As Above, So Below: The Gut Microbiome

If you have ever spent time with a new parent then you may have noticed that 90% of their conversations are faeces related; frequency, colour, texture, smell it's all openly discussed. As our little ones learn to master the potty we too relearn the rules of polite society and censor our toilet talk. Poo has been considered such an impolite topic of conversation for so long, in fact, that the mere mention of the word 'gut' would prompt looks of disgust. It's as if our distaste for such topics has blinded us to the critical nature of this magnificent organ, even the scientific realms have overlooked the importance of the gut until recently. Happily, for us fermenters, the recent 'gut health' revolution has loosened the rules around such conversations and once again we may refer to our bowels for signs of wellness.
A vast collection of microorganisms inhabiting our digestive tract is what we commonly refer to as our Gut Microbiome. Now that we know we are made up of more microbial critters than of human cells, we can start to wonder at the universe inside ourselves. With the help of modern microscopes we may marvel at our microbes with the same sense of wonder that we gaze upon a star-filled sky. What clues to our health can we find in our toilets? Laboratories worldwide are studying stool samples, the revolution has only just begun and already we are learning of ways in which a healthy gut could be linked to not only good digestion but a strong immune system, weight loss and even mental health.
These exciting discoveries beg more questions like what can we eat to encourage the settlement of beneficial strains of bacteria, yeasts and viruses in our gut? How many useful little critters have we inadvertently endangered with our modern lifestyles? Can we re-seed our inner meadows with magical healing microbes?
Sadly most modern foods offer little to no benefits to our precious gut microbiome, stripped of their vitality to make them cheaper, transportable and shelf stable.
Many of our 'foods' have been processed so far beyond their natural state that they can no longer be defined as such, ultra processed foods (UPFs) are nothing more than sneaky and often harmful look-a-likes. The overuse of antibiotics, alcohol and pesticides are a few of the obvious modern practices that could deplete our microbial communities but there are, all to common, hidden ones too. It's wise to always read labels but try not to fall for the health claims often boasted on the front and instead check the ingredients list. Look for words you recognise as food and try to avoid naughty little microbe disrupting additives like emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial sweeteners and flavourings.
Fortunately several strains of bacteria and yeast have been isolated as being particularly helpful and have been given the honourable title of Probiotics, but it turns out they can only really manufacture positive effects if they are fuelled by certain non-digestible starches. These types of fibre are called Prebiotics and Polyphenols and can be found in foods such as linseeds, psyllium husk and anything colourful like blueberries and green tea. Whilst there are a host of decent but expensive supplements available these days, why not introduce a variety of fermented foods instead, many of which contain all three P's plus taste incredible and come fully packaged with naturally occurring and absorbable nutrients. Be sure to do a little research on the ferments you choose however, as with their resurgence in poluarity many brands have fallen prey to stealth stabilising methods, like pasteurisation, which once again render them lifeless. Look for products that must be stored refrigerated, with words like live, raw or unpasteurised.
Recent studies on the consumption of traditionally fermented foods like kimchi, kefir and kombucha have shown a myriad of health benefits. Could these be attributed to the hosts of microbes they contain? Before we started refrigerating, pasteurising or adding chemicals, so much of our food would have been preserved this way. Rather than inhibiting the growth of certain kinds of bacteria and yeasts we would encourage their growth and they in turn would produce enzymes that not only preserve our foods but make them tastier and maybe even make us healthier to boot!
One thing's for sure, it's time we humans started to consider our gut as vital an organ as our brain or heart. Let's take responsibility for our health by minimising UFPs, sugar, and alcohol and treat ourselves with gut-friendly fresh, natural and varied foods plus plenty of tangy ferments. We have a gut feeling you will enjoy the journey! ;-)