Having long been ignored, our “guts” are finally having their moment, with research revealing that the state of our gut bacteria may actually be crucial for optimum health.
The gut “microbiome” is a whole inner world of over 100 trillion bacterial cells that live in our intestines and help us to extract the nutrients from food. But it turns out the gut microbiome does much more than that.
The Gut, The Mind & The Body: Evidence
Ground-breaking studies are now revealing that gut bacteria can have amazing effects on the entire body, as well as the mind. For example, one study found that if you give a thin mouse the gut microbes of a fat one, the thin mouse gets fat. Similarly microbes transplanted from a confident, bold mouse into a timid, meek mouse, apparently “cured” the poor little critter of his woes. But the research doesn’t stop there. The growing bank of studies (in humans as well as in mice) seem to be linking diseases such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, anxiety and depression, to poor gut health. And now the links have been identified, researchers are keen to find causal connections.
Manipulating Gut Health
Since 2012, when the American Gut project was first launched, close to 10,000 people from the USA, UK, Canada and Australia have sent in stool samples and information about their habits and health. Unfortunately it seems that for the vast majority, their “bad” bacteria is winning the war. This is because most of us aren’t doing what it takes to strengthen our “good” bacteria. Our constant exposure to stress, illness, inflammation, antibiotics and poor diet all takes a toll on our gut.
Fortunately, there are two ways to manipulate the microbes in the gut (see below for details):
- by consuming live cultures of good bacteria called PROBIOTICS
- by ingesting certain types of food, known as PREBIOTICS. Prebiotics are like a fertiliser for the beneficial bacteria while the probiotics are the strains of beneficial bacteria themselves. Prebiotics can be in the form of certain foods – asparagus and leek are some of your microbiota favourites – and specialist fibre substances such as inulin.
My Experience: The Gut and The Immune System
Prior to cancer I hadn’t ever thought to nourish my gut. Everything seemed to be in working order, so I didn’t really think I needed to do anything more than eat, drink and let my body take care of the rest.
However, once I started reading up on cancer and diet, the one thing that was consistently coming up again and again (and backed by scientific evidence) was the gut and it’s impact on the immune system. Then just before I was due to start an Anti-PD1 immunotherapy in January 2016, some more interesting results were published regarding gut health. Scientists hadn’t been able to work out why only a small percentage of patients treated with the drug – used for advanced melanoma cancer – responded (either with disease stability, regression, or “cure”). In a nut shell, the researchers basically found that responders harbored a particular bacteria in their microbiome responsible for upregulation of several genes that are critical for anti-tumor responses.
I started adding in a whole host of prebiotics and probiotics into my diet, and they have remained a staple part of it ever since. Of course I have absolutely no way of knowing whether my new and improved gut has had anything to do with my positive response to immunotherapy, but I like to think I’ve played a small part. Interestingly, I also started feeling much less anxious, even before the tumours started shrinking, and again that has left me wondering whether it could have anything do do with my happy little microbiome.
How To Supercharge Your Microbiome
(1) Plant Based Foods
Vegetables contain fibres and plant chemicals which feed your gut bacteria and help maintain the microbiome. The best foods to be added into the diet include: jerusalem artichokes, bananas, berries, broccoli, beans, asparagus and garlic
(2) Reduce Alcohol and Caffeine
In an ideal world we would cut down on both of these things… This is because both can disrupt the good/bad bacteria ratio.
(3) Fermented Foods
These contain bacteria species that may be missing from your gut. By adding these, you’re introducing friendly flora to your microbiome. The three I regularly use are:
Kefir – a fermented milk popular in Eastern Europe
Sauerkraut – look for the live “raw” variety in health food shop
Kombucha – a fermented tea
(4) Take a Quality Probiotic
According to Tom MacDonald, professor of immunology at The London School of Medicine: “Aside from eating a balanced diet and reducing your alcohol intake, I think probiotics are the only immune-booster with real scientific grounding.”
Probiotic supplements should contain at least 5 – 10 billion CFUs (colony forming units) and have multiple strains of bacteria
Encapsulated pills are better than liquids because they help the bacteria survive the acidic stomach environment
(5) Avoid Antibiotic Overuse
Antibiotics essentially kill bacteria. Although that includes the bad bacteria that can make you sick, it also includes the good bacteria your body needs.
(6) Lower Stress Levels
Much like the spinal cord, neurons cover your intestinal wall where they send information throughout your body. The existence of the brain/gut connection makes it clear that stress can be linked to gut health. Things to try include: meditation, yoga, and exercise.