What is ‘gut health’ and how does it affect diabetes?

It’s only relatively recently that scientists have uncovered the secret powerhouse tucked away in our intestines – the gut microbiome. The conversation around happy, healthy gut bacteria is spreading, and with good reason. Researchers have found connections between this population of microbes and a staggering number of health conditions that extend far beyond intestinal disorders. Unsurprisingly, there’s even a link between a healthy gut and diabetes. It’s a hot topic for researchers at the moment, and while there’s a lot to explore, let’s start by taking a closer look at what the gut microbiome actually is, how it impacts our health, and what you can do to nurture yours.

What is the gut microbiome?

Weighing as much as our brain (!!), the gut microbiome is a vast community of trillions of bacteria and fungi that live inside of our intestine (mostly in the large one). These critters have a major influence on our metabolism, body weight, immune system, appetite, and mood. Outnumbering all the other cells in the body put together, these microbes are considered so important that scientists often refer to the microbiome as not only a separate organ, but one we can’t live without.[1]

Fascinatingly, researchers have found that no two microbiomes are the same – even in identical twins. As is becoming increasingly apparent in nutritional research, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, and this way of thinking extends to the microbiome. This presents a challenge for researchers as it means that one ‘healthy’ microbiome might not be healthy in another context. What we do know, however, is that a more diverse microbiome is thought to be a good indicator of a ‘healthy’ gut.[2]

 

Our microbiome begins to take shape from the moment we are born, and even the mode of delivery at birth can impact the diversity of microbes taking up residence.[3] Once infants begin eating solid food, their bacterial diversity steadily increases and, by the age of 3, the composition of the gut microbiome begins to reflect that of an adult.[4] Despite being relatively stable in adulthood, the gut microbiome is continuously influenced by a number of factors ranging from diet, age, medications, and even social interactions. 

So, how does the microbiome affect health?

 

The gut microbiome is key to our overall wellbeing and its influence is felt across the entire body. It shapes how we respond to illnesses, how we process food, and, as well as providing health benefits, researchers are uncovering links between gut health and a growing number of diseases. 

 

The gut microbiome is a diverse, variable, and complex world. Distinct alterations in the composition of the microbiome (known as ‘dysbiosis’) links gut health to a number of conditions such as obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, intestinal disorders, and depression. Researchers suspect that it is the interactions between microbial species in the gut that affect human health rather than the sole influence of a single species.[5]

 

Interest in the field is surging and as more links between gut health and disease emerge, scientists are wondering whether one day we’ll be able to manipulate an individual’s gut microbiome to improve health.  

What about diabetes?

 

Before we go any further, we want to make it really clear that the link between the gut microbiome and diabetes is still in very early stages of discovery. It’s an emerging area of research, so discrepancies in information are both common and expected. 

 

The gut microbiome has been suggested to play a role in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Studies have found differences in the composition of the microbiome between people with and without diabetes, and it’s this discovery that implies a connection.[5] Studies are also highlighting the involvement of gut microbiota in not only obesity, but also insulin signalling and low grade inflammation - three characteristics of type 2 diabetes.[6]

 

Type 2 diabetes is a complicated disease with consequences throughout the body... and, as we’ve discussed, the microbiome is a challenging field for researchers, making the links between the two difficult to unravel! That being said, work is ongoing and it’s going to be a topic of great interest for years.

How to keep your gut healthy and happy

 

We know that a happy population of good gut bacteria has an overwhelming impact on our general health. While we have a long way to go to fully understand the link between gut health and diabetes, it’s important to maintain a diverse, happy, healthy microbiome for our overall wellbeing.

 

Here at Habitual, we believe in the power of diet, and the good news is that with a few simple lifestyle considerations, you can keep your good gut bacteria happy, healthy, and thriving:[7,8]

 

Boost the good bacteria

Diet is one of the biggest influences on gut health, so nurture yours with a varied diet including wholegrains, fermented foods, live yogurt, and a colourful rainbow of fruit and vegetables. 

 

Stay hydrated

Sip on water throughout the day to keep yourself feeling energised, aid digestion, and look after your happy gut bacteria. 

 

Stress less

The physical and chemical connection between your brain and your gut is a powerful one. While we’ve already talked about the impact that the microbiome can have on mental health, it goes the other way as well... stress can have a dramatic effect on the health of the microbiome. Look after your mental health and try to get good, quality sleep to keep your brain and gut in check.

Start moving

Daily movement is important for so many reasons, and researchers have also suggested that exercise can actually enhance the number of beneficial microbial species in your gut – another reason to get going!

 

Avoid antibiotics

Overuse of antibiotics is a major public health challenge and they also considerably damage the composition of your gut microbiome. Try and avoid taking them unless absolutely necessary.  

The human gut is vastly more complicated than anyone originally thought, and it will take time to fully understand the full effect it has on the body. In the meantime, we know that a healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, heart health, brain health, improved mood, better sleep, effective digestion…the list goes on... so it’s a great place to start if you’re looking to improve your general health and wellbeing. A few simple lifestyle changes can get you on track to nurture a healthy, happy, and diverse bunch of microbes.

 

 

References

 

[1] Spector, T. (2020). Spoon-Fed: Why almost everything we’ve been told about food is wrong, Jonathan Cape, London. 

[2] Valdes, AM., Walter, J., Segal, E., Spector, Y. (2018). Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health. BMJ 361:k2179. Accessible here (https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179).

[3] Shao, Y., Forster, SC., Tsaliki, E. et al. (2019). Stunted microbiota and opportunistic pathogen colonization in caesarean-section birth. Nature 574, 117-121. Accessible here. (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1560-1).

[4] Foegeding, NJ., Jones, ZS., Byndloss, MX. (2021) Western lifestyle as a driver of dysbiosis in colorectal cancer. Dis Model Mech 14(5): dmm049051. Accessible here. (https://journals.biologists.com/dmm/article/14/5/dmm049051/268972/Western-lifestyle-as-a-driver-of-dysbiosis-in).

 [5] Ding, RX., Goh, WR., Wu, RN. et al. (2019). Revisit gut microbiota and its impact on human health and disease. J Food Drug Anal 27, 623-631. Accessible here. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1021949819300122).

[6] Gurung, M., Li, Z., You, H. et al. (2020). Role of gut microbiota in type 2 diabetes pathophysiology. EBioMedicine 51, 2352-3964. Accessible here. (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/ebiom/article/PIIS2352-3964(19)30800-X/fulltext#seccesectitle0005)

[7] What should I eat for a healthy gut? BBC Food. Retrieved 15 June 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/articles/what_should_you_eat_for_a_healthy_gut

[8] Gut health: does exercise change your microbiome? The Conversation. Retrieved 15 June 2021. https://theconversation.com/gut-health-does-exercise-change-your-microbiome-140003


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