The secrets to good health, both mental and physical, are hidden deep in our intestines. The gut microbiome – trillions of bacteria and microbes that live inside all of us – helps control digestion and support your immune system by maintaining an adequate balance in your digestive tract. Those with unhealthy intestinal microbes are prone to weight gain, high cholesterol and high blood sugar, and their overall health and life expectancy can be reduced by the imbalance. There is also recent research to suggest that imbalances in gut microbiome may contribute to ‘long covid’, the persistent symptoms of respiratory virus Covid-19.
One of the most fascinating discoveries is that your gut bacteria is linked to your overall mental health, and that improving your gut bacteria could have a significant impact on your brain. Anyone who has felt a fluttering of nerves in their stomach before a big interview, or had an upset tummy during a particularly stressful time at work, knows too well the intimate connection between belly and brain. Those who have been too anxious to feel hunger, or who have invested time in ‘emotional’ binge-eating have also suffered on both sides of the belly-brain partnership. The relationship is not one-sided, either – if you have inflammation in your gut, or your microbiome is not diverse enough, it could also cause the symptoms of depression. Recent research shows that the link between mental and gut health could be even more advanced than originally thought. Studies into the gut-brain axis found that human donors with autism, depression and schizophrenia passed some linked mental health behaviours to their rodent recipients. What other information is our gut flora hiding, and how do we harness it to improve our health in the rest of our bodies?
Although most of us balk at the idea of collecting stool samples, at-home gut-health test kits are becoming all the rage in the pursuit of optimum gut flora. The sample kits often come in colourful, attractive packaging these days too, to help distract from the onerous task in hand. The laboratory uses your sample to analyse the pH level and diversity of your biome, the consistency of your stool and the bacteria, yeasts and moulds present within your digestive tract, among other gut health biomarkers, and then gives you a detailed plan and breakdown of how best to tailor your diet and exercise regime to improve it. Companies such as Healthpath and Aguulp provide the kits, which guide you and your digestion in the right direction.
If you don’t want to shell out for an in-depth microbiome analysis, you can always take basic measures to boost your gut flora. By ingesting probiotic bacteria, you can give your overall mental and physical health a push in the right direction. Kefir and fermented yoghurts are full of probiotics like bifidobacterium and lactococcus which help care for your entire body. Eating fruit, vegetables, seeds, whole grains and legumes will also spark positive change in your gut bacteria, promoting the production of essential fatty acid butyrate which can help regulate your mood and reduce stress reactions.