A woman forms the shape of a heart with her hands over her belly.

For the New Year, resolve to treat your gut bugs right, says UK expert

Digestive Health, Healthy Eating, Microbiome, Pre-biotics
Sara B. Police, PhD
Sara B. Police, PhD

Written by Sara Police, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Nutritional Sciences at the UK College of Medicine.

The top New Year’s resolution in 2017 was to “lose weight/eat healthier.” That’s a great goal, but as we flip the calendar to 2018, I challenge you to make a different type of resolution: a resolution for your gut bugs.

At this very moment, there are trillions of bacteria living in your body – the majority in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Collectively, these bacteria are known as the microbiome. The bulk of them are symbiotic – in other words, they are mutually beneficial. We help out microbiome survive, and it helps us survive. Researchers are continually uncovering diverse and important functions of the microbiome related to energy metabolism, immunity, GI and mental health – among others.

Weight loss resolutions are relevant in this regard, since the gut microbiome affects the rate of absorption, metabolism and storage of calories. For example, specific bacterial strains, such as Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes, shift during obesity – potentially increasing energy harvest from food.

Ai-Ling Lin, assistant professor at the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, is investigating the impact of the microbiome on the aging brain and mental health. Her research findings demonstrate that a healthy microbiome is associated with reduced anxiety and risk for dementia with aging.

A well-known role of the gut microbiome is protection of the GI tract’s health and function. This is why some antibiotics can cause loose stools or diarrhea. Of note, probiotic supplementation has been shown to be effective in the treatment of antibiotic-associated diarrhea.

Maximize your beneficial and defensive features of the microbiome by nourishing and protecting it, every single day. Here are some tips to nurture the good bugs with during the coming year:

Choose complex carbohydrates. A primary source of energy for the microbiome is complex carbohydrates. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts are sources of resistant starch and dietary fiber – also known as “prebiotics.” Prebiotic-rich foods (not refined, sugary foods) give gut bugs plenty of fuel to flourish.

Include natural probiotics in your diet. Enrich your microbiome with a serving of yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut or fermented vegetables regularly. Beyond vitamins and minerals, these foods are rich sources of beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which may boost immunity and overall health. Effects of probiotics vary from person to person since everyone’s microbiome is unique.

Get plenty of sleep. Even gut bugs need a good night’s rest. The microbiome shifts in composition and function when the sun goes down. Research indicates that irregular circadian rhythms (associated with jet lag in frequent flyers, for example) lead to shifts in the microbiome associated with metabolic changes. Taking steps toward getting a good night’s sleep will safeguard your gut bugs’ health and functionality.

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