Is the key to Winter wellness found in your gut?

Rob Hobson, Healthspan’s Head of Nutrition, gives you the answers

The shift in seasons is often accompanied by a raft of challenges that can affect our health and wellbeing. Spring and Summer evoke a sense of positivity as the sun starts to shine and we look forward to the prospect of holidays and enjoying long balmy evenings with friends. As we move into Winter our sense of wellbeing can seem less inspirational as the days get colder and the nights draw in. As well as a drop in temperature, the colder months can bring with them Winter bugs (coughs, colds and flu), low mood and an increased desire to comfort eat, which can result in unwanted weight gain.

It’s not all doom and gloom

It’s unfair to say that Winter is all doom and gloom on the health front as the crisp weather can be hugely revitalising and nothing beats that cosy feeling of being wrapped up at home in front of the fire watching your favourite box set. There’s also no real reason break healthy diet and fitness habits, but it can become easier to create barriers when faced with cold dark mornings that make it tricky to get out of bed and hit the gym.

Focus on diet

Focusing on your diet will help to support your health through the Winter and the use of supplements can also play a beneficial role. Supplements do as the name suggests and are used to make up for any gaps that exist in your diet. During the Winter months the most beneficial supplement is vitamin D, which can account for the lack of sunshine required to make this nutrient in the body. Probiotics (beneficial bacteria) are also worth exploring as research is starting to reveal that their health benefits go beyond digestion and include many of the health concerns we’re up against during the Winter that may be linked to your microbiome.

Your microbiome is unique to you

The term ‘microbiome’ refers to the collection of microbes that live in and on our body, of which there are around 100 trillion, the majority of which are found in the gut. Even before birth, our body is colonised by an army of microbes that include bacteria. These microbes form a protective barrier that defends the body from foreign invaders harmful to our health.

The bacteria in your gut are essential for efficient digestion. They also help to digest antioxidant polyphenols and synthesise vitamins such as B12, D, folic acid and thiamine. Like a fingerprint, your microbiome is unique and reacts to the world around you and within you, which dictates its composition.

Cultivate and don’t destroy

Knowledge of exactly what constitutes a ‘healthy’ microbiome is lacking but certain strains of bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been widely researched for their health benefits and are classed as probiotics. If your gut becomes overrun with bad bacteria then symptoms such as bloating, excessive gas, abnormal bowels, bad breath and fatigue might occur.

To maintain a healthy microbiome, it’s important to create an environment that allows good bacteria to flourish. Certain foods are particularly gut-friendly and probiotic supplements such as Healthspan Super20 Pro (£18.99 for 60 capsules) can help to add good bacteria to the gut.

Healthy gut plan
  1. It’s important to eat a wide variety of plant-foods such as vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains that are high in fibre and support efficient digestion.
  2. Try to include plenty of prebiotic foods in your diet. Prebiotics are types of fibre that cannot be digested but help gut bacteria to flourish. Gut bacteria break these fibres down by fermentation to produce short chain fatty acids that supply energy to the cells that line your colon.
  3. Eat probiotic foods such as live yoghurt to boost your intake of good bacteria in the gut. Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and miso also contain strains of bacteria that can support good gut health.
  4. Try a probiotic supplement. Look for well researched strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria. Avoid taking probiotics with hot food and drinks or alcohol that can destroy them in transit.
Prebiotic foods include:
  • Onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and bananas.
  • Oats and barley contain beta glucans that act as prebiotics.
  • Starchy foods such as pasta, rice and potatoes form resistant starches (resistant to digestive enzymes) once they’ve been cooked then cooled and these also act as prebiotics.

Certain diet and lifestyle factors can upset the diversity of your microbiome by destroying good bacteria or encouraging the growth of bad bacteria in the gut.

Diet

An unhealthy diet rich in sugar and ‘bad’ fats can cause weight gain and inflammation that impacts on disease risk. It‘s been suggested that this type of diet can encourage the growth of bad bacteria in the gut, but another reason may be more straightforward. If your diet is rich in unhealthy foods, then the likelihood is that you’re not eating enough of the foods that support good bacteria in the gut such as vegetables, wholegrains and other high-fibre foods.

