“The second brain” – how to improve your gut health

Maintaining a healthy gut is important for overall vitality and vigour. Here’s the best ways to take care of your gut health.

improve gut health

Gut health is critically important. Especially as we age. The problem is, most people know very little about the gut and its function.

In the last five years, neuroscience has discovered 90 percent of everything we know about the human brain.

It’s a similar case with the gut.

Gastroenterology (the study of the gut) has discovered that the gut is important to overall physical and psychological health. So-much-so it is called ‘the second brain’.

This second brain can influence all kinds of factors from your mood to what you eat. In other words your thoughts and feelings don’t necessarily come from the brain inside your head, but the one inside your stomach.

There is a direct two-way road from your brain to your gut which both supply hormones and neurotransmitters to each other. As an example, 90 percent of serotonin (sometimes referred to as nature’s antidepressant) is made in the gut and yet it’s responsible for affecting mood.

For years we’ve instinctively known this as it’s coded in our language.

“Go with your gut”, “gut feeling”, “trust your gut” and so on.

A lot happens between the moment you put that food in your mouth to when your body removes what remains and science is beginning to figure it out.

It’s important to ensure what you put in your mouth provides your gut with what it needs. Or more specifically, what the trillions of living organisms inside your body want.

Maintaining a healthy gut requires you to understand the microbiome.

There are over ten times as many tiny microbial cells in the human body than actual human cells. In other words, you are more bacteria than you are you.

Collectively these microbial cells are called the microbiome and it weighs 3lbs of your overall body weight. Coincidentally the same weight as the average human brain.

The microbiome is an ecosystem of bacteria which inhabit everything from your skin to your mouth and, of course, the gut. Not only are there 100 trillion of the little things there are also 10,000 different species of them.

For years we were taught that all bacteria was bad but this isn’t the case. Some help us live longer by keeping us immune from disease. Our bodies contain both good and bad bacteria which we have acquired through our parents, the environment and what we eat.

This article is primarily focussed on the microbes in the gut. These are called either microbiota or ‘gut flora’ and they are vital for both gut and overall health.

Understanding gut flora is key to improving overall health

All bacteria in the body has good and bad gut flora. The good help the body get rid of toxicity, reduce harmful substances and stimulate the digestive process. They also produce serotonin, the happy hormone.

The bad gut flora can make us ill, give us the shits and reduce your mood.

This is why it’s important to give the good gut flora what they want. Treat those little things well and they will return the favour.

A problem today as far as gut flora is concerned is the average person today has less diversity of the good kind than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The range of plant-based foods the average person consumes today is much less than our foraging relatives.

The average American eats around 10 to 15 grams of dietary fibre a day. The US government recommends they eat 30 to 35%. Studies on modern-day hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, who likely have diets similar to our ancestors, eat 100 to 150 grams a day. This means we consume ten times less fibre a day that what our ancestors did.

This is why it’s important to optimise your gut health as much as possible by forming the correct habits, eating the right foods or, perhaps more importantly, not eating the wrong foods.

How do you optimise your gut health for longevity? Here are seven strategies to implement.

Get an adequate amount of fibre (prebiotics)

Studies have shown that people who have little fibre in their diet can suffer all kinds of health issues.

According to Scientific American, “One investigation discovered that adding more fibre to the diet can trigger a shift from a microbial profile linked to obesity to one correlated with a leaner physique. Another recent study shows that when microbes are starved of fibre, they can start to feed on the protective mucus lining of the gut, possibly triggering inflammation and disease.”

Fibre is non-digestible but it feeds bacteria with what it needs. These are called prebiotics.

We eat much less fibre than our ancestors did so to improve your gut health requires a simple step. Eat more of it.

You should also eat a diverse range of it too. If your diet includes just one or two vegetables and even if you’re eating a lot of them, you’re still missing out on other types of good bacteria.

In other words, the more types of fibre you’re eating the more good bacteria types you’re bringing into the gut so mix it up. Excellent sources of healthy fibres include vegetables, oats, legumes, nuts, avocados, fruits and so on. To get a good variety of fibre you should eat seasonally too.

gut health for longevity
Types of fibre and their health benefits via WebMD

Consume fermented foods (probiotics)

Fermented foods contain microorganisms that feed your good gut flora and produce more health chemicals.

Healthy fermented foods include unpasteurised cheese, kimchi, kombucha, kefir and probiotic yoghurt.

