Did you know that your digestive tract is around eight metres long, the length of four king-size beds? If its internal surface area was stretched out, it would equal the size of half a badminton court! Our gut is a mighty organ, incredibly complex and critical to our health and wellbeing. It’s home to trillions of little inhabitants: up to 1,000 different types of bacteria, virus and fungi, happily co-habiting. This warm, cosy and moist environment is known as the gut microbiome.
Maintaining a diverse and thriving population of “good” bacteria is critical to good health, disease prevention and the management of myriad chronic illnesses. Although we’ve learned a lot about the gut microbiome over the past couple decades, a lot more research is needed to fully understand it. Nevertheless, here are some things we do know:
- It synthesises certain vitamins and amino acids, and so is critical to the digestion and absorption of key nutrients that many of us are deficient in
- It shapes the development of the gut’s immune system and maintains the integrity of our intestinal tract
- It offers protection from pathogens that can cause infections
- It produces short chain fatty acids, which serve an anti-inflammatory function, and play several critical roles in maintaining our health and wellbeing
Microbial dysbiosis, which occurs when the balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria is disrupted, has been linked to the development of many chronic and inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. It has even been linked to mental health and depression.
It is vital you look after your gut microbiome. But how do you do this? Alongside taking regular exercise, getting enough sleep and managing stress – easy, right?! – there are important dietary steps you can take. Essentially, this requires moving away from our typical Western diet – high in refined carbohydrates, processed meats and saturated animal fats – in favour of a balanced and diverse diet. Pack your meals with fruit and vegetables, whole-grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds, like those found in a healthy Mediterranean diet. Taking better care of your gut’s health is a move that will pay back many times over.