Gut health and beneficial bacteria
We have a large number of bacteria living in our digestive tracts. Some of them are helpful, others can be harmful. We can co-exist with these bacteria quite happily, as long as the balance is right.
The beneficial bacteria in our guts do a lot for us, including:
- Producing vitamin K and B-vitamins
- Providing energy for the cells in the digestive tract
- Breaking down undigested fibre
- Maintaining body weight by deciding how much energy to extract from food
The gut’s role in immunity
This good bacteria that live in our digestive tracts play a role in our immunity too.
The digestive tract contains around 70% of the cells that make up our immune systems and acts as a first line of defence against invading microbes. Certain cells in the lining of the gut spend their lives excreting massive quantities of antibodies in order to kill viruses and bacteria that enter the digestive tract.
These good bacteria help to modulate the immune system by teaching it that it doesn’t have to react to everything (as seen in conditions such as eczema and hay fever). They also take up space so there is less room for unwanted bacteria and yeasts to reproduce.
The balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut needs to be correct, otherwise we shift into an inflammatory state and an overreaction of immunity.
The beneficial bacteria in our gut also help to maintain our mucosal membranes, which is where the immune cells in our gut live.
Looking after our digestive health
So how can we look after the health of our digestive tracts and support the beneficial bacteria that are so important to us?
Reduce sugar and processed foods
Sugar feeds unwanted bacteria in the gut so the less we have in our diets the more likely we will have a balanced microbiome. It is important to look for hidden sugars in pre-made sauces and ready meals. Processed foods are generally higher in sugar content than homemade food.
Eat a variety of vegetables
Eating a variety of vegetables and other plant-based foods will result in a wider range of beneficial bacteria. Different bacteria like to ‘eat’ different foods, so varying your vegetable intake is important.
You can do this by eating a ‘rainbow’ diet consisting of brightly coloured foods of varying colours. These foods are rich in nutrients that support our immune systems such as vitamin C and other antioxidants, and include beetroot, broccoli, carrots, butternut squash, red peppers, red cabbage, leeks, celeriac, aubergine, kale, blueberries, the list goes on!
Fibre helps to keep the digestive tract active as well as feeding some of the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Include foods like barley, oats, flaxseeds, apples, brown rice, and lots of vegetables!
Certain vegetables are rich in prebiotic fibres which feed our good bacteria. These include onions, leeks, garlic, cabbage, broccoli, Bok choy and Brussels sprouts. Prebiotic foods create a nourishing environment for beneficial bacteria to flourish in.
Probiotic foods including fermented foods contain beneficial bacteria. Fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir, and we can include these foods/drinks regularly to help to maintain our digestive health.
What is fermentation?
Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of an organic substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms, typically involving effervescence and the production of heat.
Fermented vegetables, such as cabbage, onion, carrot etc., to produce Sauerkraut and Kimchi, go through a transformation process known as lacto fermentation.
When fermenting food, natural bacteria called lactobacteria which live on vegetables begin to feed on the sugars and starch in the food, converting it to lactic acid, gases and other compounds.
There are many different species of lactobaceria including lactobacillus acidophilus, lactobacillus plantarum and lactobacillus lactis. You may have heard of some of these if you take a probiotic supplement.
Studies show that fermented vegetables can contain large amounts of these good bacteria as they rapidly reproduce during the fermentation process.
The fermentation process also adds increases the level of available enzymes and vitamins. Fermentation increases B-vitamins, folic acid, choline and glutathione in vegetables.
Fermented vegetables and drinks must not be heated, as this destroys the beneficial bacteria and enzymes. Always buy them from the fridge and check they haven’t been pasteurised.
You might choose to add some sauerkraut to your plate at lunchtime, or make some noodles and kimchi for dinner. Kombucha is a fermented tea drink that can be enjoyed daily in order to add the wonderful bacteria to your diet.
Wild Oats sell a number of fermented products including sauerkraut by Bath Culture House.
Note: If you suffer from acid reflux this may indicate that you have an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, which we don’t want. (Bacteria should be living in the large intestines). Fermented foods can irritate this condition so if this describes you, it would be worth speaking to a practitioner, like me!
If you suffer with ongoing digestive issues and would like more support, why not download my FREE EBOOK?! It’s called ‘Beat the Bloat- Simple solutions to bloating and pain’.
I also run a Facebook group called ‘The Digestive Health Hub’, so please do join if you’re suffering with unwanted digestive issues and are unsure about what you can do.
My name is Sarah Cox and I am a Nutritional Therapist specialising in gut health. I qualified back in 2008, and was working at Wild Oats during my studies, and then beyond! I spent many a day sitting on the information desk helping customers choose the right supplements, answering questions and giving nutrition advice. Wild Oats is such a wonderful and special place for being able to offer this on top of the great food and ethically sourced products!
In my 20s I struggled with debilitating digestive issues. After ruling out any major diseases doctors diagnosed with IBS I decided there must be an underlying cause to my symptoms. After undertaking functional testing and making simple nutritional and lifestyle changes, I began to regain control of my health, and my diet!
Now as a Nutritionist specialising in digestive health, I help others struggling with IBS and other digestive issues find the cause of their symptoms so they can eat without pain and feel energised and confident.
Gut health is now my main focus, so I thought I would share some of the things I know about how we can look after our digestive tracts, improve overall health and how we can use fermented foods to help achieve this.