Hippocrates said it first: ‘All disease starts in the gut,’ stated the grandfather of medicine. But we’re only just starting to take his advice seriously, albeit with the benefit of 1,500 years of scientific discovery at our disposal. Our gut health and how it affects us is the talk of the town. But just what is it?
Why is the gut so important?
If the 20th century was the age of antibiotics, then the 21st century is shaping up to be the era of the microbiome – the trillions of microbes that live in our small intestines in our gut. The scientific and medical communities are now suggesting a healthy microbiome could be the bedrock of having a healthy mind, body and spirit, too.
Dr Megan Rossi
‘Research suggests our gut health is linked to the health of all our other organs,’ says Dr Megan Rossi, a specialist in gut health. ‘There are associations with kidney health, heart health and brain health. We think now that having a healthy gut is linked to overall health and wellbeing.’
Does that means there’s a link with mental health, too?
Some experts think so, yes. Dr John Cryan, author of The Psychobiotic Revolution, a new book that explores the gut-brain connection, has found that the health of your microbiome is central to your mental wellbeing. ‘We did a big study a few years ago, where we took the microbiomes of depressed individuals, and transplanted them into animals, which then developed symptoms of depression,’ he says.
So a healthy mind and body starts with a healthy gut?
According to Dr Cryan, yes: ‘We published another study a couple of years ago that showed that when healthy volunteers took bifidobacteria for a couple of weeks, their stress response was lower. We then looked at their brain activity and detected improved cognitive function. We’re beginning to see lots of studies emerging where it’s quite clear that specific bacteria strains or diets high in that bacteria have positive effects.’
Ok, so what does that diet look like? Do we need supplements?
Dr Rossi says it’s not complicated. ‘Following a Mediterranean-style diet, with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and extra virgin olive oil, should be enough for your intake of prebiotics, which healthy bacteria thrive on,’ she says. ‘That type of diet is really high in fibre, which your microbes love.’ Probiotics can be found in yoghurts and fermented foods like kimchi, keffir and sauerkraut. These live cultures increase the level of healthy bacteria in your gut. ‘Taking supplements isn’t necessary,’ she advises. ‘You should be able to get everything you need from your diet.’