Could the health of your gut influence your stress levels, mood and how many hours you sleep?
While the idea of a ‘gut feeling’ has been around for centuries, science is now discovering just how true this notion is.
It may come as a surprise, but your digestive system is populated with trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that weigh around two kilograms. This relationship plays an important role in harvesting nutrients from our food, regulating our immune system, and as more recently discovered, communicating with the brain. Referred to as the brain-gut access, the health of your gut is closely linked to the health of your brain.
Collectively, the community of bugs that live in our gut is known as our gut microbiota. The health of your gut microbiota is influenced by many factors early in your life such as your parents’ genetics and lifestyle, the environment you’re born into and exposure to infection or illness. Importantly however, your gut microbiota also changes over time and this is influenced by many aspects of your lifestyle including diet, alcohol intake, exercise and medications. In particular, what we eat feeds our gut microbiota.
Generally, a high-fibre diet which is low in saturated fat and sugar is associated with a healthier gut microbiome, which has a greater diversity of organisms. On the other hand, diets high in saturated fat and refined sugars with low fibre content reduce the microbial diversity, which is bad for our health.
Healthy gut, healthy mind
Research is showing that an unhealthy gut microbiota affects our response to stress, as well as our body clock and sleep cycles. This is a rapidly emerging field of research with many questions still unanswered. However, there is strong evidence that people who eat a balanced diet with all the usual good stuff have lower rates of mental illness as adults and adolescents. And new research has shown for the first time that improving diet quality can help people suffering from mental illnesses like depression.
So how do we keep our gut healthy?
The top three things you can do to keep your gut microbiota healthy:
- Eat a plant-based diet, high in complex carbohydrates such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and nuts. Many of these foods are Prebiotics. Prebiotics contain indigestible fibre, which feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. See table one for a list of foods naturally high in prebiotics.
- Eat some fermented foods every day. Fermented foods are known as Probiotics, meaning they contain the healthy bacteria your gut needs. Sauerkraut, naturally fermented yoghurt and kombucha are examples of probiotics.
- Limit or avoid discretionary foods; they feed the unhealthy gut bugs, creating a hostile environment for the beneficial bacteria. Highly processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat like fast food, sugary drinks, savoury snacks, cakes and sweets, are the main culprits.
Table 1 – foods naturally high in prebiotics
Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, garlic, onion, leek, shallots, spring onion, asparagus, beetroot, fennel bulb, green peas, snow peas, sweetcorn, savoy cabbage
Chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, baked beans, soybeans
Nectarines, white peaches, persimmon, tamarillo, watermelon, grapefruit, pomegranate. Dried fruit (eg. dates, figs)
Bread / cereals / snacks
Barley, rye bread, rye crackers, pasta, wheat bran, wheat bread, oats
Nuts and seeds
Cashews, pistachio nuts
Gut Instincts Minestrone Soup
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 -2 onions, chopped (about 1 cup)
- 2 carrots, peeled and diced
- 2 celery stalks, finely diced
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 800g tomatoes, finely chopped (equivalent 2 cans)
- 2 potatoes or sweet potatoes, peeled and diced (about 1½ cups)
- 1 can bortolotti beans, well rinsed
- 1 can chickpeas, well rinsed
- 1 fennel bulb, chopped, talks and frond included.
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- Handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped (or 2 tsp dried basil)
- 2 cups good quality vegetable stock
- 3/4 cup of small dried pasta, such as ditali or macaroni
- Salt/ pepper to taste
- Handful of fresh parsley leaves, chopped
- Finely grated hard cheese like pecorino (optional)
- Extra olive oil (optional)
- Warm olive oil in a large soup pot or cast iron casserole pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrots, and celery; cook, stirring often, until soft but not browned, about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 20 seconds.
- Stir in the tomatoes, potatoes, fennel, oregano, basil, beans, chickpeas and stock.
- Add extra water so that everything is submerged by 1 cm.
- Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer slowly, uncovered, until the potatoes are cooked, about 45mins.
- Stir in the pasta. Add up to 2 cups water if the soup seems too dry, the pasta will absorb water and thicken the soup further. Continue simmering, uncovered, until the pasta is tender, about 10 minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve with crusty wholegrain bread, a sprinkle of parsley and grated cheese, and a drizzle of olive oil.
This is a really flexible soup; you can add other vegetables, change the type of beans or add tomato paste for a richer tomato flavour.
There are so many good recipes online, we love this one for ruby sauerkraut.