Gut health is a hot topic in the wellness world these days - and for good reason. More and more research confirms that suboptimal gut health is correlated with poorer mental health, a greater chance of obesity, lowered immunity, several metabolic and bowel deficiencies, and a higher risk of chronic disease.
In short - a sick gut is no bueno if you wanna be a lean, clean health machine.
The crazy thing is - so many of my clients don't even realise that some of their health woes (food sensitivities, bloating and gastric distress, chronic fatigue, depression/anxiety/mood swings, constipation, hormonal imbalances, and struggling to lose weight, to name a few) can be traced back to the condition of their individual microbiomes.
And if this sounds scary, it shouldn't - because unlike other risk factors in our wellness lives, our microbiomes are dynamic and adaptive, highly responsive to positive change and repopulation, and never permanent (whew).
Your microbiome, by the way, refers to the specific - and highly individualised - composition of bacteria in your gut, and it can be affected by a variety of factors, including genetic history, birth details and childhood experiences (including trauma), age, sleep hygiene, diet and dietary changes, smoking history, alcohol consumption, and use of antibiotics.
And if you've never heard of the gut-brain axis - well, welcome to the main event. The idea driving the most compelling research in gut health is that there is a strong bidirectional pathway (modulated by the vagus nerve) between the gut and the brain, whereby stress in either zone (for example, gastrointestinal distress in the gut or psychological distress in the brain) has profound and measurable effects on the health of the other zone.
This suggests an almost "chicken or the egg" quandary about whether issues like depression and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) actually originate in the brain or the bowel - or if it even matters, since they're so inextricably connected.
Stress-induced activation of the sympathetic nervous system (the "fight or flight" response) can actually change the composition of certain gut microbiota, while the proper or improper function of the gut can determine hormonal secretion (including but not limited to serotonin, dopamine, and histamine) as well as immune and inflammatory responses. There's even an entire emergent field of study around this concept, known as "psychobiotics," which refers to the intentional introduction of healthy bacteria into the gut to treat psychological issues.
The reason this is cool is because, unlike the somewhat damning view that your genetics will eventually take over your biology, the promise of being able to change your mental state by improving gut health gives you back a level of agency and control over all sorts of positive health outcomes. Recent (if small) RCTs on the effects of pre- and probiotics suggest modest effects in both for the treatment of depression and cognition, which is huge news for those seeking more natural, nutritional interventions for those issues.
So how can we improve the diversity within our own gut microbiota ASAP?
The great news is that exercise is a major player in the gut health game, too. Active people tend to have more antiinflammatory gut microbiomes and lower incidences of the types of bacteria associated with obesity. The pathways of how this happens are still unclear (the best postulations we have are that it has something to do with lactate, increased blood flow, and/or hormonal secretions) but a promising study suggested that women who exercise at least 3 hours per week have leaner body mass index (BMI) and better metabolic health overall.
Nutritionally, I advise my clients to focus on the "3F2P" method to achieve better gut health:
eat FRESH, whole, unprocessed foods
choose at least one FERMENTED food per day
select FIBROUS fruits & veggies over the alternatives
make sure to include PREBIOTIC foods and supplements whenever possible
take a high-quality PROBIOTIC (like Synbiotic15, use code AMANDA15) every day
Finally, make sure you address other lifestyle factors that can contribute to dysbiosis in the gut, including getting fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night, smoking, chronic antibiotic reliance, and the choice to drink alcohol.
Because the research and functional mechanisms surrounding gut health and the gut-brain axis are so nascent and complex, there is still a great deal of work to be done on discerning both the singular and interacting impacts of all of these factors on specific health outcomes, but rest assured that diversifying your microbiome can and will result in better overall health - and you can take that (gut) check to the bank.