Ever felt a bit confused by all the gut health terminology floating around? Even within the health industry, there seems to be some confusion around what some of the terms mean, and they can often be mis-used.
Read on for explanations on the top terms used when talking about gut health…
The Top 7 Gut Health Terms You Need to Know
Simply put, this is the community of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, archaea, protists and fungi) found on and in your body. The largest population is found in the digestive tract, more commonly known as the ‘gut flora’ or microflora.
There are between 10-100 trillion microbial cells in your body – outnumbering human cells 10 to one! The microbiota plays a really important role in your health. For example, it aids your digestion by improving foods’ digestibility, which in turn improves your nutritional status. However, it also improves your immunity and exerts positive effects on your brain and behaviour.
The more diverse your diet, the more diverse your microbiota, the greater a positive effect it can have. Essentially, “all hail, the microbiota”, it’s a pretty damn awesome community!
Not to be confused with ‘microbiota’ above, the microbiome is the entire habitat including the genetic material of the microbiota. It also gets mistaken for the term ‘metagenome’, which refers only to the genetic material of the microbiota.
Each microbial cell contains its own set of DNA, which play a significant role in your body. Most of these genes encode for enzymes and proteins that influence your body’s cells. As a result, gut microbes and their genetics have an impact on your energy balance via metabolism regulation. Did you know, they also influence brain development and function?
The gut-brain axis, or microbiome-gut-brain axis, refers to the two-way signalling between your brain and gut microbiome. It involves brain and hormone signalling mechanisms via the central nervous system. Studies show that gut microbes are involved in the formation of chemical messengers identical to those produced by humans. These include hormones like cortisol, and neurotransmitters like dopamine or serotonin. They are critical to your mood regulation, therefore showing how the microbiome plays a direct role in stress management, anxiety and depression.
Essentially, this refers to the imbalance of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in your gastrointestinal system. Or the community of microorganisms in your body. Or your microbiota, as you now call it!
Dysbiosis may lead to other health issues, particularly gut-related ones, and requires good gut care to rebalance the microbiota and repair any damage. One of the ways to rebalance the bacteria is with targeted probiotics.
Also known as ‘friendly’ or ‘good’ bacteria, probiotics are live microorganisms that can be consumed as a food or dietary supplement. In addition, they can maintain or restore beneficial bacteria to the digestive tract.
There are varying levels of what can be sold to you as probiotics:
- ‘Live / active cultures’ – general fermented foods which don’t need specific research to back their claims;
- Probiotics that do not make a health claim – usually general supplements containing general beneficial/safe microbes;
- Probiotics that do make a health claim – these must contain defined probiotic strains (see below), and convincing evidence for the specific strains’ health indications. They must also have proof of delivery of a viable strain at an effective dose level at the end of the shelf life. Meaning: if it says you will receive 35million CFU (colony forming units, or how many microbes there are) then you will still get that amount even at the best before date, provided you have kept the probiotics in a suitable environment (usually the fridge).
Probiotic strains are specific bacteria with particular functions. Don’t confuse them with probiotic ‘species’, which are the equivalent to the ‘family name’ of the probiotics. The strains within these ‘families’ are like ‘cousins’ and, whilst related, can be quite different in their actions. In fact, when we refer to what benefits probiotics can offer, we are likely referring to a very specific strain. For example, the well-known Lactobacillus is a probiotic species, but the Lactobacillus Acidophilus is a strain within that species, which offers different actions to Lactobacillus Rhamnosus.
Whilst there is often some benefit to be had from selecting a probiotic supplement that contains multiple strains, there is usually more benefit from selecting a probiotic supplement that contains specific strains which target the exact problem you have.
Prebiotics are ‘food’ for the microbes (or ‘friendly bacteria’) in your gut. These are completely different to probiotics, but they are connected as they’re food for them as well. Their technical definition is that they selectively stimulate growth or activity of specific microbe species in your gut microbiota, which then results in health benefits to you.
Prebiotics consist of non-digestible carbohydrates, or dietary fibre, and can be found in various foods in a healthy diet. Resistant starch is a type of indigestible fibre found in cooked and cooled potatoes. Inulin is another type, found in banana, garlic, onion, leek, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichoke. Other examples of prebiotics include the beta-glucan found in barley and whole oats, oligosaccharides in wheat bran, and pectin in apples. Flaxseeds are another favourite source, as they contain other great health benefits too!
The downsides to prebiotics is they can feed and fuel an existing small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), if there is one. Those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or a FODMAPs intolerance can also find prebiotics make their symptoms worse. In these instances, it’s best talking with your friendly nutritionist on a way to help resolve your gut issues.
Most people know these as medicine to get better, and they wouldn’t be wrong, exactly. Antibiotics are drugs used to treat bacterial infections, and in many cases entirely necessary. Generally speaking, an antibiotic is a substance produced by one microorganism that selectively inhibits the growth of another. But what are the other consequences of taking antibiotics?
Many antibiotics we know today are synthetic ‘broad-spectrum’ versions, created to work on a range of bacteria. These are the ones that can be particularly problematic, as they also target the ‘good bacteria’ that we need in our guts. By killing off both the good and bad bacteria in the gut, potentially permanently, the microbiome is left with a smaller number of beneficial bacterial species, counterbalancing the resistant ‘bad’ bacteria. This is where help from a nutritionist is important to repopulate your body with the right kind of probiotic strains, and prebiotics to encourage their growth.
Understanding these gut-related terms are just the start in helping you understand what is happening inside your body. Ongoing studies are intensively resarching gut health, as it is such a complex place. Most of all, though, it’s absolutely the underpinning of overall good health, so I hope you find this terminology guide useful.
Perhaps you need help with your gut microbiota and digestive issues, or want to know which probiotics you should be taking? If so, get in touch and make an appointment, and I will be happy to help!