in our own sleep-wake cycle. Eat too much saturated fat, and we disrupt the bugs’ clocks, say researchers at the University of Chicago.
Eat at the same time each day:
This helps to set the clocks within your gut bacteria. But as part of your eating regime, also leave at least 12 hours between your evening meal and breakfast. ‘When your digestive system is not processing food, it contracts. This transfers bacteria that might have migrated too far up the bowel back to the large intestine, creating a healthier balance,’ says Dr Mayer.
Looking for more gut health advice? For IBS Awareness Month, we’re giving away free copies of Your Guide to Good Gut Health. Click here to find out more and download your copy.