The gut microbiome and health

23rd February 2022

We often talk about the power of community at Lee Greens. But there’s another kind of community that lives inside each and every one of us, one containing trillions of residents. And whose diversity it has emerged has a major influence on pretty much all aspects of our health - our gut microbiome.

The bacteria (as well as viruses, fungi and archaea) which make up the microbiome live all over our bodies, our skin, lips and mouth but the majority of these are in our gut - which is being considered a newly discovered organ such is its importance. It weighs nearly 2kg, and contains 300 times more genes than the human genome. It’s fascinating (and perhaps a little eerie) to consider that something so central to our health and wellbeing is actually not human!

Gut microbes are fundamentally important to our digestion, breaking down our food and helping us access nutrients. They regulate our immune system, produce vitamins and protect against other bacteria that cause disease. It seems like the microbiome plays a role in practically all conditions; from anxiety and depression, diabetes and obesity to Alzheimer’s, dementia, strokes and autoimmune diseases. Clinical studies show that people who are affected by these conditions show a lower diversity of microbes than standard.

We could think of our microbiome as a complex ecosystem - which will thrive when it’s in harmony and balance, interconnected and working together. Any flourishing ecosystem will have an abundance of biodiversity, and by feeding our gut with a range of fibre-rich plant-based foods will translate into greater biodiversity in our gut.

Lots of factors have seen a depletion in our microbiota, from western diets, overuse of antibiotics and even increased urbanisation. The good news is that many studies show that changes in our diet can rapidly improve microbial diversity. There’s no ‘gut rich quick scheme’ towards completely healing our microbiome but it’s possible to get things moving in the right direction quickly.

We all have a unique set of microbes that can process food in different ways - there’s a significant difference in the microbiome even between genetically identical twins. With this emerging science, the notion of one-size-fits-all diets and superfood saviours seems a bit redundant. Our understanding of the microbiome has only emerged in the last 20 years and we’re only at the tip of the iceberg in our comprehension of it. Understanding how to eat to best support our own unique biology is the next step. This year Zoe, a health science company founded by microbiome specialist Dr Tim Spector among others, expects to provide personalised nutrition plans to people in the UK based on their own specific gut microbes.

There are also general rules we can follow to support our gut health. Dr Tim Spector suggests four good ways to nourish our gut "garden".

1) Keep it diverse. Try to eat 30 different plant-based foods a week to help our microbiome thrive. Microbes love the different kinds of fibre found in a varied diet. The Jerusalem artichokes in our bags this week are all high in inulin, a fructose molecule, which is how they store their energy rather than glucose. There is no glucose molecule to be converted into rapid, quick use ‘sugar energy’, making it ideal for diabetics or other people with blood sugar issues. Instead, the nutrients of this fibrous vegetable are broken down in the colon by ‘friendly pro-biotic bacteria’ helping this bacteria to then flourish. Hopefully enjoying your Lee Greens is a fantastic way to help your gut flora thrive!

2) Eat foods high in polyphenols, ‘defence chemicals’, which give foods their bright colour. These include nuts, seeds, berries, dark chocolate, coffee and even red wine.

3) Try to eat some fermented foods on a daily basis. The three ‘K’s, kimchi, kefir, kombucha as well as sauerkraut are all good.

4) Avoid ultra-processed foods. Just as one example, our gut microbes don’t seem to like the emulsifiers added to processed foods.

Lifestyle choices other than dietary changes can help improve our microbiome, it’s thought. These include getting a good night’s sleep, getting to bed earlier and not eating too late at night. Getting exercise, being outdoors, having a pet, enjoying a good quality of relationships and having strategies in place to manage stress may also be helpful.

Kieran Mullens, Lee Greens newsletter editor