If you listen to the health chatter on the TV news, in magazines and on the internet you will have heard about the importance of gut bacteria to health. Gut bacteria seem to be responsible for everything from gastrointestinal health to mental health to reducing high blood pressure. Modern “western” diets which are typically low in fibre and high in processed foods are are being linked to the rise of obesity and Type 2 diabetes because of the deleterious effect they have on gut bacteria.
I have been researching and thinking about the microbes in my gut for over a year. I started to read the research, then switched to a mostly plant based diet, deliberately increased the amounts of probiotic and prebiotic foods that I am eating and generally trying to be nice to my gut bugs.
This time, I have put my body (and dignity) forward in the interests of science and bought a uBiome Test kit to check out what is actually living in my gut. It took 3 weeks to get the package from the US and then another 6 weeks to get the results.
The results are very comprehensive and frankly a bit of science-jargon-babble. I am a scientist and I found the data a bit overwhelming and not easy to interpret. I think they could provide a bit more help in unraveling the numbers.
I have become a bit obsessed with the amazing microbiome that is present in our gut. The billions of microorganisms that live inside us and have the potential to do so much good if we look after them.
Gut Microbes and Health.
More and more research shows that this microbiome is essential to our physical and mental health and many of the health problems facing those in industrialized economies could be solved by paying closer attention to what bugs are in your gut.
When your bug population get out of balance (dysbiosis) your whole body is in trouble.
The gut biome has been linked to
Synthesis of vitamins and amino acids in the gut
Digestion of “non-digestible” carbohydrates which therefore affects the amount of energy that is released from some foods
Protection from “bad” bacteria
Irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease
Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes
Eczema and asthma
Most studies of overweight and obese people show a dysbiosis characterised by a lower diversity.
Translation: Obese people have an imbalance of microorganisms with not enough variety present
It’s much better to have a good variety of microorganisms in your gut because:
The association between reduced diversity and disease indicates that a species-rich gut ecosystem is more robust against environmental influences, as functionally related microbes in an intact ecosystem can compensate for the function of other missing species. Consequently, diversity seems to be a generally good indicator of a “healthy gut.”
Translation: Having lots of different species of bacteria makes your body better able to withstand challenges because what one bug can’t do another type can. They can cover all bases by working together.
Fibre is the answer!
So how do you get a good mix of bugs in your gut? The key is consuming a goodly amount of dietary fibre and reducing the amounts of highly processed foods that we eat.
The idea is that we need to feed our gut bugs. Highly processed foods are easily digested and absorbed and don’t make it to the large intestine where most of the bug action is happening. By eating foods high in undigestable fibre, we give the bugs a meal as well.
How much is enough? Australia’s CSIRO recommend between 25 – 35 g per day. Having said that; too much fibre can reduce the diversity of your microbiome and if you suddenly change from a low fibre diet to a high fibre diet you can suffer from abdominal discomfort and flatulence. You should spread fibre consumption throughout the day and drink plenty of water to keep it moving through your intestines.
Types of fibre
There are different types of fibre which have different properties. The main types are insoluble, soluble and resistant starch.
Insoluble fibre found in whole grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds provides bulk and can help control blood sugar levels.
Soluble fibre found in legumes, veggies and fruits give the bugs something to eat so they stay happy
Resistant starch, which is found in cooked, cooled and reheated rice, potato and pasta, as well has whole grains, legumes and under ripe bananas. Resistant starch increases the amounts of butyrate in the gut. Butyrate, a byproduct of microbial metabolism, is important in keeping the gut walls healthy as well as keeping bad bacteria at bay.
What are probiotics and prebiotics?
Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain living organisms such as yogurt and other fermented foods. Prebiotics on the other hand are foods that help the microorganisms in your body thrive.
A good analogy is that if you think of your gut as a garden, the probiotics are the seeds and the prebiotics the fertiliser.
Some chemicals and medications will damage your gut bugs.
Antibiotics kill bacteria. That’s their job, so they kill the bacteria in your gut too. You may need to take some extra special care of your gut bugs after antibiotics. There is some evidence that the appendix acts a reservoir for the microbiome and in time will help repopulate the gut with good bugs.
Emulsifiers are added to food to make oily and watery components stay mixed together. If you mix oil and vinegar together, they will after time, separate into layers unless you add an emulsifier. Some artificial emulsifiers have been linked to damaging the gut microbiome because they lead to a thinning of the mucous layer in the gut which in turn leads to leaky gut syndrome. This causes inflammation in many areas of the body. The answer? Prepare your own food from scratch as often as possible and avoid things your grandparents would not have considered as food. Be wary of foods with lots of numbers in the ingredient list and not many recognisable as food.
Omnivore vs vegan?
