The gut microbiome is attracting much scientific attention as researchers seek to understand the role our microbiome plays in our health and wellbeing. In our introductory article – the importance of the gut microbiome for health and wellbeing – John explains that everyone’s microbiome is an individual as a fingerprint. Studies have shown that individuals who enjoy a diet rich in fibre and plants (like vegetables, fruit etc) tend to have a more diverse microbiome. This can lead to many health benefits.
In this article we will go into more detail about how we can enhance our gut microbiome through both diet and lifestyle.
Microbiota and the microbiome
Gut bacteria are collectively called gut microbiota. The gut microbiome is the environment in which the microbiota live. Gut bacteria help to maintain our health and a normal physiology. We have a symbiotic relationship with them – they protect against pathogens, help with nutrient uptake, support our immune system and process the items that end up in our digestive tract. Indeed, one scientific article I read referred to the gut microbiota as a “forgotten organ” – it was deemed that important for health.
Bacteria is popularly categorised as “good” or “bad”. Instead of “good”, we prefer to use the term beneficial bacteria – these are bacteria that help our normal bodily functioning, which support our health and wellbeing. Two species of beneficial bacteria include: Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. When doctors look at the bacteria detected in poo samples, sick people tend to have more of the unhelpful bacteria, and lower counts of the beneficial bacteria. For people in good health, the opposite results are usually found. Generally a broad range of beneficial bacteria – diversity – is what we would like.
Fibre plays a major role in the stability and variability of gut microbiota, but other things also contribute.
Out of balance: gut dysbiosis
Gut dysbiosis is when our gut microbiota gets out of balance. This could be that we have too few of the good bacteria in our gut, when we have too much of the harmful bacteria in our gut, or perhaps we lose both good and the not good!
The composition of our gut microbiota can change quickly and drastically due to environmental changes brought about by our diet, lifestyle, age, antibiotic use (plus other drugs) and ill-health (disease).
Many things can cause this imbalance, including:
- Health status: infections, inflammation
- Environmental factors: use of anti-biotics
- Lifestyle: diet (low fibre and high sugar), nicotine (including e-cigarettes), drinking alcohol (which contains high levels of sugar), poor hygiene, drugs, food additives, high levels of stress, poor dental hygiene, irregular sleep patterns
Gut imbalance can lead to the progression of health problems including irritable bowel disease, obesity, diabetes, psoriasis and possibly cancer. (And these health issues can also contribute to the imbalance in the first place).
However, as you will notice, many of the items listed in the section as a cause of gut dysbiosis are things within our control, or things we can influence.
Symptoms of gut dysbiosis
There are a number of symptoms which can indicate your microbiota have become imbalanced:
- Gas or bloating
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Acid reflux or heartburn
- Skin problems, like rashes, acne, itching or psoriasis
- Bad breath
- Digestive and stomach problems
Often, these symptoms are mild and short lived. As we described in our article: understanding physiology, understanding health, our body is constantly working to maintain homeostasis, not just in our gut but for our overall health.
Eating well for healthy gut microbiota and microbiome
Food items to include
There are a number of food items which are good to include in your diet on a regular basis including:
- lots of different types of vegetables and fruits (variety is the key, think about a range of different colours on your plate)
- dark, leafy greens, including spinach and kale
- high fibre foods, like pears, broccoli, avocado, oats, wholegrains, nuts, beans
- sufficient water
- good quality protein sources: pulses, quinoa, soya (e.g. tofu, soya beans), nuts, seeds
- fermented foods (see section below)
The key is to enjoy foods that are micronutrient dense like fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, and to make these items the main part of your regular diet.
If you do eat meat and fish, then consider purchasing organic meats and fish, to minimise food additives and chemicals which can be used in farming. Also choose lean meats, to reduce the fat content.
Food items to exclude
Items to exclude from your diet, certainly for a period of time, or you might consider excluding them completely:
- processed foods which contain high levels of food additives and preservatives
- processed meats (like bacon, ham, processed salami etc)
- refined flour (eliminate or reduce your intake of bread made from refined flour, check the composition of your pasta)
- dairy, including yogurt, milk, and cheese
- sugar and foods with a high sugar content (try to avoid products that contain corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and raw cane sugar in particular)
- saturated fat and trans-fat – items like biscuits, pizza, baked goods (pies, pasties, cakes), fried foods (like fries, doughnuts, fried chicken), battered foods, takeaways, ice-cream, hard margarines. Avoid any products that say they contain partially hydrogenated fat.
If you are considering eliminating food items for a period of time, we suggest that you keep a food diary. You might like to read our article how to identify if you have a food intolerance, in which we describe the process you can take at home, using a food diary and elimination diet.
