There is a bidirectional relationship between the health of the gut and every facet of human health, including inflammation, stress, sleep, diet, exercise, and more. While the evidence isn’t entirely clear on the very ‘best’ interventions to improve gut health, and there are many claims for various treatments and supplements that can improve it, there is strong enough evidence to suggest lifestyle and dietary changes that improve gut health (or are likely to).
Are probiotics good for gut health?
The research on probiotics is conflicting and there will be differences in results based on which species and strains of bacteria are used for which outcomes. Overall, though, the accumulated evidence suggests that probiotic supplements can be useful for:
- Dysbiosis1, 2
- Dysbiosis in HIV3
- Reducing inflammation and allergy4
- Diarrhoea, constipation, pain and bloating, symptoms of lactose intolerance, 5-8
- Inflammatory bowel disease9
- Improved sleep10
- Migraine12, 13
- Possible improvement in both male and female hormone balance14, 15
- Diabetes and metabolic syndrome16-24
- Cardiovascular health25-27
There are different microbiome signatures associated with poor health and with different health conditions and so, specific strains may be more or less useful for particular conditions. If you require specific treatment for a health condition or disorder, see a qualified practitioner who is well-versed in gut-health.
Other nutrients for a healthy gut
It is now known that the health of the gut has a big effect on the health of other organs and systems and particular focus has fallen on the interplay of gut-health with that of the brain and nervous system, and the skin. As with any other body system, the foundation of nutrition for gut health is a diet that is packed with essential nutrients, and that provides sufficient energy, protein, and essential fats. Specifically, the gut also benefits from sufficient amounts of prebiotic starches and fibres from foods like legumes, grains, and vegetables, that feed ‘good’ bacteria in the gut,28 along with omega-3 fats, 29 and short- and medium-chain fats that aid the balance of the microbiome (the community of microbes) in the gut. 30, 31
Also, many nutrients have been shown to help support gut health, such as:
Plant phenols and antioxidants – Health-promoting compounds in plants that work together with probiotics to improve the balance of the microbiome. 32 Preclinical trials also provide evidence for the traditional use of the fruit Rosehip improved gastrointestinal health. 33, 34
Digestive and ‘tonic’ herbs – Bitter greens (like dandelion) with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions. 35, 36
Ginger – Known to reduce nausea (especially during pregnancy) 37-40
Adaptogenic herbs, especially Astragalus which offers protection against intestinal inflammation. 41
Soothing herbs such as slippery elm, considered to be soothing and anti-inflammatory and used as a digestive aid. 42, 43
Anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric 44, 45
Zinc – an important mineral for the gut because it helps to close ‘tight junctions’ in the gut wall, reducing the potential for allergens and pathogens to enter the body. 46, 47 Note: many people do not get enough zinc from diet alone.
Lifestyle and gut health
Exercise is associated with greater diversity and health of the microbiome of the gut,48, 49 and benefits are likely to be greater with improved body composition. 50, 51
Stress is a common, yet often overlooked factor in the health of the gut. Severe trauma (PTSD) is associated with an increased likelihood of developing IBS,52 as is stress overall, and other types of stressful life events.53 Additionally, mindfulness meditation reduces the severity of IBS. 54
Other factors that can affect the health of the gut:
- Poor sleep
- Excessive alcohol use
Do sweeteners harm the microbiome?
While some experimental animal studies have suggested that non-nutritive sweeteners can worsen blood glucose control, increase food consumption, and cause weight gain (possibly due to effects on the microbiome), the evidence from human studies suggests that they have little, if any, effect. Meta-analyses (studies compiling data from many trials) have shown that non-nutritive sweeteners have little or no effect on blood glucose control in humans,55 or on gut health,56 and few negative functional effects on the human gut have been observed.56 Erythritol, in particular, does not appear to be fermentable by colonic bacteria and is unlikely to have any effect on the gut microbiome.57
A healthy, well-balanced lifestyle is the key to optimal gut (and systemic) health. The gut is intricately linked to the health of the entire body and every one of its systems. The relationship between gut health and the health of the body is ‘bi-directional’ meaning that one affects the other and vice versa. At this time much of the research is preliminary and especially with probiotic treatments, there are distinct differences between conditions, individuals, and their microbiota and therefore, the probiotic treatments that may be beneficial. But, on balance, broad-spectrum lactobacillus and bifidobacteria are beneficial to health, as are increased fibre intakes, along with other nutrients derived from a diet rich in vegetables, berries, and spices and herbs, and fermented foods. Exercise, mindfulness, sleep, and stress reduction also each play an inter-related role in the health of the gut and body.
Actions to improve gut (and overall health) could include:
- At least 2 sessions per week of resistance training with some additional cardio and at least 7500 steps per day of accumulated movement
- Daily exposure to sunlight (at least 5-10 min on the face, arms, and legs)
- Meditation and mindfulness
- Sleep hygiene techniques to improve the quality of sleep
- Eating whole, balanced meals in preference to poorer quality snacks
- Prioritising resistant starches, fibres, and plant polyphenols from a variety of vegetables (and edible weeds) and berries at meals
- Consuming enough omega 3 fats or taking a fish oil supplement
- Consider short-chain or medium-chain fats added to the diet if you suspect that you have dysbiosis
- Taking a quality multi-nutrient to ensure sufficiency of the essential vitamins and minerals
- Consider a probiotic or synbiotic supplement containing some combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria (breve, bifidum, longum, lactis), and possibly other strains like Streptococcus salivarus, Bacillus coagulans, Lactococcus lactis
We use Vita Biosa as a daily fermented synbiotic supplement.
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