Our microbiota is made up of trillions of tiny organisms called microbes that live in our gut. The gut microbiota is unique to each of us. They not only help digest the food we eat, but also produce molecules that influence our health via the immune system and impact gene expression. Beneficial bacteria prevent the proliferation of other detrimental ones: as in the animal world, where animals and plants compete to gain access to resources, gut bacteria also compete to thrive. The greater bacterial diversity in our gut, the greater chance of staying healthy.
Life stages and gut health:
The complex community of microorganisms inhabiting our intestinal tract fluctuates throughout life stages. Most important changes occur during infancy and old age. Recent research indicates that bacteria are transmitted to the baby from the mother during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. This suggests the oral and intestinal microbiota of the mother might affect foetal and infantile health. As we get older our microbial diversity often decline, although it is still unclear whether it is a cause or a consequence of aging.
Lower bacterial diversity and disease:
Research studies show that many diseases are associated with alterations of the microbiota. They suggest that auto-immune-disease, diabetes, obesity, skin problems, inflammatory bowel diseases, asthma and cardio-vascular diseases may be partly caused by an increase in pathogenic microbes (dysbiosis) in our gut.
Contributing factors to dysbiosis are overuse of antibiotics and drugs, highly processed food, pesticides, too much animal protein, sugar, saturated fats and artificial sweeteners, nutrients deficiencies and stress.
Diversity in your diet is key to a balanced gut flora
Diet has a major role in determining which microbes take up residence in our guts. For most people, eating a rainbow of brightly-coloured plant foods on a daily basis, including traditional fermented foods (prebiotic and probiotic food) will be enough to increase gut microbial diversity. Bioactive substances such as polyphenols, plant compounds abundant in the Mediterranean diet, have been associated with improved microbial diversity. The aim is to include foods that feed the friendly bacteria in the gut. These bacteria produce nutrients for colon cells and lead to a healthier digestive tract, improving metabolic health and lowering inflammation.
How do I support my patients in improving their gut diversity?
My interventions are highly individual and depend on my patients’ symptoms, health concerns and lifestyle. Food diaries are a great tool to develop awareness of diet diversity (or lack thereof); I help my patients increase their prebiotic and probiotic food intake providing them with simple recipes and shopping lists and be more mindful when eating. My aim is to empower them to make informed decisions to improve their health with natural food. I always keep in mind that they may have busy lives with food temptations everywhere so I have to come up with practical and tasty suggestions. Pleasure should always be one of the diet’s component!! In certain instances, a comprehensive stool analysis may be useful to assess gut function and microbial diversity.