Our gastrointestinal tract undergoes rapid growth and differentiation during the first 1000 days of life. Ensuring the healthy development of the gut is of major importance as gut function is inextricably linked to our overall health and wellbeing.
Home to 100 trillion microorganisms, collectively known as the ‘microbiota’, the gut’s primary function is the digestion, absorption of nutrients and the excretion of waste. However, it also has a major influence on both the development and function of the immune system.
Some facts about gut:
THE GASTROINTESTINAL TRACT IN EARLY LIFE
You are first exposed to microbes when you pass through your mother’s birth canal. However, new evidence suggests that babies may come in contact with some microbes while inside the womb.
As you grow, your gut microbiome begins to diversify, meaning it starts to contain many different types of microbial species. The small intestine undergoes a similarly dramatic period of growth, almost doubling in length from 275cm at birth to over 450cm by the age of five years.
Throughout life and most particularly in infancy, the composition of the gut microbiome is very dynamic.
Factors that can affect its composition include:
• Diet of mother during pregnancy •
• Mode of delivery (vaginal birth vs C-section) •
• Gestational age e.g. premature birth •
• Nutrition e.g. with prebiotics, probiotics or postbiotics •
• Use of antibiotics •
HOW DOES THE FOOD YOU EAT EFFECT YOUR GUT HEALTH?
The food we eat is one of the leading influences on the health of our guts. As your microbiome grows, it affects your body in a number of ways, including:
Dietary fiber from foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains is the best fuel for gut bacteria. When bacteria digest fiber, they produce short chain fatty acids that nourish the gut barrier, improve immune function, and can help prevent inflammation, which reduces the risk of cancer. And the more fiber you ingest, the more fiber-digesting bacteria colonize your gut.
How food is prepared also matters. Minimally processed, fresh foods generally have more fiber and provide better fuel. So lightly steamed, sautéed, or raw vegetables are typically more beneficial than fried dishes.
In one recent microbiome study, scientists found that fruits, vegetables, tea, coffee, red wine, and dark chocolate were correlated with increased bacterial diversity. These foods contain polyphenols, which are naturally occurring antioxidant compounds. On the other hand, foods high in dairy fat, like whole milk, and sugar-sweetened sodas were correlated with decreased diversity.
There are also ways of preparing food that can actually introduce good bacteria, also known as probiotics, into your gut. Fermented foods are teeming with helpful probiotic bacteria, like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. Originally used as a way of preserving foods before the invention of refrigeration, fermentation remains a traditional practice all over the world. Foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and kombucha provide variety and vitality to our diets. Yogurt is another fermented food that can introduce helpful bacteria into our guts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all yogurt is good for us, though. Brands with too much sugar and not enough bacteria may not actually help.
GUT BACTERIA AND DISEASES
Research continues to reveal just how important the gut microbiome is in shaping human health. In fact, the gut microbiome’s role is so widespread in human biology, that scientists from nearly every field are checking for potential solutions in the gut. Chronic diseases are on the rise across the world, and the gut microbiome appears to be at the center of this epidemic.
Many diseases are related to gut bacteria, such as:
Probiotics are live microorganisms that have health benefits when consumed.
Probiotics — which are usually beneficial bacteria — provide all sorts of powerful benefits for your body and brain.
They may improve digestive health, reduce depression and promote heart health.
Some evidence suggests they may even give you better-looking skin.
Getting probiotics from supplements is popular, but you can also get them from fermented foods.
EATING GREENS TO BOOST GUT BACTERIA
Eating leafy greens is likely to produce the same effect on the human gut as taking a probiotic according to new research.
Research conducted by researchers in Melbourne and the UK found that spinach leaves contain significant amounts of a newly discovered enzyme, sugar sulfoquinovose (SQ), which feeds good gut bacteria.
Lead author of the study, Dr Ethan Goddard-Borger from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, explains that when we eat spinach, we also consume SQ sugars contained within the vegetable.
The SQ sugars make their way to our colon and once there, fuel good bacteria by encouraging them to take up ‘real estate’ in the gut to prevent bad bacteria from taking over.
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