Your body contains trillions of microbes. The bacteria and other microbes in your body even outnumbers your own cells. Don’t panic, because that’s a good thing. The vast majority play a vital role in our health, breaking down antioxidants and producing hormones and vitamins.

However, ‘bad’ bacteria can upset the balance of your gut microbiome, upsetting its equilibrium. What’s the best way to encourage more ‘good’ bacteria and eliminate the ‘bad’? If you suffer problems after eating, how can you tell if it an imbalance of microbes in your gut or something more potentially serious? By listening to what your gut’s telling you.

The good, the bad and the gassy

Your gut health can be influenced by a variety of factors, including diet and any medications you are on. Constipation, diarrhoea or stomach cramps can be signs of an unhealthy gut. As can (and there’s no polite way of saying this) passing gas. Studies have found that if you have too much of a certain kind of ‘bad’ bacteria in your gut microbiome, you\'re more likely to have:
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
New treatments for these conditions are being developed that target the bacteria in the gut microbiome. Even if you put the healthiest food into your body, if you don’t have a healthy intestinal lining to digest it, you won’t get all the benefits of what you are eating. For that reason, it is recommended everyone eats the right foods to encourage the ‘good’ bacteria to help your body digest nutrients.

Eat like a pro

Probiotics are foods specifically containing ‘good’ bacteria like the ones already in your gut. They can add to the bacteria in your intestinal tract and help keep everything in balance.

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts. They're usually added to yoghurts or taken as food supplements, Look on the ingredients list for live cultures of bacteria like bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.

You can also find them in fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut, and pickled vegetables, like onions and gherkins. Probiotics may be particularly useful in restoring the natural balance of bacteria in your gut (including your stomach and intestines) when it's been disrupted by an illness or treatment.

Probiotics may also boost gastrointestinal health, especially if you have something like IBS. Some studies have also indicated that probiotics can make your immune system stronger and may even help ease allergy symptoms and help with lactose intolerance.

There are many different types of probiotics that may have different effects on the body. You may find a particular type of probiotic helps with one problem but not another. LML would like to see more research into which types are best for which symptoms.

Support your stomach

Other foods known to be good for your gut are prebiotics. These create the right environment for probiotics, boosting your guts ‘good’ bacteria and helping your body absorb calcium better They’re found in fruits and vegetables, like:
  • Artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Onions
  • Soybeans
We also know that polyphenols (a type of antioxidant found in plants) are linked to heart and circulatory health. However, 90% of these can’t be digested by human cells. Instead, we rely on the ‘good’ microbes in our gut to ferment them, so they can be absorbed into our body.

The Mediterranean diet is known to be good for heart and circulatory health, as well as gut health. One key ingredient is extra virgin olive oil, which is rich in those polyphenols.

Microbes also love fibre, and eating more fibre is linked to a lower risk of heart and circulatory diseases.

Intolerance or allergy?

Most of the symptoms your gut tells you about are likely to be an imbalance of microbes or a potential food intolerance, rather than a food allergy. True food allergies affect the immune system. Even small amounts of an allergen can trigger a range of symptoms, which can be severe or life-threatening. In contrast, a food intolerance generally affects only the digestive system and causes less serious symptoms.

If you have a food intolerance, you may be able to eat small amounts of the offending food without trouble. You may also be able to prevent a reaction, for example, you may be able to take lactase enzyme pills to aid digestion.

Causes of food intolerance include the absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest a food, for example lactose intolerance, and sensitivity to food additives.

You may also be suffering from celiac disease, a chronic digestive condition triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains. Once more, listen to your gut. Celiac disease has some features of a true food allergy because it involves the immune system, but its usual symptoms include gastrointestinal issues, as well as joint pain and headaches. The good news is that people with celiac disease are not at risk of anaphylaxis.

Food for thought

If you do think your gut’s instincts are telling you something, there are a range of tests you can take to find out more. If you have a reaction after eating a particular food, see your doctor to determine whether you have a food intolerance or a food allergy, and consider taking our new Allergy Complete blood test. It is the UK’s most comprehensive allergy test, analysing 295 allergens.

If you are concerned about your diet, you may want to think about taking a cholesterol test. Finding out about high levels of cholesterol can help you to make the positive lifestyle and dietary changes needed to improve your chances of a long and healthy life.


NHS WebMD Nature BHF