Are you obsessed with gut health at the moment? Is it really the all singing all dancing solution to everything? Rabin Das takes a realistic look and answers our biggest questions on gut health
Gut health is the new kid on the block and everyone want a piece of this new area.
Like the shiny new band who can seemingly do no wrong, anyone mentioning gut health is immediately elevated above the fray, and given the centre stage.
But, are we correct in bringing this area of nutrition and health into the for forefront of ‘what needs to be done’?
Does it warrant the emphasis that is being placed on it currently?
Can we think critically and logically around the area?
My hope is that the next few hundred words or so will give you a solid footing to better understand where we are with the gut health landscape and help you to make better and more critically minded decisions.
Are you ready to begin?
A primer on the gut
We eat food. We digest food.
Nutrients are absorbed and sent to do what the body needs them to do. There are living creatures that we now know help our bodies to do this and they need love and attention.
In recent years, this area has exploded in terms of research findings and importance. Equally though, as alluded to in the intro, so have people attempting to sell you on methods to improve your gut health that lack validity.
Gut health appears to be inextricably linked to our environment, dietary pattern and quality of life. We know this from the NICE guidelines on IBS management.
As mentioned elsewhere, there’s no real use in taking or looking into advanced gut health hacks if we are still not addressing the food we eat each day and the stress we unduly put ourselves under.
How much do we really know?
We know quite a lot. Much more than was previously known 10 or 15 years ago.
Research continues every day and yields new findings about how the gut works and plays a role in health and human wellbeing.
The actual clinical significance on daily living or application of these findings is where we are still in the early stages.
And this is where the problem lies. Because it is an emerging science with huge potential scope and application, it is being promoted as the next big thing AND as if we know everything there is to know about it.
Unfortunately, we are just not there yet. But don’t tell the quacks that.
What is a good gut bacteria and how can you improve them?
Certain bacteria are good and others bad. Good bacteria appear to thrive in individuals who are leaner, present with less insulin resistance and possess other positive metabolic markers of health.
Some of the bad bacteria present with the opposite. They are usually found in people with poorer metabolic markers. Now, before everyone freaks out, both good and bad bacteria populate the gut but one set of populations tends to ‘outbid’ the other for gut real estate.
Based on this, it would suggest that certain populations are required for activities beneficial to human health. As health deteriorates due to poor lifestyle and nutrition, bad bacteria appear to increase and contribute to the current climate.
Good populations are typically of the Bacterioidetes family while bad populations tend to be of Firmicutes origin. This is not always the case though.
How do we improve our host bacterial populations?
Having a healthy dietary pattern. So something plant-based (notice I said ‘plant-based’ and not exclusively vegan) to ensure that you’re getting enough short chain fatty acids (fuel for the little blighters), trying out some fermented foods (kefir), the usual stuff. Generally speaking, positive lifestyle factors appear to have a positive influence on gut bacterial populations.
Are probiotics any good?
Evidence is promising in some areas to do with probiotics and health and wellbeing. Probiotics appear to benefit our gut health in a transient way but not long term, however.
What must be said though is that probiotics cannot directly help in weight loss. Currently there is no evidence to suggest this. So remember to challenge the next ‘guru’ who claims that probiotics help with weight loss.
Data is mounting that the health of the gut is involved in obesity development. Charlatans are hearing this too and are trying to sell you on the idea that a healthy gut EQUALS weight loss. This is incorrect. Obesity and it’s development is multifaceted to say the least.
A jigsaw piece, a puzzle does not make.
Where probiotics can make a difference:
- After a bout of prolonged antibiotic use
- Probably worthwhile to be taken each day as part of an overall dietary pattern to maintain populations of the ‘good’ ones.
How important is development years on adulthood microbiota?
Based on the available evidence, it appears to be very important. Complex scenarios such a vaginal births versus caesarean section births have been shown to result in different bacterial populations being present in an infant’s gut (however, this is hardly something that we have total control over).
Weaning and breast feeding represent a crucial time for the development of immunity and populating an infant’s gut with the appropriate bacteria.
The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ is another area where creating too sterile an environment reduces early childhood development of a healthy gut. This ‘hypothesis’ is often implicated in the increase of atopic allergies and respiratory conditions such as asthma.
We also are aware of the role of chronic antibiotic exposure during development that can play a role in the diversity of gut bacterial populations.
However, many of these are tough to control and account for in the modern environment that we live in.
Is leaky gut an actual thing?
Well, yes and no.
Here is what leaky gut is really referring to – ‘intestinal permeability’.
From a negative health position, a compromised intestinal barrier is seen in multiple disease states. However, the intestinal barrier is not a single layer that can be triggered or ‘healed’ through that consumption of ‘one weird thing’.
Unsound proponents of gut health claim that restoration of the gut barrier will cure underlying diseases. This has yet to be demonstrated in any meaningful clinical trials.
There is also mounting research showing that the dysfunction of the intestinal barrier alone does not initiate disease and that all ‘intestinal permeability’ is not a negative thing.
This is why we must be careful as ‘leaky gut’ is an entirely misleading term for a massively technical area of health.
Final thoughts and practicing gut health
Gut health is important. Doing one thing or taking a special supplement alone will not improve it.
What we know already that is generally good for human health does appear to be good for the health of our gut.
What we know is unhealthy for human health, well you get the picture.
Rather than zeroing in on the idea that improving gut health will take care of everything else, perhaps looking at health with a wider focus will lead you to better health.
Rabin Das is an MNU Certified Nutritionist and holds an MSc in nutrition and metabolism. He’s assionate about all things nutrition related. And he hopes to make a difference with the spread of honest, trustworthy and actionable nutrition information. Check him out on Instagram or at dasnutritionconsultancy.com