Personally, I’m not a big consumer of fermented foods and have yet to try kimchi and kombucha for any long period of time. I make my own kefir, however.

Kefir is a fermented probiotic drink popular in Eastern Europe. It tastes quite sour and is a more powerful probiotic than yoghurt. It contains around 30 strains of good bacteria making it a rich probiotic source as well as providing other nutrients including protein, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B12 and magnesium.

I make my own using this starter kit I bought from Amazon. You can make 100 litres from three sachets. I usually drink a cup each morning along with my supplementation.

gut health
Fermented foods like kombucha are good for gut health

Polyphenols for gut health

If you enjoy drinking a lot of coffee throughout the day you’ll be happy to hear that this is good for gut health. Coffee contains polyphenols which are released from food after microbes digest them.

Polyphenols get rid of the bad bacteria while helping grow the good ones. They are found in coffee, dark chocolate, raw cacao, blueberries, blackcurrants, rosemary, thyme and many other food sources.

gut health for longevity
Top 30 polyphenols via

Do intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting has numerous benefits. One of which is it gives your gut a break so it can repair, reset and rest.

When you’re eating every few hours your intestines have are constantly working which is a strain on the body. Fasting gives the intestines a break allowing the gut to clean itself and reduce inflammation.

Studies have also shown the more we extend time not eating the more diverse the microbes. Some good microbes come out of the woodwork during a fast and repair the gut lining.

Also, if you’re fasting you’re starving the bad bacteria that make you crave sugar and the evidence is suggesting that the more we do intermittent fasting the healthier our guts will be.

Take VSL#3

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I’ve yet to try VSL#3 but it comes recommended from Dr Rhonda Patrick. She said it is the only probiotic that has published data showing it improves gut health. It apparently has “10x the bugs than any other brand and 25 published studies showing efficacy in IBS, IBD, colitis, and c.diff.”

VSL#3 has to be stored at a cool temperature so it’s usually delivered in ice. It’s next on my list to add to my protocol.

Avoid sugar and processed foods

Everyone knows that sugar is bad for you yet people still continue to eat too much of it. Studies have also found that eating too much sugar allows bad bacteria to grow in the gut. Even if you eat foods that gut flora loves, if you’re eating it with sugar it will suppress the benefits.

Similarly, a London university study found that eating processed fast foods kill bacteria that protect against obesity, heart disease and cancer. Emulsifiers are added to all processed foods to allow substances that are not usually compatible to mix together. It’s these emulsifiers that are believed to feed the bad gut bacteria that cause obesity.

In short, consuming little to no sugar and processed foods will allow healthy gut flora to grow. This in turn will surpress the bad gut flora and give it little chance to grow.

Even when a processed food package claims “high fibre” ignore it because it’s not. It usually contains one type of fibre which is nowhere near as good as the breadth of fibre you get from a wide variety of vegetables. It’s a scam basically.

Avoid antibiotics where possible

If you ask for a prescription of antibiotics from your doctor whenever you’re ill you should reconsider next time. Too many antibiotics play havoc on your gut flora and change the microbiome for up to a year.

Antibiotics attack bacteria. It doesn’t matter if it’s good bacteria or bad. They don’t discriminate. When you’re on a course of antibiotics they are killing both the good and bad kind leaving your microbiome in a mess.

People who take antibiotics are more likely to become overweight. The vast majority of antibiotics around the world are sold to farming because they allow the animals to get fatter in a shorter space of time.

It’s thought that these antibiotics get in our food, water and soil which is messing with people’s gut flora and causing obesity.

The one piece of advice on this is, don’t use antibiotics unless you really need them. If you’re suffering from a severe cold ride that thing out. I can’t remember the last time I took antibiotics.

Gut health and longevity go hand in hand. A healthy gut could add years to your life.

Maintaining a healthy gut is one of the best things you can do for your overall health. It will enhance your physical well-being, improve your mindset and prevent certain diseases.

Like any good health initiative it’s a long-term strategy. There are no quick fixes but instead requires a change in diet and new habit formations.

Our understanding of gut health is still in its early days. New discoveries being made constantly. The data we have so far is compelling enough to know that gut health should take a precedence in an overall health regime.

Feeding the good gut flora and starving the bad could add many healthy years to your life.

Written by Ste Davies

Ste ‘Stephen’ Davies is a freelance digital consultant, traveller, writer, podcaster and speaker based in London, UK. You can reach him here or follow him on Twitter below.

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