Did you know that your body contains more microbes than human cells? The gut is the most studied part of the human microbiome and has been intensely researched over the last 15 years. Weighing as much as 1-2 kilograms, these microorganisms act as an extra organ working in symbiosis with human cells. They play a crucial role in our health, and without this collection of microorganisms – mostly bacteria – it would be very difficult for us to exist.
From the moment we are born, our gut flora begin to populate. Recent studies have even indicated that this can begin in utero. Breast milk contains a diverse population of bacteria and seeds the infant gut, highlighting the importance of breastfeeding in the development of the gut microbiome. Nutrition is vitally important to the composition and function of our gut microbiome.
So how do we keep our gut microbiome happy and healthy? The answer lies in a plant-based diet.
The importance of a healthy gut microbiome
A healthy gut is important for our overall health and wellbeing. It reduces inflammation and cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes risk. It also maintains a healthy metabolism, strong immune system and positive mental health. When the microbes are happy, we are happy!
An unbalanced gut microbiome, however, can lead to a variety of intestinal diseases and contribute to weight gain. Dysbiosis is a term used to describe an imbalance in the types of gut bacteria present in the digestive system. It can mean a loss of beneficial microbes, overgrowth of harmful microorganisms and a loss of microbial diversity. Dysbiosis can be triggered by various external factors including poor diet, antibiotics and gastrointestinal pathogens. It can lead to intestinal diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, colitis and Crohn’s disease. Autoimmune conditions such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis have also been linked to an unbalanced microbiome.
Saying that all diseases begin in the gut is an oversimplification of a very complex issue. However, gut health is of utmost importance and we should do everything we can to keep it well nourished.
Making dietary fibre a priority
Most fibre is indigestible in the human gut, but our microbes love the stuff. Some types of fibre are considered prebiotics, which means they pass through the digestive system undigested and stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the large intestine. Beneficial bacteria in our gut acts by fermenting fibre into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These SCFAs improve insulin sensitivity, regulate weight and lower inflammation, and they may play a key role in the prevention of obesity, colon cancer and diabetes.
The health benefits of eating fibre are significant, and the best way to get fibre into our diet is to eat more plants. Animal products don’t contain any fibre and they negatively impact our gut microbiome by altering the community of microbes to one that promotes inflammation and negatively impacts our health.
But can’t I just take a probiotic?
Yes and no. Probiotics are microorganisms that, when taken in a capsule, can promote gut health. However they can often be expensive, contain an incorrect balance of microbes and be ineffective because the bacteria may not be viable by the time you take them home.
Taking a probiotic supplement can help with gastrointestinal issues, but this is only a short term solution. The best way to keep your gut bugs healthy is to feed them the foods they need to thrive. Consuming probiotic foods – plant-based fermented foods and beverages like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, miso and tempeh – can help repopulate the microbes and improve gut health. These foods can also be a good source of live lactic acid bacteria – beneficial gut microbes – and can reportedly provide human health benefits.
Feeding the gut microbiome with plant-based nutrition
The good news is that you can control the balance of the microbes in your gut by controlling what you eat. Vegan diets have been shown to be beneficial as they usually contain more plant foods rich in dietary fibre. However as we’ve discussed in a previous article, vegan diets are not always health promoting.
The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends eating 25 to 30 grams of fibre daily and the best sources are fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Eating oats and fruit at breakfast, a big salad with chickpeas at lunch and a hearty tofu and vegetable curry for dinner will supply all the fibre you need and more!
The key to promoting a healthy and abundant population of beneficial microbes is in the diversity of plants consumed. Set yourself a challenge and aim for 30 to 40 different plant foods per week.
Live in balance and be happy
Keeping our gut microbiome healthy is undoubtedly one of the simplest things we can do to promote good health. Incorporating more whole plant foods into our diet – or eating exclusively plant-based – will be the quickest and most optimum way to achieve this. By supporting this symbiosis, we can keep our gut happy and it can in turn help us to live our best lives!