5 surprisingly easy lifestyle changes to instantly improve your gut flora and health
Gut Health is the buzzword of our times. While the science is still in its infancy, we're increasingly becoming aware of just how important our gut microbiome, the community of microorganisms – bacteria, fungi, yeasts, protozoa – that live within the digestive tracts, is. From IBS to allergies and obesity to heart disease, the gut plays a role in all manner of conditions.
Gut Health is the buzzword of our times. While the science is still in its infancy, we’re increasingly becoming aware of just how important our gut microbiome, the community of microorganisms – bacteria, fungi, yeasts, protozoa – that live within the digestive tracts, is. From IBS to allergies and obesity to heart disease, the gut plays a role in all manner of conditions.
“We’ve realised this collection of 100 trillion microbes inside us is acting as a community,” says Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London. “Each one of those microbes is a chemical factory, digesting our food and producing thousands of chemical metabolites, vitamins and nutrients to help our bodies and control our immune system and appetites, our mood, our metabolism.”
Generally, we see food as providing a path to flawless flora, and in many ways this is the case. A diverse range of polyphenol-rich fruit, veg and grain will stimulate the growth of good bacteria. Prebiotics, like chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, barley and oats help fertilise and feed microbes; probiotics – yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and komubucha – contain live microbes which are thought to boost the microbiome.
But it’s not just what we eat that influences our gut. From cleaning products to sleep, almost everything in the house affects the microbiome in some form.
Antibiotics are notoriously harmful for the gut, failing to discriminate between good and bad bacteria and scything through your microbes like the Carthaginians at Trebia. But recent research suggests ingredients found in disinfectants may be similarly harmful.
The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2018, looked into the effects of postnatal exposure to household disinfectants on the gut microbiome. If found that those who use the cleaning products at least weekly had a higher proportion in their bodies of lachnospiraceae, a bacterium potentially linked to diabetes and obesity.
How many products in your house come with the slogan: ‘Kills 99 per cent of germs’? Of course, this has ample benefits (getting rid of nasty bacteria). But what about all those healthy bacteria, not to mention the nefarious chemicals in sprays, soaps, detergents and hand sanitisers.
So what can you do about it? You could completely give up cleaning the house – it’s tempting. Or you might opt for an eco-friendly or probiotic cleaner. While these still remove bad bacteria, they are able to maintain good bacteria through clever science.
The same is true in your car. If you are taking some long journeys this summer holiday, then why not clean your air con with beneficial bacteria? These will colonise the filters, keeping bad bacteria and moulds under control. The added bonus is that beneficial bacteria will coat the surfaces of the car interior, again keeping bad bugs under control.
Do you find yourself pushing your pooch off the bed each night, fearing for your personal hygiene? You may be best served allowing it to snuggle up with you.
“Some studies show that having an animal in the house could be great for the immune system and your gut microbiome in early years,” says Dr Kate Stephens, a gut microbiologist.
“In fact, studies in infants suggest that having a dog may reduce the risk of asthma and allergies. Others suggest that having more than one pet, especially dogs, had a more protective effect.”
Why? Well pets, especially cats and dogs, spend a lot of time outdoors, rolling in mud and on the grass and doing other questionable things. They transport germs back into the house which may play a role in boosting young children’s guts.
Spend quality time in the garden
Haven’t got a pet? Well, why not mimic one by pottering about in your garden? The theory here is practically the same as the one above. Essentially, by exposing your fingers to soil, which is full of microorganisms, you’ll be exposed to all sorts of bacteria you wouldn’t encounter indoors. One example is M. vaccae, said to help improve your mood.
But there are further benefits to spending time outdoors. Vitamin D, something most Britons lack, and studies have shown that a deficiency could lead to an imbalance in the gut microbiome and potential health consequences.
Struggling to get enough shut-eye? It could be the heat, late dinners or your addiction to Netflix, but whatever reason, your gut might not be too happy about it.
According to the Sleepdoctor, Dr Michael Breus, “there have been some significant new scientific developments in our understanding of the relationship between sleep and our microbiome.” Here’s how.
Dr Breus points out that the microbiome is regulated by circadian rhythms which means that, when disrupted by poor sleep, “the health and functioning of the microbiome suffers.”
The first study into the relationship between the two was undertaken in 2016, and it found that after just two nights’ poor sleep resulted in: a decrease in beneficial bacteria and changes in the microbiome linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
So make your house sleep-friendly. Whether that’s a portable air conditioner for hot summer nights, ear plugs to block out noise, or a comfier mattress, getting your eight hours could have a positive impact on your guts.
Marie Kondo your home
When you feel stressed your stomach may start churning, and that could be because your anxiety can wreak havoc with your gut. After a prolonged period of stress, your immune system and digestive health may also dwindle.
“Scientists are fast uncovering stress as one of the biggest disruptors to a balanced microbiome,” explains Dr Stephens. “Fill your home with calming colours, declutter, allocate an area for rest or to read, make your bathroom a sanctuary and open your windows and breathe.”