By Emmy Bawden
A quick Google search of the phrase “gut health” yields a staggering 743 million results (and counting). This makes sense, given the explosion of research on the gut microbiome in recent years — and for good reason. The microbes that inhabit our gut influence so many different aspects of our health and wellbeing, and experts are continuing to understand just how influential of a role they play. And while you may be somewhat aware of how the microbes in our intestines (mainly our large intestine) affect our gut health and functioning — or how our gut and brain are able to communicate — you may not know these four facts about the gut microbiome.
FERMENTED FOODS AREN’T THE ONLY THING YOU CAN ADD TO YOUR DIET FOR GOOD GUT HEALTH.
Perhaps you’ve heard that probiotic-containing foods are beneficial for your gut health. Or, you’ve tried foods like sauerkraut, kefir and Greek yogurt … and you discovered that you’re not a fan. Are there other foods known to positively impact gut health? Absolutely!
There’s good news for tea lovers. Evidence shows that tea consumption can have several beneficial effects on the gut microbiome. Most notably, regular tea consumption may have the ability to offset gut dysbiosis (a reduction of the diversity within your gut bacteria and/or an imbalance between the beneficial and pathogenic bacteria), which is a known negative outcome of high-fat diets. This includes diets that are high in animal-based protein, as well as the Keto diet. If you are a green tea drinker, shoot for drinking four to five cups per day as this has been reported to increase the beneficial Bifidobacterium strains in your gut. Black, oolong, Pu-erh and Fuzhuan teas also have promising research, suggesting their ability to modulate microbial diversity.
Not into tea? No problem! Another way you can change up your diet to support more beneficial gut bacteria is to include more plant-based proteins and whole grains in your routine. Research shows animal protein-based diets are associated with increased pathogenic bacteria in your gut, such as E. coli. On the other hand, diets that include plenty of plant-based proteins (such as beans) and fiber-rich carbohydrates (such as whole grains) are associated with more beneficial bacteria, certain strains of which have been shown to play a protective role against gut inflammation. Interestingly, there is also evidence that when gut bacteria ferment whole grains, they produce compounds that may influence our satiety levels.
THE GUT MICROBIOME IS CLOSELY TIED TO HORMONES.
Hormonal regulation within the body is incredibly complex, and an exciting new area of research on the gut microbiome is adding to our understanding of it. The gut microbiome has been shown to both significantly impact and be impacted by estrogen levels. In fact, we now know that the gut microbiome is actually one of the main mechanisms that regulates circulating estrogen in the body.
Here’s where things get really interesting: gut dysbiosis actually results in reduced circulating estrogen, because it causes a kink in the process that transforms estrogens into their active form. This result may be one contributing factor to chronic health conditions such as endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and cancer, as well as impacting fertility. Decreased estrogen levels have also been associated with depression and anxiety, as well as cognition and memory impairments in postmenopausal women. Changing the makeup of one’s gut microbiome to increase microbial diversity may be a way to treat such conditions that are regulated by estrogen, but much research is still needed.
YOUR “GUT FEELING” MAY BE MORE ACCURATE THAN YOU THINK.
You may have heard of the gut-brain axis, or the two-way communication line between our central nervous system and enteric nervous system (the nervous system that lines our digestive organs). Recently, experts have been learning more about the specific connection between our gut microbiome and mental health. Conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have been correlated with depression, as has antibiotic usage. Interestingly, a Belgian research team studying this connection showed that two specific bacterial species within the gut were associated with self-reported high quality of life, while one specific bacterial species was rich in the gut of those reporting a low quality of life.
What the researchers found next was truly exciting: In the participants reporting a higher quality of life, researchers found bacteria that produces a metabolite of the neurotransmitter dopamine (one of the “feel good” brain chemicals that impacts several aspects of our wellbeing). This is just one possible hypothesis that experts have regarding the connection between the gut microbiome and our mental health. Researchers also discovered that people with depression more often had a microbiome with low overall bacterial abundance, which gives even more reason to include foods in your diet that support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
GLUTEN IS NOT THE GUT’S ENEMY.
I often receive questions about whether or not gluten can ignite gut inflammation. Despite the growing popularity of gluten-free diets in recent years (often in the hopes of promoting gut health), new research shows that gluten intake is actually not likely to damage the intestines of healthy people. A 2020 study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research asked participants who self- reported suspected issues with gluten to follow a high-gluten, low-gluten or gluten-free diet. Afterward, researchers tested their blood for signs of digestive problems, including inflammation, using biomarkers that are known to be elevated in other digestive diseases (including Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or IBD). In the end, they found that gluten intake made no impact on any of the markers of intestinal damage that were tested.
Although more research regarding gluten’s relationship to overall gut health is needed, experts agree that for most people avoiding gluten isn’t the key to a healthy gut. Instead, focus on including whole grains, plant-based proteins such as beans and unsaturated fats (such as fish and olive oil) to support beneficial bacterial growth and overall bacterial diversity.