There does not seem to be much evidence that a well balanced omnivorous diet is any better or worse than a vegan diet. (see The BMJ article referred to below) Michael Mosley and others wholeheartedly recommend a “Mediterranean diet“. This type of diet is mostly plant based but does include meat, eggs, some dairy, healthy oils and nuts.
Further reading on gut microbes and health.
This post is only a very short summary of the growing volume of information available. Here are just a few of the articles you could read to if you want to know more.
I like to have challenges and goals in my life. Not crazy big scary ones but challenges that contribute to my physical and mental wellbeing. Things like no (added) sugar for a month, no alcohol for 100 days.
Past challenges have included:
200 new experiences: In 2010, I worked out it was 200 days till my 50th birthday. I was in a bit of a slump and decided to set myself a 200-day challenge. My daily goal was to do something new every day. I wrote a (now private) blog about my progress. The “new” things didn’t need to be big and could be as simple as trying a new recipe. Regardless, some days it was still a struggle, but it took me from a low ebb to riding the crest of a happiness wave as I toured France. You can read a bit more about this challenge here.
No new things: From June 2017 – July 2018 (the Australian financial year) I challenged myself to buy no new things. There were rules and provisos if essential items wore out or broke down. I wrote about that in this blog post.
Capsule Wardrobe: I am currently trying to do a version of Project 333 (you can read about Project 333 here). I put together a capsule of around 40 items to wear to work for a period of 10 weeks. I have managed better than I thought I would and to date have not worn every piece I selected. I intend to do it again for another ten weeks from October to December.
Run faster: Another current goal is to cut my time for a 10 km run to below 55 minutes. My best time so far is 57:05. I hope to fulfill that goal before then end of November.
Not satisfied with one challenge I am toying with the idea of a 60 before 60 challenge. I’ll be 60 in 2021 and that’s about 32 months away. I am working on a list of 60 things to do before I turn 60. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to unlimited time or money, so not all the “things” can cost money or involve travel. Each “thing” cannot be an epic adventure! I did think about putting winning the lottery on the list but that’s not a SMART goal or a smart idea!
Here’s my list so far – in no particular order of priority. It’s not sequential and I don’t have to do a particular number of tasks per month. Some activities could be bundled. So for instance I have included sell some of my photos and have a photographic exhibition. This could very well happen at the same time. I am giving myself till the end of November to tweak it. After that I will print the ideas out on nice cards and move them from a to-do pile to a done pile.
Make a will
Pay extra off my current mortgage
Sell some of my writing
Earn at least $5000 through Old Chook Enterprises
Sell some of my photos
Hit at least 1000 followers on WordPress (help me out here guys!!)
Hit at least 500 followers on Instagram (help needed here too!!) @robynlang3
At least one overseas trip (Choose from Iceland or Scotland)
Go on a another cruise (6 – 10 days)
Learn enough Italian to have a short conversation
Make a 15-minute documentary that gets some success (define success!)
Finish the Buttons story (a sci-fi themed novella I am writing 4 our of 9 chapters done)
Visit at least 15 more light houses in Australia. (I like lighthouses and want to see as many Australian ones as I can – there are more than 2000 so it might be a stretch to see them all!)
Day in the life photography series for at least 4 people – follow 4 people in different occupations and photograph their day
Do an extraordinary man series. An environmental portrait project.
I’d like to do more photography like this – environmental portraits.
Make a soufflé
Set up a worm farm
Do a big >2500 piece jigsaw puzzle
Started the jigsaw
Sell all my 2019 calendars (help me out here too!!)
Publish a 2020 calendar
Do another year of no new things in 2020.
Stop dying my hair and embrace the grey!
Get my first paid article published.
Try being an AirBnB host
Finish a short course in food photography
Publish a cookbook of family favourites with my own photography
Do a short online graphics design course
Do some more light painting (October 2018)
Pitch an article to a real magazine/publication (see point 49)
Do an interview on radio/TV about something to do with Old Chook Enterprises
Create a passwords spreadsheet
Get a new phone
Modify the design and remake the running belt you made. A lycra belt to wear while running that holds my phone/keys and tissues etc. I have already made one but it needs some modifications.
Write a children’s picture book
Win a writing competition
Win a photography competition
Enter some photos in the Royal Easter Show (a big fair in Sydney, Australia)
Go on a writing retreat.
Do another cheese making course
Design some fabric to make some cushions for my home
Have a 60th birthday celebration
There are more than 60 I know. I’d really like a list of around 80 so I can pick and choose based on time and budgetary issues. I also need to decide if I can add and subtract things from the list. What happens if I come up with a really good idea? I think I may have to have a one in – one out rule.
You never know, perhaps I will win the lottery and then all the other bucket list travel destinations can be added for one massive around the world extravaganza!
 This is based on Gretchen Rubin’s 18 for 2018 idea. See Her Happiness podcast.
