Bacteria – not exactly top of anyone’s wish list in these germ-phobic, Covid times. And yet, if brighter skin, better immunity, and super-charged energy are on your health hit-list (that’s all of us, right?), then experts say bacteria is something we should embrace a lot more warmly. A host of research shows that cultivating the good bacteria in our gut is the secret to improving almost every aspect of our health. “Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, really was right when he said that ‘All disease begins in the gut!’,” says Nishtha Patel, aka The Gut Expert, a nutritionist and functional health practitioner. “Inside your gut resides a whole colony of bacteria that communicates with everything from your hormones to your immune system.”
The problem for many of us is that “the typical high fat, low fibre Western diet is thought to be generally harmful for the gut microbiome”, explains Dr Deborah Lee, from Dr Fox Pharmacy. “It results in a deficiency of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which can lead to an altered immune response, and is thought to be linked to the rise in autoimmune and atopic conditions in the Western world.”
So how do we help the good guys flourish, without disrupting our usual diets? Here are 8 simple tricks for a more balanced microbiome.
1. If you eat on the go…
It might seem time-efficient to scoff a sandwich at your desk, but it’s your stomach that picks up the slack. “Digestion starts in the mouth,” explains Nishtha, “where enzymes in saliva start to break down food. If you’re eating in a hurry or under stress, there’s less salivating so hydrochloric acid in the stomach does the work. But when there’s not enough acid, larger undigested particles of food end up in the small intestine, which over time can cause little holes. This is known as ‘leaky gut’ - proteins that should not be leaving the gut enter the blood stream and vice versa”. Can’t avoid eating on the go? Swap your sandwich for a smoothie and add some protein powder if you can. Already liquified = low maintenance digestion.
2. If you have dull skin…
There are many culprits when it comes to a lack-lustre complexion, but experts agree UV light can take much of the blame. Luckily, the gut microbiome can stimulate an immune response to counteract it. “Probiotics containing lactobacilli are important for good skin health,” says Dr Deborah. “In one study on middle-aged Korean women, enriching the diet with a lactobacillus supplement led to enhanced skin elasticity and improved skin hydration.”
As well as supplement form, probiotics - or ‘good bacteria’ - are found in fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir and sauerkraut.
3. If you’re often ill…
A layer of mucus in the gut wall alerts your immune system to the presence of pathogens in the body. “It’s our first defence against illness,” says Nishtha. So, if the muscosal barrier is compromised - by stress or a bacterial imbalance – then so is your immunity. “Here’s the thing,” warns Nishtha, “you can take all the supplements you like, but if your barrier isn’t absorbing well, they’re not going to work.”
4. If you’re often bloated…
Bloating can be a sign that your digestive system is under pressure. “It’s often caused by a slow transit of food through the gut, excess gas production and is a common symptom of irritable bowel syndrome,” explains Dr Deborah. Eating more mindfully and chewing your food properly can help reduce it. Yoga can also help stimulate the digestive system. Both Dr Deborah and Nishtha recommend the cat-cow pose, as featured in this flow.
5. If you have a sweet tooth
High levels of sugar feeds the bad bacteria in our guts. “Swap to Stevia,” advises Nishtha. “It’s natural, doesn’t affect the balance of bacteria as much as regular sugar and as it’s so sweet, you need far less of it which is better for your health overall.”
6. If your skin is spotty
If you’re struggling with breakouts, it’s easy to focus on what you’re putting on your skin. But what’s going into your body counts too. “There’s a strong link between the health of the gut and the skin,” explains Dr Deborah. “Experts believe there is 'crosstalk' between the gut bacteria and the mTOR pathway - a major neurobiological pathway in the body that has a huge influence on growth, metabolism, and ageing, and that this could be linked to a leaky gut and in turn acne.” The good news? “Low glycaemic diets have been shown to improve acne,” continues Dr Deborah. So swap your white rice, pasta or potatoes for wholewheat varieties and sweet potatoes.
7. If you’re veggie
“Many vegetarians I treat are actually ‘carbo-tarians!” says Nishtha. “Toast for breakfast, a sandwich at lunch, pizza for dinner... A gluten-heavy diet like this isn’t good for our guts - because of the way it’s processed, gluten can damage the intestines and cause little holes in the walls, leading to ‘leaky gut’. Be mindful of mixing it up.” Try this umami poke bowl for lunch or dinner.
8. If you feel anxious or low…
Ever felt butterflies on your first day in a new job, or a stone in your stomach upon hearing bad news? That’s your Entric Nervous System (ENS) – a network of nerves in your gut which communicate with your brain. “Although anxiety and depression have been linked to gastrointestinal symptoms for a long time, researchers now believe it often occurs the other way round too,” reveals Dr Deborah. “The ENS may be triggered by irritation of the gut, influencing our emotions.” While it can be a struggle to start new habits when you’re feeling down, a simple probiotic supplement could help. “In one study, people with chronic stress were given probiotics with Bifidobacteria for three weeks. Those with the highest initial stress levels saw the greatest change – rating themselves as happier, more energetic and less tired and depressed.”