The gut and its inhabitants – the gut microbiome – is a fascinating world. Nutritional therapist Monique Parker shares with TLL some interesting gut facts …
- The gut has more than 50 trillion bacteria
- There are at least 1,000 different species of gut bacteria
- Every human has up to 2 kilos of gut microbiota
- There are 200–600 million nerve cells in the ‘gut’s brain’.
The housekeeper’s wave
Every 90 minutes, between meals when you’re not eating, you can hear a rumbling or gurgling sound. No, you’re not necessarily hungry; it is very likely to be the migrating motor complex, or ‘housekeeper’s wave’. Undigested food and waste, and excess bacteria, are being cleaned up from your small intestine. This is necessary to ensure your gut bacteria won’t be able to feed on the debris and grow out of control.
When the ‘housekeeper’s wave’ is not working properly, your gut will end up with an overgrowth of bacteria called SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), thought to be a cause of IBS.
The second nervous system
Inside your gut is a second nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS), or ‘the gut’s brain’. It has about 500 million nerve cells located in the tissue lining the oesophagus, stomach, small and large intestine – a lot fewer than the brain which has about 100 billion nerve cells.
The gut talks to the brain, and vice versa, via nerves and chemical messengers, e.g. when you’re nervous or anxious you may lose your appetite, suffer digestive issues such as diarrhoea, or experience a feeling of ‘butterflies’.
Gut bacteria and weight gain
Research suggests certain gut bacteria play an important role in the way nutrients are absorbed and how the energy (calories) from the food we eat is regulated, in relation to obesity. For instance, the bacteria slow down movement of food through the gut to obtain as many nutrients as possible, so certain gut bacteria, i.e. Firmicutes, obtain more energy from the food you eat than others.
There is a difference in the composition of the gut flora of lean and obese people, so people eating exactly the same food, can react very differently to it.
When you eat fibrous food, the colon’s ‘friendly’ gut bacteria feast on it. When the bacteria are feasting on the fibre, they produce short-chain fatty acids, such as butyrate. These are very beneficial, providing energy to the cells in the large intestine and strengthening the gut barrier. Butyrate also helps balance the gut’s immune cells and reduce inflammation. You find butyrate in butter (not margarine), ghee and prebiotic foods such as vegetables (i.e. leafy greens, leeks, onions, etc.), under-ripe bananas, cooled cooked potatoes, legumes, buckwheat and quinoa.
The gut and your immune system
About 70% of our immune system is located in and around the gut wall (the lining of the intestines). Our digestive system is in direct contact with the outside world and easily ingests disease-causing microorganisms. The route from mouth to anus, the gastrointestinal tract, is covered by a single layer of cells that allow nutrients to be absorbed, but is also a potential entry point for invaders. Luckily the gut lining and our gut flora are defences against these invaders, so balanced gut bacteria are important for a well-functioning immune system.
Variety is key
According to Professor Spector, compared to our ancestors who lived in the countryside, ate rich and varied diets and didn’t take antibiotics, our gut microbiome is only a fraction of what theirs was. Negative changes in gut microbiome composition have been associated with ill health. The more varied our diet is, the more diverse the gut microbiome will be.
Our gut flora converts energy from nutrients into new molecules. Professor Spector describes the gut microbiome as a rainforest that needs diversity to have good soil; it needs to have “the right community of bacteria working together to produce the right chemicals for your body.”
Be good to your gut and it will be good to you. Eat a varied, healthy diet with plenty of plant foods, fermented foods, fibre and other nutrient-dense foods.
As a qualified and registered Nutritional Therapist (BANT & CNHC). Monique Parker looks at potential nutritional imbalances and how these may contribute to symptoms and health concerns.
Every individual is unique and that is why Monique recommends personalised nutrition and lifestyle programmes rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Monique has a holistic approach of looking at body, mind, spirit and emotions, but also works according to the Functional Medicine model, which looks at underlying causes of presented symptoms.
Monique’s practice, Nutrition for You, is based in Woking, Surrey.
For more information visit www.nutritionforyou.co.uk