During this pandemic, we have all been and continue to be, under high levels of stress, with isolation, loss of income or work, social distancing, constant sanitizing and maybe going through some health issues. In order to cope with this new stress, some of us have increased our alcohol consumption, turned to junk food for comfort, are smoking more and exercising less than before. All of this is ultimately affecting our health and more specifically our gut health! In this blog, I will share with you my latest research in the gut microbiome, how it is linked to our immune system, and how a diverse plant-based diet can ultimately improve your health. So no matter where you are at in your journey the key to health is plant diversity.
How important is our gut microbiome?
One of the main reasons why your gut is so important in determining your health is that 70% of your immune system resides behind your gut. It is jam-packed behind the thin gut lining and If you were to zoom in to this layer, called the epithelium lining, you would see it is only one cell thick.
Intestinal epithelial cells (IECs), plays an important role in the digestion of food, absorption of nutrients, and protection of the human body from microbial infections, and others.
This layer is a separation between 30 trillion human microbiome on the one side and the immune system on the other. This microbiota is composed of protozoa, archaea, eukaryotes, viruses and predominantly bacteria that live symbiotically on and within various sites of the human body.
Since the gut microbiota is so complex, it is difficult to pinpoint certain bacteria as the most beneficial. “It would be great if we could identify 10 or so bacteria and say these are the ones you need most, but it doesn’t work that way, and there is no magic bullet,” says Dr. Hohmann ( Dr. Elizabeth Hohmann of the infectious diseases division at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital). “There may be a community dynamic at play as well as good mixtures of communities.”
Our gut is a barrier that separates what we choose to put in our mouth and the inside of the body, it is also where we interact with our food coming from the outside world so it’s our place of most vulnerability. Hence why the immune system patrols these borders identifying what is good and what is not and what to attack. So to ignore what food we decide to ingest is ultimately putting us at risk and damping down the immune response to any intruder.
This microbiome is intimately connected to our immune system but also to our mood, our hormonal system and to our entire metabolism. There are many species and they are mainly good guys that outnumber some bad guys (like salmonella and e-coli). This is how this micro-ecosystem works. There is harmony in all of them working together and helping us to thrive.
Dysbiosis is the damage done to the gut microbiome as opposed to Eubiosis which represents balance and harmony. Dysbiosis starts affecting the thin single-cell barrier (epithelial layer) by allowing bacterial endotoxin to leak into the body and this activates the immune system. This, in one word, is inflammation. And if this inflammation happens on a daily basis it becomes chronic inflammation which is the leading cause of most modern diseases.
Your brain’s best friend is the gut. The brain is up there at the top, but brain health goes through gut health, they go hand in hand, this is a 2-way street. They are continually talking through the vagus nerve, through hormones that are released and even through your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Stress alone can induce dysbiosis.
The gut produces neurotransmitters. Ninety per cent of Serotonin is produced in the gut and it is capable of passing the gut-brain barrier and of altering our mood.
Short-chain fatty acids like butyrate, acetate and propionate, which come from the consumption of fibre, also help communicate with the brain and possibly alter brain function in a positive way. This happens on an ongoing basis; they are actually talking to each other now as you are reading these lines.
How can we improve our gut health and immune system?
From better mental health to greater immunity and less reactive skin, we are starting to recognise how vital healthy gut flora and diverse microbiome is to our overall wellbeing. Scientists have found that the Hadza tribe, which numbers around 1000 people, has one of the most complex and beneficial spectrums of gut bacteria in the world. In an exercise to examine whether it’s possible to diversify gut flora by adopting a Hadza style of eating, Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College London, travelled to Tanzania and ate with the Hadza. He discovered that after just three days, the variety of “good” bacteria in his microbiome had increased by 20 per cent, and he had even acquired said rare strains of bacteria that are now acknowledged as mightily favourable to human health and longevity. With a diet based on tubers, meat and baobab fruit in the dry season, and an abundance of berries and honey in the wet season, the Hadza hunt over 30 different species of mammal, and forage for plants on a daily basis. They eat no processed foods and never take antibiotics, which is a big plus from a gut microbiome point of view. So what can we learn from the Hadza?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Shop in season. Be aware of what fruits and veg are in season in your location. This will benefit your gut, your wallet as they are usually more economical, and most definitely will reduce the carbon footprint of your shopping basket.
