Our gut microbiome, also known as gut flora, is comprised of micro organisations and their genetic material which live inside our intestinal tract. There are tens of trillions of microorganisms living inside of us, with other 1000 different species of known bacteria.
In terms of weight – we have about 3kg of these microbes which inhabit us! It’s important not to jump to conclusions here that all bacteria is bad, as it is so far from the truth! These are good bacteria and we actually need them! These bacteria are involved in critical functions which support our health and wellbeing. The bacteria inside our intestinal tract aid in the digestion and absorption of food, along with synthesisation of nutrients. These bacteria also regulate our metabolism and immune system and detoxify us.
How is our microbiome formed?
Our gut microbiome is formed very early in life (with some research even suggesting it begins whilst in the womb!). Once you are born there are many factors which will influence the types of bacteria which live in your gut:
- The genetics of your parents
- How you were born – via c-section or vaginally
- Whether you were breastfed
- Whether you took antibiotics early in life – an infant taking only 1 weeks’ worth of antibiotics may never fully recover!
As you grow older, there are many other factors occurring in life which continue to shape the bacteria in your gut. Stress, illness, diet and lifestyle can modify our gut microbiome and lead to disbyosis. Disbyosis is an imbalance or disruption between the good and bad bacteria in our gut.
What is a healthy gut?
No two gut microbiomes look the same – even those who are related to us. In fact, your microbiome acts like a bacterial fingerprint and is unique to only you! Because of this it is difficult to pin point exact what makes up a healthy gut, however we know the key elements. A healthy gut has a diverse ecosystem of bacteria so that is well placed to fight off and resist toxins. Having a diverse gut flora allows for a similar strain of bacteria to step up and fill the void if a particular strain is depleted.
The role of prebiotics and probiotics
You’ve likely heard of prebiotics and probiotics before. They both play a very important role in restoring and maintaining a healthy gut. Probiotics contain different strains of bacteria, each with a specific function. A couple of the well-known probiotic bacteria are Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium.Whilst probiotics don’t technically replace your gut flora (because the bacteria have a short life span inside our bodies), they do help to reduce the numbers of bad bacteria whilst they’re alive.
Probiotics do a fantastic job at detoxifying our bodies from metals, arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury as they metabolise these nasties. They also help up to absorb minerals such as calcium, potassium and zinc better.
Prebiotics are a specific type of non-digestible starch that us humans cannot digest but instead feed the bacteria. The foods we eat feed the bacteria in our gut so diet plays such a crucial role! Essentially if you eat a lot of sugar, you will feed the sugar loving bad bacteria so you’ll end up with an oversupply of these. Conversely when you eat a lot of leafy greens, you’ll feed the leafy-green loving good bacteria and allow them to flourish.
Eating fermented foods
Fermented foods are a probiotic and a fantastic source of good bacteria. They used to exist in many traditional diets around the world, but the introduction of convenience food has seen their demise (and the increase in unhealthy guts!).
We should aim to eat small amounts of ‘live’ foods with every meal. This could be homemade yoghurt for breakfast, pickles at lunch, topped off with some sauerkraut or kimchi at dinner and a glass of Kombucha. Start introducing fermented foods slowly into your diet. Introducing them too quickly can lead to an upset gut as it adjusts to all the goodness.
Something really important to be aware of, is that pickled foods are not the same as fermented. Most pickled foods are essentially soaked in a brine of vinegar and sugar. They may taste great but don’t have any of the benefits that fermented foods do.
The other thing to consider is whether the fermented food that you’re purchasing has been pasteurised – which is often the case with store-bought food! The pasteurisation process involves heating the food at extremely high temperatures to kill off any of the bugs. The problem is, this also kills off the good bacteria which we’re trying to ingest. This essentially renders the benefit of eating the fermented food good as gone.
The best way to know what is happening to your fermented foods is to make it yourself. The good news here is that is so simple to make it yourself too. And so much cheaper!! The only thing you need is a little bit of patience as it will take time to ferment.
Depending upon how warm or cool your house is will determine how slow or quickly the fermentation process occurs. One of the easiest fermented foods you can make are pickles. These tastes incredibly delicious and they are so versatile too. They can be used in salads, as snacks or simply eaten on their own. Try out this quick and easy recipe and let me know how it went.
Half-sour Dill Pickles
- 1 clove garlic
- Baby cucumbers (cukes)
- 1 tsp fresh or dried dill
- Dill seeds
- 1 tablespoon pink salt in 1L of water
- Something with a tannin – eg grapevine leaf or black tea
- Stand cukes tall in a sterilised jar.
- Add garlic, herbs and grapevine leaf.
- Pour in salted water and shake jar.
- Leave sit on bench for up to a week before refrigerating.
See, it really is that simple! Delicious pickles and a healthier gut!