Gut health continues to trend this year with the trillions of bacteria living in our guts taking centre stage. We have discovered they have the potential to impact our immune systems, our metabolism and how we use nutrients in the body and as if that wasn’t enough, there are also links with mental health and their potential to affect our moods and how we behave.
When it comes to well behaved children, I need all the help I can get! So for this reason alone I’m paying attention to the research as it continues to emerge. Initially, we had lots of exciting studies carried out on rodents. Transferring bacteria from one to another, was seen to influence the likelihood of a mouse becoming overweight, or it’s desire to be an extrovert! Results are now being replicated in human trials which is great news.
Before we delve further though, let’s get a few definitions sorted.
The term Microbiome refers to all the bacterial genes that are present in our large bowel – about 22 million of them apparently.
The term Microbiota refers to the numbers of living bacteria present in our bowel. There are 3 pints worth of bacteria in each human body and we have more bacterial cells than we have human ones – eek!
What influences our microbiome?
Initially, our microbiome is defined by the way in which we are born. Differences are seen in babies who are delivered vaginally compared to C-section, because of the different types of maternal bacteria they come into contact with.
After birth, the gut microbiome continues to develop and as our children hit their milestones for talking and walking, our gut bacteria develop too. By the age of three a child’s microbiome is thought to be similar to an adult.
Through life there will continue to be many influences on our gut microbiota, for example:
• The foods in our diet; how much sugar, protein or fibre we eat, for example.
• How many different types of fibre and other gut-loving foods we eat.
• Which country we live in and how much time we spend in different outdoor environments.
• Any medications we take, in particular antibiotics.
Although genetics plays a significant part, twins, sharing the same genetic material have been found to have quite different microbiomes showing us the power that our diets and environment have to change the microbiota. This is great news; there’s always time to change things for the better and when it comes to bacteria, nothing is set in stone.
How do bacteria work their magic?
Bacteria communicate and influence our bodies in three ways:
• Via immune cells – this can be thought of as our alarm system. 70% of our immune system sits in the gut, so bacteria tell these immune cells to step up when germs are detected.
• Via the vagus nerve – this is like the M25 on a good day, as bacteria send rapid chemical signals to the brain all the time.
• Via compounds they produce as they feed, known as Short Chain Fatty Acids. These cross the blood-brain barrier and impact the way our brain works.
Interestingly the gut-brain axis is a connection which is established from the moment we are born. When we feel hunger in our stomach, bacteria use the vagus nerve to alert the brain that we need food, so we signal a cry as a way of alerting attention.
Anyway, enough of the geeky science…
How can we improve our family’s gut health?
We need to nurture our bacteria and feed them well to keep them diverse and plentiful. You may think you’re only feeding your children, but there are trillions of dinner guests, out of sight, waiting for a feast too!
Boost fibre intakes from different foods
Any small steps we can take to boost the diversity of our diets, particularly when it comes to fibre, is a positive step in encouraging our good bacteria to thrive. Often busy lives and online shopping leads us towards buying the same fruit and veg each week so try to mix it up a bit.
The good news is in boosting their fibre intakes, we don’t just have to rely on fruit and veg. There are many other plant-based foods which count; pulses, lentils, wholegrains, nuts and seeds are all sources of fibre. You may find our blogs on making fibre fun and getting kids to eat their greens helpful.
Other gut-loving foods
It’s not all just about fibre, compounds called polyphenols also make a nice treat for our bacteria. They are found in extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, berries, dark chocolate and red wine (that’s for you)!
Some foods go through a natural fermentation process during production. Take cheese for example which has been shown to influence levels of good bacteria in the gut. You can also experiment with other fermented foods such as kombucha (fermented tea), kefir (fermented milk), yogurt or kimchi (fermented cabbage) in which live bacteria are still present. The beneficial ones will be strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
These may be useful, especially in children who have had long courses of antibiotics. Seek guidance from a registered dietitian or healthcare professional before going down this road as there are many different types and strains.
Have fun feeding your family and all the beneficial bacteria they contain!
Role of the Gut Microbiota in Nutrition and Health https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179
Development of the Gut Microbiome in Children, and Lifetime Implications for Obesity and Cardiometabolic Disease https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329223724_Development_of_the_Gut_Microbiome_in_Children_and_Lifetime_Implications_for_Obesity_and_Cardiometabolic_Disease
Tim Spector: Go with your Gut https://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k319