On meeting me I’m not sure a love of Marvel comics and films would be the first thing you would associate with my personality, but as it would be terribly boring if people were merely just what they appear to be on the surface there we are, it’s true.
So what sets a superhero apart from the masses? They have an innate power of some sort, whether it be incredible strength, super speed or invisibility these humans are physically enhanced by their internal powers. At this point I should probably clarify that I am not about to divulge the secret to immortality or how to become the newest member of The Avengers (many apologies) but I will be so bold as to say we all have unharnessed internal powers. Wondering what I’m talking about? Your gut microflora of course!
Still baffled? Not to worry I will now happily lead you through the importance of this amazing and grossly undervalued resource that we all have inside of us. Seeing as they’re coming along for the ride anyway we may as well make them work in our favour right?
Let’s start at the beginning.
Gut microflora, also known as the gut microbiome, are a complex community of around 100 trillion microorganisms that reside in the digestive tracts of all animals (that equals about 2 kg in weight!). They allow us to harness the energy within undigested carbohydrates by fermenting them in the intestines and aid in the absorption of short chain fatty acids (butyric acid for example which is the exact same stuff we get from coconut oil). These creative critters also have a hand in the synthesis of Vitamins B and K (both of which are very important for the proper functioning of our immune systems) so they’re doing pretty big work despite their small size.
So how do they get there in the first place?
It was originally thought that the digestive tract of foetuses were sterile environments and this all important colonisation began at birth, however recent trials have shown that transfer from the mother’s gut occurs whilst the baby is developing within the womb. This early community is then enhanced by breastfeeding as more beneficial Bifidobacteria species are seen in the gut of such babies compared to those solely reliant on formula. From this point on our new little amigos will then continue to evolve and diversify (a serious case of the more, the merrier) throughout our lifetimes and two thirds of them will be completely unique to us, good ey!
The thing with these dudes is they may be small but they have feelings. They’re slogging away doing super important jobs for us and when they start to feel their efforts are being under appreciated they start to get a tad upset (as anyone would) and this can cause us BIG problems (they outnumber us slightly remember!). OK so I might be embroidering the truth ever so slightly with my application of emotions but as for the ability to cause tumultuous times I most definitely am not.
Just like us our microflora will be at their optimum when provided with fresh, healthful foods, well chewed and prepared by digestive processes further up the system. However this is not true of many people’s lifestyle these days where sugar laden or processed products regularly feature and many meals are gulped on the go. The problem with this is that when we don’t chew our food larger pieces travel down into our stomachs to be broken down, the acid and enzymes present will go to work but only for a certain period before it travels on into the intestines. This then means you’ve got large pieces of food for the bacteria to ferment which causes the production of gas as a consequence, bigger pieces = more gas which is nobody’s favourite! And secondly the big issue with sugar is that it’s like catnip to your intestinal pals, they love it just as much as we do (in the sense of the general public) so when it comes trundling on down they go to town and start reproducing all over the place. It would be fine if they all remained within perfect balance and harmony but unfortunately we tend to see the pathogenic guys out-competing the nice, helpful ones (playground bullying, lunch money stealing styley) which isn’t so great.
What many people don’t realise is the systemic power this can have. Our microbiome is intricately linked with our immune system and so upset in our digestive equilibrium can severely compromise our ability to deal with infection as well as disregulating the inflammatory response mechanism. It been shown that via stimulus of the vagus nerve this seemingly contained ecosystem can influence and trigger other hormonal mechanisms that we would usually assume to be separate entities.
It is partly for this reason that antibiotics should also be approached with caution. An absolute revelation in the medical world they most definitely have their place saving countless lives that even 50 years ago would have been lost to relatively common place infections. They are however, unspecific in their action and so will kill off all your good bacteria as well as whatever unpleasant invader has decided to tag along for the ride. This is why many people experience digestive issues whilst taking them as well as after they have finished. Prolonged usage can also lead to the development of antibiotic resistant strains and further systemic issues like the upset of other regulatory systems. The best way to avoid this is to optimise your gut health from the get go and that means creating the best environment possible for your microbiome, ensuring regular bowel movements, bolstering the levels of the good guys and keeping your stress levels under control.
And this is where we can do a lot with our diet (yippee!). Fermented foods are natural sources of beneficial bacteria so regularly including them within your diet just keeps on topping up the levels of those good guys. The best examples of these would be sauerkraut, kimchi, live yoghurt and cheeses, kefir (dairy, coconut or water) fresh miso paste, tempeh (a sort of fermented version of tofu – actually delicious if treated properly) and kombucha.
The next thing we can do is give these little guardian angels everything they need to go about their jolly business and this comes in the form of the aptly named prebiotic foods. Good examples of these are artichokes, asparagus, bananas, chicory, onions, leeks, oats, dark green leafy veggies and garlic. Basically they contain a certain type of fibre which we don’t break down instead providing a food source that your new best buds really like to munch on.
And finally we can avoid the nasty things that put everything out of whack. Need I list them? Sugar, chemical additives, sweeteners, processed foods……..like I started with at the beginning the key to happy microflora is the same as a happy human, good, nourishing, whole foods. And that, as they say, is that.
Before wrapping up for the day I feel I must also quickly touch on the many many probiotic supplements out there. These are great and different strains can be of particular benefit to certain situations, for overall gut health I will happily recommend OptiBac Extra Strength Everyday (they come with prebiotics included as well). 1 capsule a day about 15 minutes before a meal is a good addition to dietary inclusion but I would always preferably suggest that you see a qualified practitioner before embarking upon any form of supplementation. Although contraindications with probiotics are rarely seen a professional will be able to guide you with a more personalised protocol to work on your system as a whole, they can also advise if they think there could be a different cause(s) contributing to your symptoms.
Now we’ve covered that base I’ve got a couple of ideas to get you started on the dietary side of things. I find that these foods are actually really easy to include regularly once they’re on your mind, experimenting with fermentation is also pretty great fun and the possibilities are endless.
Fresh miso soup is a wonderful snack and the paste is super portable either in a small jar or it comes in single servings, Clearspring make a lovely organic range. Fermented vegetables act as great seasonings to dishes, wraps and salads, kombucha and kefir are awesome alternative thirst quenchers and tempeh is delicious marinated and chucked in a stir fry.
This is definitely an instance of a little love goes a long way, so go on, give your colon a cuddle, it’ll be the best thing you do today 🙂