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Ever paused to think how your stomach treats your food once you have had your fill and pushed your dining plate away from you? Apparently, we are as healthy as our gut microbiome. The au courant way to measure wellness and illness is through the stomach. It is something Hippocrates knew all along. The Greek physician had stated, ‘All disease begins in the gut’, something that many experts are underscoring today. So getting to know your gut health and treating your gut with a lot more respect is what could lead to a happier, healthier you.

That there is growing interest in gut health in the last decade is evident. Its effect on our health, especially in the context of metabolic disorders such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia (unhealthy levels of lipids in the body) which could increase the risk of cardiovascular incidents, is undeniable.

‘There is definitely a relationship between getting obese, being highly diabetic, having bad cholesterol, fluctuating blood pressure, PCOD and heart disease, with the gut microbiome, and all these are metabolic diseases that is connected to our gut microbiota,’ says Dr. Kaiser Raja, consultant gastroenterologist and hepatologist, Clinical Director, Medicine, King’s College Hospital London, in Dubai.

Dr Kaiser Raja

If you are falling sick often, despite a reasonably good diet and exercise routine, maybe your gut microbiome needs a closer look. It can have a crucial role to play in our body’s immune system, general gut health, brain health and much more.

But what is gut microbiota (GM)?

In simple terms, it is the system of microorganisms in a person’s gastrointestinal system.

Gut health, according to Dr. Juhi Bhambhaney, an accredited practicing dietician, is important for overall health. ‘[Gut health] will manifest itself in some way or the other. It doesn’t matter if you are eating the perfect calorie-restrictive diet, exercising every day, doing the right things, but at the gut level, if the GM is not right, in other words, if it hasn’t got the right bacteria, your body will show signs of a deficiency.’

That said, people follow a nutritious diet could likely be healthier, ‘happier than one who is on an extremely restrictive, conscious diet because we know a healthy mind equals a healthy gut’, she says.

Dr. Juhi Bhambhaney

Seventy per cent of our immunity is located in our gut microbiome. The earlier we are aware that it is protecting us from infections and fighting from pathogens, we should be motivated to take care of it, says Dr. Juhi.

Seventy per cent of our immunity is located in our gut microbiome. The earlier we are aware that it is protecting us from infections and fighting from pathogens, we should be motivated to take care of it, says Dr. Juhi.

We are born with it

First, there is no such thing as the perfect microbiota that a human being should have. ‘We are all born with a certain GM,’ says Dr. Kaiser. ‘With time, your environment regulates it. Within the environment, the most important thing is the food we eat, because we can regulate it and have control over it.’

According to experts, there are no tests to differentiate between a good and bad GM.

Gut and Diet

One of the most vital factors affecting the state of the microbiota is, undoubtedly, diet. It is well-authenticated that improper nutrition patterns are linked to chronic diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The relatively rapid shift from consuming preagricultural wild foods to consuming postindustrial semi-processed and ultra-processed foods did not allow for evolutionary adaptation of the microbial species that inhabit the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and this has significantly impacted gut health.

According to our experts, the more colourful the foods are on your plate, the better it is for your GM. Plant-based diet triumphs over most others and eating your greens will never go out of fashion. ‘The more variety you have in your food, the better; the more diverse the microbiota, the less problems it creates for the human body.

‘Right now, the Mediterranean diet is gaining momentum. This diet satiates meat eaters too, as it has a good amount of white meat in it. Having plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lentils, and legumes constitutes variety and that is exactly what we need for a good GM, which in turn equals better health,’ stresses Dr. Juhi.

She relates the case of patients with severe autoimmune diseases, joint pains and skin rashes who benefitted from a largely vegetarian diet, with little or no red meat. ‘If you must eat meat, I would suggest fish as it is smoother on the gut lining than red meat.’

She says high-carb intake is not good for the bacteria. The point she is attempting to underscore is that your microbiota changes by what you feed your system. ‘The good news is you can change your microbiota in just two to three days, by changing your diet substantially.’

Dr. Kaiser, too, has several examples where a change in diet has led to significant improvement in the condition of his patients.

‘A very common disease these days is IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) which shows symptoms such as indigestion, incessant flatulence, acidity, a burning sensation in the oesophagus, irregular stools, cramps in the stomach and bloating. This often goes untreated for years in many people. IBS is also a subtle form of a compromised GM. I usually prescribe a drastic change in diet, which is to either stop or reduce eating red meat and processed food. The result is a significant improvement in GM, and IBS symptoms are reduced,’ he says.

Catching them young

‘There are exciting studies that show that if we take care of our kids’ GM at an early age, as old as one, we could potentially prevent condition like Alzheimer’s disease and ADHD later in life,’ says Dr. Juhi.

Mental health issues, she says, are usually diagnosed only later in adolescence. ‘By that time, we have 
already formed an adult GM even 
though it is changeable to a large extent. Today’s kids are so exposed to processed foods, which is directly affecting their GM’, she says.

Babies who are breastfed in rural societies for at least two years are said to have a better GM than kids breastfed an average 6 to 9 months in urban societies. Breastfed gut bacteria show up better than formula-fed gut bacteria in the future. Hence, doctors stress on the importance of breastfeeding longer.

Gut-brain connection

There is ample data to show that there is a link between GM and mental issues. Termed the gut-brain axis, there is strong evidence of foods affecting moods.

‘An interesting area in nutrition called psychobiotics, where we strongly encourage plant-based foods, which aims to increase the good strains in the gut,’ says Dr. Juhi.

‘This, in turn, signals the brain to be happy. Because we now know that there is a bidirectional connection between the gut and the brain, we can work the other way around.’

This field is called nutritional psychiatry, where experts research and recommend 
food that the good bacteria can feed on, in order to improve the ecosystem of the gut so that the right amount of serotonin is produced there giving a feel-good feedback 
to the brain. ‘If you have a higher proportion of the unhealthy GM, you feel low. In contrast, 
if you have a healthier GM, you feel happier. That is also why when we feel stressed, we experience a feeling of 
having butterflies in our stomach or some people get diarrhoea because of stress,’ Dr. Juhi adds.

Probiotics - Just a Fad?

Probiotics are recommended for specific diseases like immune diseases of the gut. Or, if we are on a course of antibiotics to treat an illness, we need a substantial amount of probiotics to compensate for the loss of nutrients. They should be consumed under medical supervision. But are probiotics useful? Technically, they are foreigners in the body so, naturally, our GM will trigger immune responses to kill unfamiliar pathogens. So, do probiotics actually do their job?

‘We don’t know for sure, hence we don’t recommend people popping it as a supplement,’ advises Dr. Kaiser.