Medication

Certain medications can upset the balance of bacteria in your gut. Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS) such as aspirin and ibuprofen have been shown to reduce levels of good bacteria. The same is true of antibiotics that can wipe out swathes of bacteria both good and bad. Whilst avoiding these medications is good for your gut, they’re sometimes necessary to treat inflammatory health conditions and more serious bacterial infections. Using probiotics alongside certain medications and after a course of antibiotics may help to re-balance your microbiome.
Stress

There are very obvious symptoms that illustrate how the gut and brain are connected. Feeling sad, anxious, angry or elated can all impact on our gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is sensitive to such emotions. The feeling of ‘butterflies’ in your stomach or nausea under certain situations are examples of how your gut reacts to emotion. Psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and other bowel symptoms, whilst psychosocial factors such as stress influence the actual physiology of the gut by affecting the movement and contractions of the GI tract, increasing inflammation and even making you more perceptible to infection.

Research linking the relationship between the gut and the brain (gut-brain axis) is growing and as far as stress is concerned, the effects may cause changes to the microbiome. These effects also appear to have the potential to cause bigger changes when stress is more severe or prolonged.

Health benefits of probiotics

In 2014, a ground-breaking study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation from New York University revealed the much wider role of microbes on health by saying, “the composition of the microbiome and its activities are involved in most, if not all, of the biological processes that constitute human health and disease’. Since then, many other peer-reviewed studies have begun to make associations between gut bacteria and conditions such as Irritable Bowel Disease (IBS) and eczema as well as immunity and even mental health and obesity.

Efficacy of probiotics on health

Probiotic supplements are considered to be an effective way of delivering large doses of specific beneficial bacteria to the gut, but their use has come under scrutiny. Recently published research has questioned their efficacy and even potential to harm when used in conjunction with other drugs. Whilst these are innovative studies, they’re preliminary, and the issue of efficacy still requires further investigation, especially in relation to their use outside of healthy individuals.

The potential for probiotics in relation to human health is a new and fascinating area of research and the future holds huge potential for a more personalised approach to their use but knowledge of what strains to use for what condition is still a question that’s difficult to answer. Dr Arthur Ouwehand, Professor of Microbiology, and an expert in probiotics, from the University of Turku, Finland comments, “do not assume one strain or strain combination has all the health benefits that are suggested for probiotics. You have to have the right strain (combination) for the right job. There may be several probiotic solutions for the same health target. Where to get that information is difficult as there is no list of recommended strains for specific benefits”.

However, there is a huge body of research that has shown how the use of probiotics can help with a number of conditions that we may encounter during the Winter months.

Prevention and treatment of diarrhoea

The use of probiotics and in particular, Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus casei, in the treatment of diarrhoea is widely understood and they have been shown to help prevent and reduce the severity of the condition. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that taking probiotics helped reduce the risk of diarrhoea associated with antibiotic use by 42%. Further research published in the Lancet showed that probiotics helped to reduce the risk of travellers’ diarrhoea by 8% and from all other causes in adults by 26%.

Immunity

Probiotics have been widely researched for their effects on the immune system. Some strains have been shown to promote the production of antibodies and stimulate the activity of immune cells such as natural killer cells and T-lymphocytes, which help regulate immune responses. Probiotics are thought to be beneficial for upper respiratory tract infections such as colds, coughs and flu. Research published in the British Medical Journal found that children who regularly took probiotics (Lactobacillus GG) had 19% fewer infectious diseases over three months compared with those that didn’t.

Probiotics also appear to be beneficial at preventing or at least reducing the time spent with a cold. Their effect on the immune system also appeared to be enhanced when taken with other vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E, Iron and selenium, which are required for the production of antibodies that fight infections in the body. One study has shown that taking probiotics with multivitamins and minerals significantly reduced the duration of common cold and flu and episodes of flu by almost two days compared with a group taking multivitamins alone.

Obesity

Whilst the impact Winter has on our diet is something we can work on, research has suggested that there may be a potential link between the microbiota and Obesity. Data suggests that the composition of bacteria in the gut differs between people who are obese and those that are lean. It’s also been shown that the typical Western-style diet rich in fat and refined carbohydrates may even increase the strains of bacteria linked to obesity. Whilst in its early stages this research raises the question of whether changing the microbiota can influence the risk of becoming obese. This research also highlights the future potential for probiotics as part of personalised nutrition guidance to help in the fight against obesity.

Winter wellness

Winter can cause changes in the way we feel that can impact on mood and our motivation to stick to good diet and exercise habits. The colder months can also increase our risk of becoming ill, which is why preparation is important to promote Winter wellness. There’s a lot of research highlighting the many way gut bacteria may impact on health. Diet is key but investing in a probiotic supplement may also be a beneficial way to insure the health of your gut, which may hold the key Winter wellness and keep you in good health through to Spring.

Supplements available from Healthspan – https://www.healthspan.co.uk/

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