As we continue to grapple with COVID-19, making sure we take our booster vaccines on time, and adopting healthier lifestyles to protect ourselves from disease, there has been an increased focus on our diet and nutritional needs. Aside from digestive issues, a healthy gut or gastrointestinal tract contributes to your overall well-being as it contains good bacteria and immune cells that help contain and fight harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi. The gut also contains around 500 million neurons, which are connected to your brain via nerves (making up your nervous system’s gut-brain axis, or GBA) and also communicate with the brain, giving it a status report on your overall health.
“Around 70% of our immune system is based on our gut health. The regulatory T cells work just under the gut lining, and so a healthy gut leads to a healthy immune system response,” says Smriti Kochar, a Gurugram-based health coach and functional medicine practitioner. Kajal Wattamwar, nutritionist and co-founder of Healthy Steady Go, says the gut is the body’s largest immune organ, with the epithelial layer of the gut lined with immune cells. The immune system triggers inflammation or autoimmune responses in response to pathogens or harmful microbes. Therefore, maintaining optimal gut health is essential; and here are a few key tips from experts to help you get started in your quest for better overall health:
(LR) Kajal Wattamwar and Bushra Qureshi, founders of Healthy Steady Go; and Smriti Kochar, health coach and functional medicine practitioner.
Foods to include in your diet
There’s a reason trends like the “rainbow diet” exist, because eating fruits and vegetables gives your gut a solid foundation to function properly. Kajal explains: “A large variety of microorganisms lives in our intestines. The foods we eat or don’t eat have a major impact on their composition. The microbiome in our gut thrives on many varied, high-fiber plant foods; and highly processed foods, often loaded with unhealthy fats, artificial sweeteners and added sugars, are harmful and can invite unhealthy bacteria instead.”
Whole grains and probiotics (the good microbes) in the form of drinks like kefir or kombucha, as well as fermented foods like pickles, miso, tempeh, and yogurt can help boost your gut microbiome.
Relationship between gut health and mental well-being
Because changes in the gut microbiome greatly affect the function of the GBA, explains Bushra Qureshi, a specialist in hormone health and Co-founder of Healthy Steady Go, warns against not taking the gut-brain connection seriously. She explains: “A dysfunctional gut/gut can send signals to our brain, just as a dysfunctional brain can send signals to our gut. Therefore, poor gut health can be the cause or product of stress, anxiety and/or depression. This two-way communication between the central nervous system and the gut microbiome has been of much interest in recent years, and dysbiosis — an imbalance between the good and bad gut bacteria — and inflammation of the gut have been linked to the development of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression today very common in society. It has been discovered that the hormones, neurotransmitters and immunological factors released from the gut to the brain affect our mental states.”
Smriti agrees: “There 70 to 80 percent of serotonin (the feel-good neurotransmitter) is produced in our gut, its inflammation immediately impacts serotonin production, making us anxious or down.” Interestingly, some studies show that some probiotics, which can restore normal microbial balance, also affect appetite, mood, and sleep, and therefore have the potential to treat and prevent anxiety and depression.
Try incorporating probiotic foods like yogurt and buttermilk into your daily diet to help maintain a healthy gut.
In autoimmune diseases
A quick search online will show you that autoimmune diseases are on the rise worldwide. There is no cure for autoimmune diseases, but their symptoms can be treated. Everyone’s immune system, genetics, and environment are different. So if you have an autoimmune disease, your treatment needs to be unique and tailored to you. As the body becomes confused and your immune cells end up attacking your own healthy body cells, mistaking them for threats, Bushra suggests a two-pronged approach.
“In such cases, we recommend an anti-inflammatory diet that consists of two parts. The first is to opt for or supplement foods that boost and heal immunity; and the latter avoids triggers that might provoke an autoimmune response,” she says. “Our Indian cuisine is packed with powerful antioxidants like black pepper, ginger, garlic and turmeric. Also have a whole amla On a daily basis, your vitamin C levels can skyrocket, and adding a handful of nuts and seeds (especially flaxseeds, walnuts, and Brazil nuts) can provide you with the necessary omega-3, selenium, and zinc needed for gut healing.
Add 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 mood and mental health, it’s no wonder we seek comfort food as a respite on days when we’re feeling exhausted or stressed. And according to Bushra, while indulging in your comfort food is not harmful, it is certainly harmful to indulge in it. Because food has such a large emotional component, overindulgence is a pitfall to which we are prone. And most ready meals tend to be junk and not great when it comes to nutritional values, as they’re usually loaded with refined carbohydrates as well as saturated and trans fats.
Binging can injure your gut biome by causing dysbiosis due to insulin spikes and increased synthesis of pro-inflammatory cytokines. As a result, there is an increase in bad bacteria, which in most cases leads to bloating and hyperacidity. Noting this issue, Bushra shares, “We never tell our clients to stop completely or not to eat any type of food. The moment a food is labeled bad, your mind automatically starts craving it, leading to a full blown binge. So we should learn to replace terms like “avoid” with terms like “limit” in order to achieve better nutrition.”
Bonus tips to improve your gut microbiome
Bushra suggests drinking at least three liters of water a day, along with the necessary dietary changes. She also recommends methods like oil pulling every morning before brushing your teeth to boost immunity and sea salt water douches for a cleaner gut. “Sleep a good 7-8 hours, in sync with the circadian cycle, for optimal hormonal health, which also directly impacts your gut,” she says.
Even a small lifestyle change, such as Regular cooking at home, for example, can make a big difference. Smriti advises, “Eat your meals on time and reduce dependence on junk or foreign foods as any added artificial colors and flavors are toxic to our system.”