A simple rule to follow is that most products with a food label on them, tend to contain items that you might want to avoid! Eating natural is the simplest approach.
Vitamin and mineral supplements
Consider taking a vitamin and mineral supplement for a period of time, to support your microbiome whilst it re-balances. Look for a supplement that contains in particular:
- B-complex vitamins, such as B6 and B12
If you wish to supplement, we suggest purchasing a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement, with no (or minimal) starch, magnesium silicate, silicon dioxide, titanium dioxide, microcrystalline cellulose, stearic acid, simethicone, vegetable gum, talc or propylene glycol. These are all additives or added to the supplement to stabilise or bulk. Also avoid any that contain hydrogenated oil.
As with any supplement, we suggest that you only take them for a short period of time, for example during times of illness, or times of high stress. All the items listed in the bullet points above can be obtained naturally through a balanced diet and this should be your focus. (Only B12 is not naturally available in a vegan diet).
Probiotics and prebiotics
Probiotics are healthy living organisms (live bacteria and yeasts). The most common probiotics you will have probably heard of contain the two species: Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. These probiotics can help to keep the unhelpful bacteria in check.
Fermented foods also contain high levels of probiotics, so if you are looking for a more natural approach, we would suggest incorporating fermented foods into your diet. This includes things like:
- sauerkraut (cabbage)
- raw unfiltered apple cider vinegar made from fermented apple sugar
- kimchi (cabbage dish, Korean in origin)
- kombucha (black or green tea)
- miso (soybean-based paste)
- Tempeh (origins in Indonesia, made from fermented soy beans)
- Sourdough bread (bread made by the fermentation of dough, base is a yeast starter)
- Kefir (made with milk – this is dairy-based, so avoid if you wish to follow a plant-based diet)
However, you can also take probiotics as a dietary supplement (available from most health food shops). When buying probiotic supplements, check the composition (which strains are contained) and quantity. One way to check quality is to look at the number of viable cells, which are measured in colony forming units (CFU). Some are very high, some are low, so there is quite a large debate about the number you need. Aim for around 5 billion is our suggestion. Also, check the manufacture and expiry dates – as probiotics are live cells, the number and quality do decline over time. Check if you need to store your probiotics in the fridge.
Prebiotics help to stimulate the growth of the beneficial bacteria. They are found in most fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes and beans, so a plant-based diet is naturally high in prebiotics. Some items are even better than others, including:
- Flaxseed (grind the seeds first for maximum benefit)
- Beans and other legumes
Science has shown that eating prebiotics on a regular basis can increase the beneficial bacteria in the gut.
More information is available in our article: how prebiotics and probiotics help our digestive health. There is also a useful fact sheet available from National Institutes of Health in the USA: probiotics (external link).
NOTE: If you are in ill-health right now and/ or are on medication, we recommend that you speak to your health professional before taking supplements.
Lifestyle actions for a healthy gut microbiome
There are many other actions we can take to develop and maintain healthy gut microbiota and microbiome:
- Emerging research is indicating that regular exercise has a direct positive influence on the proliferation of beneficial bacteria in our gut. Try a combination of different exercise, on a regular basis: walking, running, dance, exercise classes, cycling, move your body each day.
- Stop smoking, including e-cigarettes / vapes.
- Find ways to destress and relax on a regular basis. This could be through yoga or meditation, dance, walks in nature, massages – any action that helps you to unwind and relax.
- Get regular sleep. Create a sleep routine that works for you, so you go to bed at a regular time and get up at a regular time. Each of us are individual, some people need more sleep than others.
- Cook from fresh and make in bulk. Life is busy – often we do not have enough time to cook a good meal from scratch every evening. This is where bulk cooking comes in handy. When you do make a meal, make double the portion. Cook once, eat twice. This also saves on energy.
- Limit snacking. Having a break between meals is good for your microbiota!
More information – Science
If you are interested in exploring some of the scientific research in more detail, you might like to read this article published in Frontiers in Endocrinology, in 2021 (available free of charge here on an external link). The title is Unhealthy Lifestyle and Gut Dysbiosis: A Better Understanding of the Effects of Poor Diet and Nicotine on the Intestinal Microbiome.
Health and wellbeing retreats at La Crisalida
All the elements of the La Crisalida programme for health and wellbeing come together in person at our retreats: nutrition and hydration, exercise, rest, physiology and breath, mindset, environment, connection and education. Our chefs cook freshly made plant-based foods, from raw ingredients, to reset and support your gut microbiota, from the moment you arrive. Staying for a week can really make a difference. Contact us for more information.
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).