Clinical neuroscientist, nutritionist and gut microbiome expert Miguel Toribio-Mateas discusses the vital role that your gut flora plays in keeping you healthy.
Your gut flora as the gatekeeper of your health
Trillions of bacteria live in your gut, which you can think of as an ecosystem akin to a garden. And just like your garden hosts a variety of plants – from weeds to beautiful fruit-bearing trees – and provides cover for a number of animals, your gut flora isn’t only made up of bacteria but also of yeasts and other tiny living things (called microorganisms) like parasites which are constantly travelling through you, even without you knowing. Some come and go in a few hours or a few days, some stay more permanently, colonising your gut. This population of bugs that live inside you are always changing according to the foods you eat and the things you do, e.g. whether you’re stressed, or whether you exercise regularly. Emerging science also points to how your gut bugs may also change depending on any medical conditions you may suffer from, e.g. anything from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to diabetes (type 2), depression or anxiety.
Going back to my garden analogy, what we know with some degree of certainty in 2020 is that a wide range of different health conditions including obesity, diabetes (type 2), and inflammatory bowel conditions such as Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis (known as IBD, where D stands for “disease”) share one common trait: reduced microbial diversity.
Having lower microbial diversity could be seen as having a garden where most of your plants are the same
They could be pretty healthy plants, but that garden won’t be terribly exciting, so it wouldn’t be appealing enough for a diversity of animals (think bees, frogs or birds) to settle down in it. Why is this example relevant? Because when the diversity of your gut bugs is low your body will suffer as a result.
Gut microbes produce a range of different natural substances as a result of feeding on the food you eat. Some well known molecules include short chain fatty acids, waxy droplets that your gut bacteria produce when you eat fibre-rich foods. When the diversity of your gut flora is low, you can also expect a narrower spectrum of beneficial substances (like those short chain fatty acids) to be produced. And because the beneficial effect of these substances goes beyond protecting the health of the gut itself, the rest of your body systems will miss out on their health-giving properties.
Why the focus on diversity?
Your gut is a complex ecosystem. Hundreds of different molecules play different roles in maintaining its health, and thousands of different types of bugs play a role in maintaining the health of the whole of your body. How diverse these bugs are is the key. And what scientists know is that the diversity of your gut flora depends on the diversity of your diet. If you’re a creature of habit who clicks on “repeat order” when doing your online food shop, you’re more likely to be starving some of your gut bacteria who are “craving” something different, like a different type of veg or a different colour fruit. That’s why the metaphor of “eating the rainbow” has become so trendy, because it encapsulates this concept beautifully.
And how do you know how diverse your microbiome is?
It’s easy. You can do a simple test at home that requires you to put the tiniest amount of poo in a sample bottle. This is posted to a lab where researchers identify the bugs that are present in that sample, and you get a nice report that tells you all about it.
The test that I recommend is by Atlas Biomed and these can be purchased here
I’ll be discussing this topic in more detail in future posts. For now I will leave you with some wonderful recipes by nutritionist Sue Bedford that give you some delicious examples of how to eat the rainbow every day!
Miguel is a clinical neuroscientist and nutrition researcher at the School of Applied Sciences of London South Bank University. He is also the Director of Nutrition and Health Research at Atlas Biomed. His Instagram page is a fantastic source of information and fun, so we recommend you follow him @miguelmateas.
Sue Bedford, MSc (Nut Th), BSc (Hons), PGCE, mBANT, CNHC is a Nutritional Therapist. Sue has works extensively with people requiring advice for General Health and Wellness, fertility, pms, menopause, post-natal nutrition as well as child nutrition