Lose fat, feel happier and look your best, all by making the trillions of microbes that live inside you a little more comfortable.
You may not give your gut much thought beyond how much your stomach might be rumbling or whether your belly looks a little puffy over your waist band. But your gut is much more than a depository for your last meal – it’s home to microbes and bacteria that play a crucial role in everything from absorbing nutrients and boosting immunity to reducing inflammation and even balancing your mood.
“Your gut, and the microbiome it contains, is extremely important to your overall health,” explains Dr Raphael Kellman, founder of the Kellman Center for Integrative and Functional Medicine in the US and author of The Microbiome Diet. The microbiome is a miniature world inside your gastrointestinal tract that makes up 90 percent of the cells in your body. “The microbiome plays an important role in immunological function, brain health, energy levels, skin and muscle function,” Dr Kellman says. “When your gut is healthy, the rest of your body is better for it.”
Here’s why a healthy gut is good for you and how you can keep it working at optimal levels.
Reason No. 1 | You’ll be leaner
The bacteria in your gut play a crucial role in what nutrients your body absorbs from your diet, but they also help determine the amount of calories and energy that enter into your body, says Dr Kellman. “There is a direct relationship between the microbiome and genetic expression, or how genes are coded for fat deposits,” he says. When you consume highly processed foods and/or those high in sugar, starch and unhealthy fats, your body typically reacts with high levels of inflammation that can encourage the growth of certain “bad” bacteria in the gut, says Dr Kellman. This bacteria can overwhelm the “good” bacteria and trigger an overproduction of insulin, which will cue your body to stop burning fat and start storing it.
“When you switch to foods with healthy fats and high-fibre eats that support healthier bacteria, you’ll start to reduce this inflammation and reset your metabolism,” he says.
A recent study from the University of Iowa, US, found that an unhealthy microbiome in mice can also lead to weight gain and obesity by altering their resting metabolism.
Reason No. 1 | You’ll reduce cravings
A study published in the journal BioEssays concludes that your microbes can actually influence what you choose to eat. Researchers speculate that microbes manipulate your eating behaviour by generating cravings for specific foods – so a host of unhealthy bacteria might have you reaching for that cheeseburger and chips over a simple salad. That said, eating a healthy diet filled with good-for-your-gut foods can reverse cravings for junk, so you’ll be choosing better options in a relatively short period of time, says Dr Robynne Chutkan, gastroenterologist and author of The Microbiome Solution.
Reason No. 3 | You’ll be happier
“You have more neurotransmitters in your gut than in the brain,” notes Dr Frank Lipman, a specialist in integrative medicine and author of 10 Reasons You Feel Old and Get Fat. In fact, more than 70 percent of the feel-good hormone serotonin (which regulates mood, sleep and memory) is made in the gut. “When your gut is off-balance, your mood changes, and you can become more anxious and depressed,” Dr Lipman says. One recent study published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that women who were given a daily probiotic supplement of “good” bacteria for four weeks reported significantly fewer negative thoughts associated with sad moods compared with those who took a placebo.
Reason No. 4 | You’ll get sick less
One of the key functions of the gut, besides digesting food, is to help keep your immune system strong.
“More than 80 percent of your body’s immune system surrounds your gut,” says Dr Lipman. That means that damage to the thin cell wall in the intestines can have a significant effect on your body.
“We think that most autoimmune problems people face today actually start in the gut,” he says. And since bacteria, viruses and other toxins can frequently be found in food, a healthy gut is vital to fighting off infections from foods and the environment.
Reason No. 5 | You’ll have a “glow”
When you’re not able to fully absorb all the nutrients from your food, you’ll notice a difference in the mirror. “If your gut isn’t functioning well, your hair may be thinner, nails more brittle and skin more blemished,” says Dr Chutkan. Studies show that more than half of all acne sufferers have issues with gut flora, and the skin condition rosacea has been linked to bacterial imbalance. Research also shows that probiotics can help improve both. “Being healthy on the inside can help you look healthier, too,” she adds.
Three Steps to a Healthier Gut
Step 1 | Eat more of these
Prebiotics are the foods and/or supplements that help nourish healthy bacteria. They’re usually made up of fibre compounds that pass undigested through the GI tract. “They’re like dinner for the bacteria to dine on,” explains Dr Kellman. The bacteria feast on the fibres by fermenting them, creating by-products that can help improve insulin sensitivity and protect against inflammation, he adds. Prebiotics include foods like asparagus, garlic, artichokes, leeks, onions and radishes.
Step 2 | Try these supps
In addition to taking in probiotics, you can improve your gut health with a few other sources. Carnosine, glutamine, N-acetylglucosamine and zinc can all help repair the gut wall, says Dr Kellman. Garlic, oregano oil and wormwood can also aid in removing unhealthy bacteria from the intestines.
Step 3 | Get a little dirty
The “hygiene hypothesis” theorises that the more your immune system (including the gut) is exposed to germs and other microbes, the better your body will be at fighting off disease. “Don’t be afraid to get a little dirty now and then,” says Dr Chutkan. While you’re at it, avoid using antibacterial products to wash up. “These products aren’t especially effective against viruses, and they can damage the gut and endocrine systems,” she says. To get clean, use good old-fashioned soap and water instead.
Three Tasty Ways to Get Your Bugs
Korean fermented cabbage is not just a spicy side dish: it’s a fantastic probiotic powerhouse.
2. Miso soup
As well as being loaded with probiotics, miso has anti-cancer and cholesterol-lowering properties.
3. Soft cheese
Cottage cheese, fermented cheese and some cheddars helps to boost good bacteria in your gut.