‘Gut bacteria ‘boost’ cancer therapy’. This was just one of the news headlines that hit the press today. New research from France and USA tested the microbiome – the collection of microscopic species that live in us – in cancer patients.
These studies linked specific species and the overall diversity of the microbiome to the effectiveness of immunotherapy drugs. It’s very promising indeed.
It seems like every week, more and more science emerges that suggests we have seriously underestimated the importance of our microbiome and the role it plays in our physical and mental health. Around 70% of our immune cells live in our gut. We are learning that the microbiome plays a role in how your blood sugar responds to certain foods, how many calories to extract from the food you eat – and to a certain extent how much weight you put on, produce hunger hormones, and many other functions.
Our ‘microbiome’ is the collection of bacteria living in and on our bodies. Bacteria lives throughout the whole digestive system, however, the majority of it is found in the large intestine (colon). Each of us harbours upwards of 160 species of bacteria and it’s increasing the variety and quantity of ‘good’ gut bacteria is what we should be aiming for.
I have long extolled my thoughts that not all calories are created equal: it matters what we eat, and it especially matters what we eat when it comes to looking after our gut health. Research is revealing that processed, refined foods, sugar, fast food and alcohol can change the profile of bacteria in our gut – and not in a good way.
The good news is that the thing which influences your microbiome most is what you eat. You can change the profile of your gut bacteria within a couple of days of adopting a diet that enables your beneficial bacteria to grow and flourish.
There are many articles which go into the detail of what we currently know about the various roles, functions and influences of the microbiome, but this one is simply a quick start guide of how to boost yours.
- Ditch the sugar, junk and processed foods. This might seem obvious for our general health, never mind to nourish our gut bacteria, but we all live busy lives and need to eat. This also includes easily digestible carbs such as white bread, rice and pasta: not only will they not nourish your gut flora, but they will cause a blood sugar spike, followed by a crash, so whether we like it or not, we need to avoid these foods. A little planning will help make sure you have healthier meal, packed lunch and snack habits. Don’t look at this as a deprivation – just swap better choices for the old habits. Pack a small tupperware of carrot and celery sticks with some humus and you might resist the temptation to grab a packet of crisps or a chocolate bar.
- Increase your fibre (prebiotics): Your gut critters need fibre, the more the better, preferably from vegetables (especially onions, leeks and garlic – they are rich in a type of fibre called inulin). Eat as many varied kinds of vegetables as possible, as well as some fruit. Include oats, barley and flaxseeds in your meals (if you haven’t tried Barley Risotto, you’ll be pleasantly surprised). Start some daily routines that are easy to work into your day: eat an apple a day when walking the dog, or driving to work. There are many, many recipe websites that will provide you with meal inspiration and recipes for veg-heavy meal ideas that taste great.
- Eat fermented foods (probiotics). Already teeming with good bacteria, we should all be upping our fermented food intake. If you don’t feel ready to start making your own sauerkraut (though you should think about it – it’s not as difficult as you may think), eat full-fat, natural yoghurt with live cultures. Add some berries, seeds and nuts and there’s a really good breakfast. Don’t be tempted to go for the ‘low fat’ versions – they will almost certainly have sugar added to improve the taste.
- Make olive oil your go-to oil. Olive oil is a healthy fat that contributes to feeling fuller for longer. Contrary to popular myth, olive oil is one of the most stable oils to cook with. It’s also rich in polyphenols and antioxidants, which are good for damping down inflammation (which can be as a result of eating refined carbs and sugar, but more of this in a later article).
- Add oily fish to your diet. Oily fish, like olive oil, are full of good fast – especially omega 3. It’s now widely accepted that oily fish reduces the risk of heart disease, anxiety, depression and anti-inflammatory conditions. It also has been shown to increase gut bacteria that support the mucous lining that protects your colon.
What changes could you easily make to your diet to encourage your gut flora to flourish and grow?