- Ideally grow your own vegetables, in your garden or on your terrace. There are more and more inventive ways to do so in a limited space.
- Fill up on fibre! On average, Europeans consume 15g of fibre per day. The Hadza get around 100g a day. Fibre ferments in the large intestine, allowing healthy gut bacteria to flourish, so alongside keeping you regular, it’s key to maintaining good health across the board.
Fibre is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest. Though most carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules, fibre cannot be broken down into sugar molecules, and instead, it passes through the body undigested. Fibre helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check. The best sources of fibre are whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, and nuts.
Soluble fibre, which dissolves in water, can help lower glucose levels as well as help lower blood cholesterol. Foods with soluble fibre include oatmeal, nuts, beans, lentils, apples and blueberries.
Insoluble fibre, which does not dissolve in water, can help food move through your digestive system, promoting regularity and helping prevent constipation. Foods with insoluble fibres include wheat, whole wheat bread, whole grain couscous, brown rice, legumes, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes.
- Eat when you are hungry! The Hadza are hunter-gatherers, so the outcome is quite unpredictable. This involves long walks, climbing, crossing rivers, running and they might have to go many hours without food. But they are never starving, they eat when they are hungry and they only eat what they need.
- Diversify your plant intake! On this planet, there are about 300,000 different types of edible plants. The Hadza in Tanzania eat approx 600 different plants in a year and in our modern society this number drops down to between 15 to 20. We are totally ignoring this huge plant diversity, by focusing on 5 or 10 so-called superfoods. Don’t get me wrong they are not called superfoods for nothing, but it is important to keep adding a wider variety of plants into your daily consumption.
- Vary your shopping! So now at home, we take it in turns to shop and add a new plant or fruit every single week. I have to admit that this requires some effort because as humans we want to know what foods are the most nutritious, the healthiest for our daily consumption. So we go along and get the same foods every week. I would get broccoli, carrots, courgettes, red beetroot, a mixed bag of salads and tomatoes, and although all of this is very healthy and nutritious I am not helping to promote a happy and thriving gut microbiome. You are better off eating 20 different types of plants per week than just focusing on kale and broccoli because they are superfoods. Every type of plant has its own single fibre, and they all have minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals that are unique to each one of them, like resveratrol. Resveratrol is capable of changing the microbiome all by itself and has anti-ageing properties. This is just one of them and all the plants that are edible have their own phytochemicals. Plants have microbiome of their own that evolve with the plant from the seed to the flower and then to the plant. So when you are eating an apple you get the fibre, vitamins, the phytochemicals and the apple’s microbiome. And each plant is showing similar behaviour. They all want to bring something positive to your health. So start incorporating a huge variety of plants and fibres in small amounts. It’s like rehabbing your gut so you restore variety to your gut microbiome.
- Eat real food! Stay away from processed foods as much as possible. processed food has been stored on a shelf for months or years it’s completely lifeless. They have no microbiome and we have pumped them full of chemicals, additives etc. So imagine what happens to your microbiome when you eat this food for 30 years.
I know it’s hard to resist the craving for chocolate, ice cream, crisps, or a salty pastry but researchers believe that the lack of refined and processed foods in the Hadza diet contributes towards their generally glowing bill of health.
- Listen to your cravings! I know this sounds counterproductive but cravings are only a call out from your gut microbiome. They are basically asking to be fed. So if you are planning on changing your gut microbiome you will change your cravings and eventually your taste buds. This will mean gradually reducing your favourite foods and supplementing your diet with more plant-based products.
I remember when I spent a month in Thailand, my food had completely changed and was mainly plant-based, but as I was flying back home I was already salivating at the thought of a pizza or a hamburger. Some of my microbiome had not been fed for a month and was asking for their favourite foods.
So whatever choice you make the gut will change and adapt. It is trainable, in less than 24 hours it can change. So think of the gut as a muscle it can be trained, change and adapt. And when you decide to work on it the magic will happen. So for example, if you haven’t been consuming beans for a while, a good idea is to start with a small amount of them on your plate. Your gut microbiome will have time to adapt to this new food and your family will probably thank you for it as well…
- Eat more fermented foods. Include naturally fermented foods containing probiotics (live bacteria), such as sauerkraut, pickles, miso, certain types of yoghurt, and kefir (a yoghurt-based drink).
