What is the gut microbiome?
It refers to the trillions of microbes like bacteria, viruses, fungi and other micro-organisms that live in our digestive tract, predominantly in the cecum area of the large intestine. The most studied microbes are bacteria and these alone, have been found to have a huge impact on our health. The gut microbiome is extremely adaptable and directly in contact with our external environment through our intake of food, drink and other substances. From the moment we are born, it continually develops, responding and adapting to new and different microbes and thereby, becoming more diverse and robust.
Gut health has a profound impact on physical, mental and immune health as well as our ability to deal with stress. Modern living is decimating our gut microbes, causing insomnia, brain fog, fatigue, depression and many other health issues. To maintain or restore the health of your microbiome and support good overall health, it is important to maintain a strong balance in favour of beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract.
The role of gut bacteria is to release enzymes that digest food to provide fuel (glucose) for all the cells in our bodies, including our brain. In essence, to be healthy, we need energy – food is the fuel that powers life!
The microbiome affects the body in a number of ways, including:
Supporting growth from the earliest age when bifidobacteria in babies’ intestines digest the healthy sugars in breast milk.
Certain bacteria digest fibre, producing short-chain fatty acids, which are important for gut health as they bind to the immune cells, teaching them to tolerate different foods and pathogens.
Many disorders are caused by an imbalance in the microbiome due to inflammation, intestinal permeability or a lack of bacterial diversity and reducing inflammatory environments in the body is crucial for health.
The gut microbiome also affects how your immune system works, controlling how your body responds to infection. Restoring the gut microbiome, re-asserts the normalcy of the immune system.
Signals from the digestive system affect metabolism, raising or reducing the risk for health conditions like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and weight gain.
“The Psychobiome” – research suggests that the gut microbiome may also affect the central nervous system, which controls brain function. The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion and inflammation of the gut has been linked to causing several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression, which are so prevalent in society today. One study showed that 30% of people went into remission from severe depression after changing their diet, significantly higher than those receiving cognitive counselling.
The gut-brain link
Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, is a “brain” linking digestion, mood, health and even the way we think. This is called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining the gastrointestinal tract from the oesophagus to the rectum. Emotions can trigger symptoms in the gut and send signals to the brain and a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. These two systems are closely linked, connected by the Vagus nerve.
Gut bacteria also manufacture about 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, a happiness hormone, which influences our mood, as well as producing hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate basic physiological and mental processes such as learning and memory.
Ancient healing traditions like Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine have recognised the link between the gut and body’s organs for thousands of years.
The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates wrote “All disease begins in the gut”, nearly 2000 years ago!
Restoring a healthy balance….healing from the ground up. Nutrition – the first step is to eat a well-balanced diet that includes foods with probiotic or prebiotic ingredients that support microbial health by helping to restore balance to the gut microbiome.
“Eating all the colours of the rainbow” – eating a diverse diet, high in plant-based foods is hugely beneficial. The variety of foods is important, as during the breakdown of food via fermentation, metabolites are produced and these interact with every cell in the body, supporting diverse gut bugs and good health.
Time-restricted eating and improving gut health – if we are constantly eating, our gut has no time to rest and repair. Our livers and gut lining are set up to repair at night, during which time we are not primed for digestion. It is important not to overeat and to allow time for the digestive process. However, individuals suffering from Diabetes Type I and Type II, hypoglycemia, anaemia, stomach ulcers and hiatus hernia, need to eat at regular intervals during the day.
Eating healthy, unprocessed foods promotes the growth of healthy gut bacteria, (fruits, cultured dairy products, healthy fats, lean grass-fed meats, fibrous and fermented vegetables) and prevents “leaky gut”. “Leaky gut” is a digestive condition in which bacteria and toxins are able to “leak” through the intestinal wall and circulate around the body, allowing bacteria to be deposited into various tissues and organs, including skeletal muscles and joints, creating inflammation, pain, swelling and stiffness.
- Managing stress is crucial – the gut-brain axis affects our stress levels. Cortisol dampens our immune response and can even re-activate viruses. A healthy gut offers a buffer between our bodies and stress. A more developed and diverse microbiome blunts the stress response, improves our mood and changes the brain’s response to negative stimuli.
Stress and worry activate the sympathetic nervous system, which slows down digestion as the brain hijacks our energy to focus on keeping us safe from harm.
- Rest and Digest – The stomach has to stretch and relax as it receives the bolus (the ball of food after it has been chewed in the mouth). An agitated mind before eating and grabbing a sandwich in a hurry or on the run, doesn’t allow the stomach to prepare for the food you are “gulping down”. The result will be half digested food, causing acid reflux, gas and constipation or diarrhea.
Taking your time to prepare your food, planning meals and anticipating the enjoyment of a meal is a good habit to cultivate, as it will support your digestion and your gut system.
Eat in a stress-free environment. If you work from home or in an office, take your food to the park or go for a gentle walk afterwards. Many people take a short nap or listen to a relaxation audio after eating, but many don’t realise that relaxing before eating is just as important! A short walk in nature or breathing slowly into the belly for a few minutes, before eating, will prepare the digestive system for food – the sounds of your belly twirling is a sign you are ready to eat.
Even a simple thing like bad posture or tight clothing, which constricts the digestive tract can hamper digestion – we can perhaps take our cue from the Japanese way of eating, sitting in a pose that elongates the digestive tract and raising the bowl rather than bending over a plate.
- Physical movement is important as it increases the activity of gut bacteria, transports oxygen through the gut and assists with the efficiency of bacteria to make short chain fatty acids, especially the ones that produce the gut-healing fatty acid, butyrate. The connection between improvement in IBS symptoms and exercise is documented in this article in The World Journal of Gastroenterology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4294172/
How can Yoga Therapy help to support a healthy microbiome?
- Through specific movement, breathing techniques and suitable relaxation practices, Yoga Therapy stimulates the Vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and balancing the nervous system.
- Appropriate breathing practices facilitate more functional breathing, still the chattering mind and reduce the stress response, thereby improving digestive function.
Tip 1: Physical practices such as side stretches, gentle chest openings, open twists and slow neck stretches encourage the stimulation of the Vagus Nerve, as well as being safe for issues such as slow digestion, hiatus hernia and inflammatory bowel disease.
Tip 2: Standing dynamic practices and active flow sequences with the breath, done regularly during pain-free episodes, help relieve the severity of IBS symptoms in the long term.
- Yoga Therapy encourages targeted physical movement, improving the processing capacity of microbiota, balancing metabolism, increasing energy and keeping the digestive system moving.
- Yoga Therapy focuses on the individual, adapting practices to specific digestive issues and working with the whole person, from a holistic perspective. This is important as the digestive system is intimately connected with all the systems of the body and the mind.
- Ultimately, Yoga Therapy also increases awareness and proprioception, often leading to people making better choices around their food choices and lifestyle.
How we live each day and with every meal we eat, we directly influence this fascinating microbial organ inside us. The benefit of this is that we can make the choices necessary to feed our bodies and our brain in ways that support our gut health and overall wellbeing.