Our gut contains billions of different microbes which help to digest our food and produce useful waste products that reduce inflammation and bolster immune function. When the microbes are out of balance, we may experience symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, digestive discomfort and even poor mood.
Probiotics are defined as ‘good bacteria that confer a health benefit to the host’. They are powerful microbes and can help re-balance the gut. They are found in fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and yogurt. However, not all fermented foods are made equal. Look for those labelled to be ‘raw’ or have ‘live cultures’ – they are usually kept in the fridge to control the level of fermentation.
Probiotic supplements are also readily available containing different strains of bacteria, but evidence as to their benefit is limited. Research is pointing toward there being no single ‘one-size-fits-all’ blueprint of the perfect gut bacteria population! The blueprint of your ideal gut microbiome is influenced by all sorts of factors, from the way you were born to your lifestyle, your genetics or even where you live.
Fibre and prebiotics
Fibre is the indigestible part of food that makes its way intact through the stomach. There are two types – ‘soluble’ and ‘insoluble’. The insoluble fibres are more well-known. They provide bulk to stools to help keep you regular. Soluble fibre on the other hand helps keep blood sugar levels stable by slowing down the release of sugar from food during digestion, thus maintaining energy and mood throughout the day. It also helps you feel fuller for longer, making it useful in appetite and weight control. Fibre is found in all plant-based foods and can be purchased as a supplement, usually in the form of psyllium husk powder.
Some types of fibre are called ‘prebiotics’ as they are fermentable fibres that feed our good gut bacteria. Some of the best sources of prebiotic fibres are asparagus, raw onion, raw garlic and Jerusalem artichoke.
Good gut health improves nutrient absorption, supporting hormone production and playing an essential role in regulating mood. It also results in reduced inflammation and improved immune function.
Wholegrains are an excellent source of fibre and resistant starch. Grains consist of 3 parts – the inner germ, the middle endosperm layer and the outer bran. Most grains in the supermarket are refined and are mostly made up of just the starchy endosperm. Whole grains have all 3 layers intact and provide much more than just starch. They also contain more fibre, protein, healthy oils, vitamins and minerals.
While most starch is quickly broken down into glucose and released into the bloodstream for energy, resistant starch is harder to break down and acts more like a fibre. It makes its way into the large intestine to be fermented by the gut bacteria, serving as a prebiotic. Resistant starch selectively feeds the good gut bacteria and helps rebalance the gut.
Resistant starch is found in lentils, oats, underripe bananas, cooked then cooled pasta, rice and potatoes.