On further reflection, I think I have exceeded my actual disposable income by about 400% with this list, it’s good to be ambitious but….. 🙂
PS: I usually post on Fridays but I am experimenting with Tuesdays to see if it makes a difference to my stats.
Growing up in the 60s, I would describe my childhood as free range. By this I mean that while I was well cared for, I did not have much close supervision. This was not unusual for the times. Provided we told our parents where we were going and what we were doing they just let us go and do it. We would stay outside all day, in all seasons. In wet weather, we would play inside and dress up our dolls and build whole new worlds. We played under the house building mud pies in the dirt with little regard for the spiders that hung from the joists above our heads. We were happy and active.
I don’t remember our parents organising any of our activities. We worked it out for ourselves, although we had to ask for permission to watch TV or when we wanted a sleepover.
We’d play on the street with all the neighbourhood kids. Someone would yell out “CAR” and we’d scamper aside and let the traffic pass and then continue with the game of cricket or soccer. Once again, I don’t remember any parents around to tell us to be careful or to watch out. There was a mix of ages from Will and Micky who were the oldest right down to pipsqueaks like me who were five years younger.
I obviously survived, although I did have a few near misses. Once when my brother and I were playing at the beach and I got caught in a rip. Some fellow scooped me out of the surf and took me back to my mother who was sleeping on the sand. In her defence, we weren’t supposed to be swimming!
I remember slicing my foot from toe to heel on a rusty water tank we were using as a slippery dip. The most vivid part of this memory being the bloody little foot prints I left on the road as I limped home.
In kindergarten, I was walking home from school on a rainy day splashing in puddles when I got stuck in a big open drain with the water rising around me. And the nearest miss, when I was at my best friend’s cousins’ place swimming in their pool and one of the older kids bombed me. I had to be dragged to the surface after someone realised I hadn’t come up yet.
Modern parents are more involved but at what price?
More recently, parents and carers are more involved in directing the activities of their children. Dance lessons, after school tutoring, training for sports, pre-organised play dates. All structured time. I guess this is mostly because many parents and particularly, mums, work away of home and scheduling is necessary. You can no longer pop next door and know that someone will be home.
Is adolescent anxiety on the rise?
If you ask me if anxiety and depression and other mental illnesses have increased in the 26 years years I have been teaching I would give an emphatic YES. Is my perception backed by evidence? I notice it more and more but is that because as a school leader, I am more involved in that aspect of schooling? Today alone I spoke to three families about their anxious and school-refusing children. The quick research I did in preparation for this post, indicates my perception can not be supported evidence.
Some articles say there has been no increase in the prevalence of anxiety disorders, while others refer to an “epidemic” and crisis of mental health issues. The problem is that data collection relating to childhood anxiety has only started in the last 10 – 15 years. We don’t have a clear picture on the anxiety levels of past generations because it wasn’t measured or reported so we cannot accurately compare. We simply don’t know. We have no good base line data. Anxiety levels might be higher or they could even be lower.
While my hunch is not supported by hard evidence, I have first hand observational data – even if the sample size is very small – that some kids, especially girls around 14 – 16 can not be separated from their phones. I have had girls crying and begging to be suspended from school rather than hand in their phone after using it inappropriately in class time. Their fear of losing that point of contact is palpable. They quiver and become faint.
Is there a link between the use of smart phones and the apparent increase in anxiety?
Has the shift in care practices made a difference to childhood happiness and health?
The practices of 50 years ago may be seen as neglectful these days. At school we often discuss helicopter parents – those who hover constantly over their children and the more notorious lawn mower parents who sweep ahead and mow down any obstacles in their children’s path. Of course, all parents want their children to be safe and not be hurt, teased or bullied but has the pendulum swung too far? Are today’s parents stopping their children learning valuable lessons and denying them opportunities to be resilient and self reliant? Are they creating anxious kids by accident?
I think so.
The Australian Government report into childhood anxiety does state the following:
It might be tempting to blame increased screen time [for anxiety] and access to information via the internet that didn’t exist in previous generations….
The presence of screens is not necessarily something that’s going to create anxiety. Social media, unfortunately, is a huge factor. Particularly in primary school.‘
Further, parents of anxious children can exacerbate the issue by protecting their children too much. When I am dealing with anxious kids I usually find an anxious parent not too far behind.
If a child is worried about going on a school camp, for example, it can be tempting for parents to accommodate their wishes….[and let them stay at home]
‘What keeps anxiety going is avoidance,’ … ‘If you stay away from situations you’re nervous about, the child will never learn that she can handle it, and that actually camp can be fun.
Once again it would seem like the middle ground is the place to be. We have to keep children safe, but not so safe they are scared to stretch their wings.
More information on childhood anxiety
There are some good articles available on the topic if you’d care to read more.
This one about teens and social media from Harvard is an easy and informative read.