Your Intake and Your Gut — How One Impacts the Other

In the same way that a tree is an ecosystem in itself — supporting birds, insects, rodents, monkeys, reptiles and other creatures — our bodies are also a complete ecosystem that support a literally trillions of bacteria! The bacteria that we are all a home for perform a wide variety of functions for us. Beneficial bacteria help perform routine functions and keep us healthy; while bad bacteria make us sick and unwell.

Human microbiota

All the many different microorganisms that live on us and in us — within our tissues, body fluids, glands, saliva, mucosa and our gastrointestinal tracts — are called human microbiota. According to some estimates, we have far more non-human cells than human cells in our body! Many of these organisms that colonize our bodies are actually good for us. Some are commensal — they do not harm us, while some actually cause us harm.

The sort of bacteria that reside on us depends upon a variety of factors — environmental factors, whether we were delivered by Cesarean section or not, the sort of medications we take and of course the sort of food we eat. It is desirable that we nurture these friendly microorganisms within us and also that we host a diverse and varied population of these bacteria to perform a variety of beneficial functions for us.

The source of gut bacteria and impact on health

Many factors that influence bacterial populations in our bodies are out of our control but what we eat is within our control to a very large extent. Scientists have found that a healthy diet that is rich in whole grains, fruit and veggies, and fiber is very good for the gut and which replenishes the trillion bacteria that line our intestines. This helps shore up the body’s immune system and reduce inflammation. Both these are hugely important factors in keeping us healthy and disease free.

One well known study examined the intake of fat, fiber and cancer risk in African Americans and rural Africans to understand why the rates of colon cancer are 13 times higher among African Americans than rural Africans. The study observed that similar increases in colon cancer rates were also observed in other populations that experienced migration changes. Factors such as lifestyles habits (smoking and drinking for instance) coming into contact with chemicals, exposure to new infections, consumption of antibiotics may be contributory factors for increasing the risk of colon cancer. However the one factor that is most likely to be responsible for this change, is the change in diet — from high fiber, low fat indigenous style diets to high-fat low-fiber western style diets.

The study found that the change in diet produced some very significant changes in the composition and nature of the participants’ gut bacteria, which is known to determine cancer risk of the individual. According to the study “saccharolytic fermentation and butyrogenesis and suppressed secondary bile acid synthesis” was seen to be increased among African Americans because of their intakes. The rates of butyrate — the short chain fatty acids that help keep the gut healthy, were seen to decrease. In other words, colon inflammation was seen to rise significantly when participants switched from healthy to unhealthy diets.

Why does this happen? According to experts, when we eat food that is rich in fiber, we are feeding the gut bacteria that live within all of us. When we don’t eat enough fiber, we literally starve the bacteria that subsist on it. Because of this, there is less diversity of the microorganisms that live in our gut; so fewer functions are naturally performed by them for us. Since the bacteria are also starved for the type of food that they need, they can start to attack the mucous lining of the stomach itself.

Food that increases good gut bacteria and improves health

Another study found that foods rich in polyphenols, such as fresh fruit and vegetable, some spices, dark chocolate, tea and coffee could help increase the diversity of gut bacteria while foods with high sugar and fat content appeared to lower that diversity.

Based on these findings, some of these can become your rule of thumb when making food choices:

· Eat lots of fresh fruit, veggies, legumes and fiber rich foods.

· Eat things that are minimally processed with few, if any, additives.

· Cook items optimally to kill off harmful microbes while retaining their nutritional value. In other words, do not overcook them.

· Eat items that are fermented or have natural probiotics — yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh can help restore good bacteria inside our guts.

· Also include certain spices like star anise, cumin and cloves in your diet — traditional societies that cook with these spices evidently know a thing or two!

· Herbs such as oregano, celery and seeds such as flaxseed and safflower seeds are also very beneficial for a healthy gut.

Sashi is an Ashtanga, Iyengar and Hatha Yoga expert. She conducts yoga classes in the Bandra and Khar regions of Mumbai.