Words: Sports dietitian Renee McGregor
While still a relatively new area of nutrition, numerous studies have demonstrated that there’s no denying a link between the status of our gut microbiome and both our mental and physical health.
The gut microbiome includes all the different type of bacteria that reside in our gut. Collectively they have a number of functions, ranging from synthesising some vitamins, short-chain fatty acids and even neurotransmitters, which are all necessary for optimal health.
One thing that is often overlooked is the fact that no two individuals will have the same gut microbiome, but that doesn’t necessarily mean one person is healthier than another.
So, what makes for an optimal microbiome?
If no one size fits all, what do we need to do to ensure the benefits of having one?
The research is clear. The more enriched microbial diversity an individual has, the more likely they are to benefit from the positive associations to health.
These include a strong immune system, improved mental health and, more recently, there seems to be links with improvements to sports performance.
The environment in the gut is an ecosystem that is constantly changing and evolving. There are numerous factors that can influence its stability. These include individual physiology and genetics, lifestyle, exercise, and dietary composition.
Indeed, in some illnesses, particularly mental health the question that is being asked is which comes first: the mental illness and associated behaviours that cause dysbiosis (changes to the gut biome), or is it changes to the gut that result in deterioration to mental health?
This example shows just how sensitive the gut microbiome is, but also how if you take care and are mindful with your approach, you can ensure an optimal environment for your gut but also your health.
How to improve your microbiome
Our diet is integral to so many aspects of life, from providing us with sufficient energy to allow for all the biological processes that keep us alive, to supporting our adventures and physical activity preferences.
When looking at gut health specifically, there are several key nutrients and food types that have been identified, which result in the increased microbial diversity that is recommended.
A high-fibre diet rich in colourful fruits, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains is central to increasing the bacterial diversity in our gut. While our body can’t digest a high-fibre diet, there are certain bacteria in our gut that can, and this stimulates their growth, resulting in an improved environment.
Another type of food group that can be beneficial to include is fermented foods. These include yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and tempeh. It has been found that including more of these foods enhances the function of the microbiome, by reducing the abundance of disease-causing bacteria in the intestines.
We know there are many benefits to being more physical active, but that doesn’t mean you need to kill yourself in the gym.
In fact, when it comes to our gut biome, science shows that regular low-intensity exercise like walking, yoga or Pilates is more beneficial, as it decreases transient stool time, which offers protective properties against some diseases.
While hugely popular, endurance exercise may not be as beneficial, and this is particularly true if the individual restricts their energy availability alongside. There is a strong association between food restriction and exercise resulting in a decrease of beneficial bacteria.
The key is ensuring some regular moderate activity through the week, with good nutritional choices that not only support your training but also your gut health.
These are live micro-organisms, usually bacteria, that provides a specific health benefit when consumed. They work on the principle of colonising the gut and benefit health by changing the overall composition of the microbiome and supporting metabolism.
While they can be consumed daily, probiotics have been found to be most effective in restoring the microbiome to a healthy state after it has been compromised.
Care needs to be taken when using probiotic supplements, as most are destroyed by stomach acid and don’t make it as far as the gut. That said, one example of a food supplement that does work is Symprove. This live culture is water-based, which means it can pass through the stomach unaffected and be transported into the gut, where it can then go on to colonise and benefit its host.
To kickstart your Symprove journey, order a 12-week (£158) or 4-week (£79) course online at symprove.com