As we still continue to grapple with COVID-19, making sure we take our boosters timely and adopt healthier lifestyles in order to safeguard ourselves from illness, the focus on our dietary and nutritional needs has amplified. Digestive issues aside, a healthy gut or the gastrointestinal tract contributes to your overall well-being as it contains good bacteria and immune cells that curtail and fight harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi. The gut also contains around 500 million neurons, which are connected to your brain through nerves (forming the gut-brain axis or GBA of your nervous system) and it also communicates with the brain, giving it a status report of your general health.
“Around 70% of our immune system is based on our gut health. The Regulatory T Cells operate just below the gut lining, and so a healthy gut leads to a healthy immune system response,” shares Smriti Kochar, a Gurugram-based health coach and functional medicine practitioner. Kajal Wattamwar, dietician and Co-Founder of Healthy Steady Go says that the gut is the largest immune organ of the body, with the epithelial layer of the gut being lined with immune cells. The immune system triggers inflammation or autoimmune reactions in response to pathogens or harmful microbes. Hence, maintaining optimal gut health is imperative; and here are a few important pointers from experts to get you started on your quest for better overall health:
(L-R) Kajal Wattamwar and Bushra Qureshi, Founders of Healthy Steady Go; and Smriti Kochar, health coach and functional medicine practitioner.
Foods You Need to Include in Your Diet
There is a reason as to why trends like the ‘rainbow diet’ have been around, as eating your fruits and veggies lends your gut a solid foundation for functioning well. Kajal explains, “There is a huge variety of microorganisms living in our gut. The foods we eat or don’t eat have a major impact on their composition. The microbiome in our gut thrives on lots of diverse, high-fibre plant foods; and highly processed foods, often full of unhealthy fats, artificial sweeteners, and added sugar are harmful to it and instead, they can invite in unhealthy bacteria.”
Whole grains and including probiotics (the good microbes) by the way of beverages like kefir or kombucha, as well as fermented foods like pickles, miso, tempeh, and yoghurt can help boost your gut microbiome.
Relationship Between Gut Health and Mental Well-Being
Since changes in the gut microbiome greatly impact the functioning of the GBA, Bushra Qureshi, a hormone health specialist and Co-Founder of Healthy Steady Go, warns against not taking the gut-brain connection seriously. She elaborates, “A troubled intestine/gut can send signals to our brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to our gut. Therefore, a poor gut health can be the cause or the product of stress, anxiety, and/or depression. This bidirectional communication between central nervous system and gut microbiome has been of significant interest in recent years and dysbiosis—an imbalance between the good and bad gut bacteria—and inflammation of the gut have been linked to causing mental illnesses including anxiety and depression, which are extremely prevalent in society today. The hormones, neurotransmitters, and immunological factors released from the gut to the brain have been discovered to affect our mental states.”
Smriti concurs, “Since 70 to 80 per cent of serotonin (the feel good neurotransmitter) is produced in our gut, its inflammation straight away impacts serotonin production, and makes us feel anxious or low.” Interestingly some studies show that some probiotics that have the ability to restore normal microbial balance, also impact appetite, mood, sleep, and therefore, have a potential to help treat and prevent anxiety and depression.
Try and include probiotic rich foods like yoghurt and buttermilk in your daily diet to maintain a healthy gut.
In Cases of Autoimmune Diseases
A quick online search will tell you that autoimmune diseases are on the rise globally. There are no cures for autoimmune diseases, but their symptoms can be managed. Everyone’s immune system, genetics, and environment are different. Hence, if you have an autoimmune condition, your treatment has to be unique and tailor-made according to you. Since the body is confused and your immune cells end up attacking your own healthy, body cells by mistaking them as threats, Bushra suggests a two-pronged approach.
“In such cases, we recommend an anti-inflammatory diet, which composes of two parts. The first consists of opting for or supplementing with foods that boost immunity and heal; and the latter is avoiding triggers that could elicit an autoimmune reaction,” she says. “Our Indian kitchen is loaded with powerful antioxidants like black pepper, ginger, garlic, and turmeric. Also, having a whole amla daily can shoot your Vitamin C levels and adding a fistful of nuts and seeds (especially flaxseeds, walnuts, and Brazil nuts) can give you the required omega 3, selenium, and zinc required for gut healing.”
Include ingredients easily available in our Indian pantries like cinnamon, honey, and turmeric, which are loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
Comfort Food and Binging
Since what we eat has such a direct impact on our moods and mental health, no wonder we look to comfort foods as our respite on days we feel exhausted or stressed. And according to Bushra, indulging in your comfort food is not harmful but binging on it certainly is. As food has such a major emotional component to it, over-indulging is a trap we are vulnerable to. And most comfort food tends to be junk and not so great when it comes to nutritional value as they are usually loaded with refined carbohydrates, along with saturated and trans fats.
Binging can hurt your gut biome by causing dysbiosis with due to insulin spikes and increase in the synthesis of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Hence, there is an escalation in bad bacteria, leading to bloating and acidity in most cases. Mindful of this issue, Bushra shares, “We never tell our clients to completely stop or not eat any type of food. The moment any food is labelled as bad, your mind automatically starts craving it, which ends up into a full blown binge. So, we should learn to replace terms like ‘avoid’ with terms like ‘limit’ instead for better diet management.”
Bonus Tips for Improving Your Gut Microbiome
Bushra suggests that besides making the necessary dietary changes, you must drink at least three litres of water a day. She also recommends methods like oil pulling every morning, before brushing for improving immunity and a sea salt water flushes for a cleaner gut. “Sleep for a good 7-8 hours, in-sync with the circadian cycle for optimum hormonal health, which also directly affects your gut,” she says.
Even a little lifestyle change such as cooking regularly at home can go a long way. Smriti advises, “Eat your meals on time and reduce dependency on junk or outside food, as all the added artificial colours and flavours are toxic for our system.”