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The magical microbiome

Cara Wheatley-McGrain offers some tips for achieving a healthy and balanced gut

The gut biome is used to describe the bacteria populating the gut and is sometimes called the 'second genome'. So how many bugs do you have? Well, the 4,000 species have a population of around 100 trillion, which are right now nestled in the intricate folds of your large intestine.

While scientists are busily trying to map the genome, what's becoming clear is that there's a relationship between the increase in gut problems and the typical Western microbiome. And because the diversity and complexity of the bacteria that live on and in us are far greater than our own human DNA, we cannot just draw simple conclusions from this complex conundrum. But there's pretty compelling evidence that those of us with gut health issues have a reduced range of gut bacteria, and those of us with IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) appear to have an imbalance in the profile of our gut bugs compared with healthy people.

As with any gut imbalance, diagnosis takes time and often involves some pretty invasive tests. You should always visit your doctor and ask for a formal diagnosis for any bloating or digestive issues. Although more rarely, these symptoms can indicate other more serious conditions, including some cancers, so always avoid self-diagnosis.

Trigger foods and gut dysbiosis

The factors that shape the health and balance of our microbiome are wide-ranging. Some of them start before we are born; exposure to antibiotics during pregnancy and whether we were born via a natural or caesarean delivery can impact the diversity of our microbiome as a baby. Breastfeeding also gives our microbiome a head start by training our immune system and pre-populating our good gut bugs. Antibiotics in the first years of life, exposure to environmental pollutants and where you grew up all shape the range and diversity of your gut fauna.

When we regularly eat highly processed, refined high-sugar foods, we feed the gut's unhelpful microbes. Ironically it's the foods we are intolerant to that we often feel most addicted to. We now know that if you have sensitivity to gluten and dairy, your body will create morphine-like chemicals gluteomorphin and casomorphin. In a bizarre twist, these chemicals give you a natural high. You may even feel a pleasurable dulling dopamine effect after your favourite food.

Eating your trigger foods repeatedly may provide an important part of the jigsaw for your gut trouble. When you feed the unfriendly gut bacteria, you can also create an imbalance in your gut microbiome known as dysbiosis. Dysbiosis can be triggered by a range of things. As adults, some of the common triggers are excessive alcohol, extended periods of poor sleep (disruption in the circadian rhythm, our inner body clock, that supports our waking and sleep cycle) or frequent antibiotics courses.

The essential guide to IBS

A whopping one in five of us will suffer some IBS symptoms, and around one in 10 will experience deeply distressing, life-restricting symptoms. IBS is frequently described as a functional condition, meaning that there is limited evidence of physiological changes to the gut wall. For many years, the lack of evidence of physical changes meant people suffering debilitating symptoms were told, "It's all in your head."

Fortunately, the world has moved on, and medical practitioners recognise that IBS unquestionably impacts life quality. Symptoms include bloating, discomfort, pain, diarrhoea, constipation, cramping and nausea, amongst others.

For IBS symptoms, where bloating and discomfort predominate, there is evidence that eating foods like live-cultured yogurt, kefir and miso can increase our lovely lactobacillus gut bugs. You've probably heard of them – one of the best known of the friendly bacteria found in many probiotic drinks and supplements. Bonus – there's also evidence lactobacillus helps support our mental health.

Our aim in gut health is always to create an anti-inflammatory environment. So you want to increase the super friendly bifidobacteria – these little bugs help break down complex carbohydrates in your gut. If you are a cheese eater, you may have plenty of this. For plant-based diets, try out fermented goodies and inulin-rich chicory and artichoke. Bacteroidetes also help reduce inflammation. These lovely gut bugs will help you to maintain a healthy weight. They are great at breaking down the undigested fibre in vegetables and supporting your immune system.

It's all about the butyrate

While the scientists are still unravelling the actual bacteria patterns in different forms of Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, what's clear is we want to help the bugs that counteract gut inflammation. Butyrate feeds the cells that line the gut wall. It's not quite as simple as eating butyrate (although there are high levels of it in high-fat foods like butter and olive oil). You can support your gut bugs to create butyrate by increasing the foods they like to eat: apples, garlic, chickpeas, kiwi and almonds. And there's a little aside here. Be careful about restricted diets low in carbs and fibre as they can actually impair your body's butyrate production. Hence why long periods on the low FODMAP diet (one of the central treatment protocols for IBS) are not recommended, as this diet excludes some important gut-healing foods.

When you rest and reset your digestive system by an occasional seasonal fast or a later breakfast, we help our amazing Akkermansia flourish. This little bug lives on the mucus lining of the bowel and acts to strengthen the gut wall and reduce inflammation (potentially reducing the risk of diabetes and obesity). Simply aiming to give your guts a little restorative rest for 14 hours, or even 15-16 hours, allows it to flourish.

The beautiful Roseburia bacteria is another one of the good girls in the gut. Roseburia bacteria thrive when fed with the 3Ps – a probiotic-, prebiotic- and polyphenol-rich diet. Barnesiella is definitely a gut bug you want to cultivate if you have IBD or IBS, and it has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects in mice. It has some amazing properties in humans, including reducing the risk of antibiotic resistant bugs in the gut.

If you want to protect your gut health, then avoid emulsifiers like mono- and diglycerides. These are commonly used as food additives and small quantities are often added to packaged foods to extend shelf life.

OK, that's just a little snapshot. More and more information is being published around our biome each week. So, tune in and grow that gut-loving knowledge!

Extracted from Calm Your Gut: A Mindful and Compassionate Guide To Healing IBD and IBS by Cara Wheatley-McGrain (£12.99, Hay House)

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