It’s what’s inside that counts: why gut health is the new frontier

Have you noticed that everyone is talking about their guts these days? If you haven’t yet, you soon will because gut health is a hot topic in scientific and medical research at the moment.

The average human is host to about 100 trillion microbes, most of which are located in our lower intestines. These microorganisms are typically bacteria that are either working for us, or against us.

Scientists all over the world are working hard to understand the workings of this ecosystem within us but here’s what we know so far: some bacteria are bad, others are good. Too much bad bacteria – or more specifically, too little good bacteria – is linked to disease in the body.

Dr Gerard Mullin, author of The Gut Balance Revolution writes in The Huffington Post, “Those trillions of gut microbes have been shown to have a controlling influence over emotions, behaviour, mood, cardiovascular function, and also metabolismappetite, inflammation, immunity, insulin sensitivity, glucose homeostasis, detoxification, carcinogenesis, liver function and so much more.”

The list of diseases and conditions that have been linked to an imbalance of healthy gut bacteria is long and growing. It includes autism, depression and anxiety, migraine, arthritis and allergies, cancer cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, chronic fatigue and autoimmune disorders, plus that weird collection of symptoms labelled as irritable bowel syndrome.

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In other words, just about all the “modern” illnesses that are on the rise can be linked back to gut health.

So how do we know it’s our modern lifestyle creating the imbalance?

The discovery of the Yanomami tribe in the Venezuelan Amazon in 2008 provided scientists with a unique opportunity to examine the microbial conditions of people who had never been exposed to urban living.

The 15,000 people living quietly on hilltops and living a traditional hunter-gatherer life were found to have 40 per cent more diverse bacteria living in their guts and on their skin.

This “baseline” microbiome from the Yanomami was then compared to other hunter-gatherer groups from Malawi, as well as Guahibo Amerindians, who are already moving towards urban living with access to medical care and agricultural practices in line with those used in modern western society.

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It was found that the more exposed a group was to these lifestyle developments, the less diverse the microbiome, the BBC reports.

Scientists still don’t have a full understanding of the exact causes of our compromised gut flora, but most agree that antibiotics, diets high in refined carbohydrates and junk food, excessive sweeteners (including artificial ones) and alcohol can all tip the balance against your favour when it comes to your guts.

In 1908 Elie Mechnikov was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research into the health-enhancing properties of lactic acid bacteria in Bulgarian farmers who drank fermented milk (kefir). He is credited for being the father of the modern day probiotic revolution.

Today, probiotics continue to be the first line of defence against bad bacteria, and there is a resurgence of popularity for fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickles and Korean kimchi, and well as fermented drinks like kefir and kombucha.

In some areas of the field, health professionals report the benefits of faecal transplants in rebalancing the gut, usually in light of an invasive infection or parasite, but we’ll wait for some more evidence before we start thinking about poo transplants!

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As the scientists slug it out, one thing is clear: when it comes to your health, it’s what’s inside that counts.

Tell us, were you aware of the role bacteria play in maintaining health and balance? How do you take care of your guts?