“A healthy, varied, balanced, high-fibre diet with complex carbohydrates is good for the bacteria living in your gut and encourages a diverse ecosystem,” says Dr Hohmann.
My daughter and I have just started doing our own sauerkraut.. we followed a Youtube tutorial, chopped up a cabbage, added salt, squeezed it to death and compressed it into a sealed jar… et voila. Truth be told we haven’t tried it yet… we will tell you in two weeks.
- For future parents! As a man, I feel a bit awkward giving women some suggestions, however as a father I wish I had known these wonderful facts 27 years ago when my first child Yannick was born. So every parent should know that optimizing gut health for your newborn child starts when he is born. Having a vaginal birth will give the baby a sample of the mother’s microbiome. This is where mum is donating a sample of her gut microbiome to her newborn child. The relationship between the mother’s microbiome and her child starts very early. The child is as close to sterile in the womb. He is wide open to recruiting new microbiome into his new ecosystem, and this will go on until he is 2 to 3 years of age. By then his gut microbiome will be fully formed like mum’s and dad’s. It is also when the child’s immune system is developing and when it decides what is good and what is bad. Adequately breastfeeding her baby, the mother will make sure she is doing everything possible to provide her child with a robust ecosystem enabling him or her to thrive.
- At 36 weeks mum’s vaginal microbiome starts changing to resemble her gut microbiome so she can donate it to her child. The mother’s breast milk has everything it needs to nourish a newborn child. Human milk oligosaccharides HMO are contained in the breast milk but they have zero nutritional value for the child however they are programmed to feed the child gut microbiome, they act as a prebiotic for the gut microbiome and consequently help the development of the child’s immune system. So breastfeeding is essential for the child’s future development.
Sharing is caring!
When I met my wife Jane, we used to practise the half and half rule. We would order or prepare one dish and share it. Now at home, we have implemented a fun routine. Just before digging into our food, we take 3 deep breaths and start appreciating this meal by visualizing it nourishing us, reaching all parts of our body and giving us tons of energy and goodness.
The Hadza never eat alone. All the food is shared, mealtimes are communal and everyone pitches in. While this does not directly benefit your gut microbiome, the rituals and conviviality around food and mealtimes likely improve social bonds while fostering an appreciation of food and preventing any one individual from having more than their fill, all of which have to lead to better health in the long run.
Consume a broad variety of plants and be 90 to 100 per cent plant-based. That’s what has been practised in the blue zones and how we can bring the highest nutritional value to our body. Beyond feeling good and healthy, this is also helping the health of our planet, it’s reducing this damaging industrial meat industry and making us more compassionate towards the way these animals are treated.
When we abuse our planet and all it’s living life forms, they are probably going to fight back in some shape or form. It’s all linked, our gut health and the health of our planet. Our soil health and all its lifeforms are intimately connected to human health via the nutrients it produces.
This conversation goes way beyond any specific diet that you may be following now, it’s based on how you can diversify your gut microbiome by adding more variety. It’s not about reducing but building new things. 10 different plants are better than 1 superfood. So, as wide a variety of plants as possible, and make superfoods your friends.
Here is a quick reminder for your next shopping trip;
F fruit and fermented
G greens and whole greens
O omega 3 superseeds chia, flex
A aromatics flavours foods onions garlic shallots
L legumes and whole grains are foundational for the microbiome
S sulforaphane is a phytonutrient that you find in cruciferous veg like broccoli, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, and is the most powerful cancer crusher. And the highest content of sulforaphane is contained in baby broccoli sprouts, 100 times more than in mature broccoli.
This is now part of my eating strategy to live a long and healthy life to 100.
Take care my friends, until next week.
Smart Living To 100.
DISCLAIMER; The material on this post is for informational purposes only. As each individual situation is unique, you should use proper discretion, in consultation with a health care practitioner, before undertaking the protocols, diet, exercises, techniques, training methods, or otherwise described herein. The author and publisher expressly disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects that may result from the use or application of the information contained herein. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinicians.