The gut is your second brain so here’s how you keep it – and you – happy and healthy

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  • Ready for this? The fungus in your gut affects health, digestion, weight, and even your mood. If you aren’t managing it properly, you aren’t managing your health. Dr Mahmoud Ghannoum - a world leader in microbiome science - shares his top health hacks

    You’ve probably heard of the microbiome – the collection of microbes that exist in and on the human body. We all have one, but it’s only recently that science has discovered just how influential the fungal community within your microbiome is. Because, contrary to popular belief, microbiome health is not just about bacteria. There is, quite literally, ‘fungus among us’ (I never get tired of that one). The fungus in your gut affects health, digestion, weight, and even your mood. In other words, if you aren’t managing your gut fungi properly, you aren’t managing your microbiome, or your health.

    So let’s talk about gut balance. Unless you’ve done a microbiome gut test, you probably won’t know exactly what your microbes are doing in there. However, how you feel and what symptoms you display day-to-day are important indicators to the state of your gut. When it’s in balance, your gut microbes will work diligently to keep your digestion running, your nutrient absorption happening, your energy generating, and your weight regulated.

    But when your gut health tips out of balance (probable causes include poor diet, sleep deprivation, stress or a course of antibiotics), you could end up with too many inflammatory fungi or bacteria, or not enough of the good fungi or bacteria to help to keep the inflammatory microbes under control. This is called dysbiosis (or imbalance), and it can cause some pretty miserable symptoms, like bloating, stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, acid reflux, and excessive gas. You could also gain weight aggressively, develop chronic headaches or rashes and itching, or experience joint pain, chronic fatigue, low energy, worsened allergies. Even hormonal imbalances, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disease, and mental health symptoms like depression, anxiety, irritability, or mood swings are all a sign of your gut being out of balance.

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    It may sound dramatic, but multiple scientific studies have linked these conditions to dysbiosis. So what can you do about it?

    The great thing about mycobiome (or fungal microbiome) is that it responds rapidly to dietary changes. Gut bacteria remains fairly constant throughout your life, but you can almost completely remake your mycobiome in 24 hours. For example, studies show that within one day, numbers of candida (a fungus that can cause inflammation and disease when overgrown) spike after a high-sugar meal, or drop dramatically after a day of no sugar or refined carbohydrates. That could mean the difference between a night of gastrointestinal misery and a restful, sound sleep. The mycobiome’s fast response time also means that you can start making changes today and you can start feeling better tomorrow. Here are the eight dietary and lifestyle changes I recommend that will have a positive difference on your mycobiome now, and on your total gut balance long-term.

    1. Cut out (or drastically reduce) refined sugar. This is a big one. The fungi most likely to cause trouble in your gut (like candida) love sugar, so when you feed them, they reproduce at an accelerated rate. Just one day without sugar will make a difference.

    2. Eat the right carbs in moderation. This is one of the best-kept secrets of balancing the microbiome. You can have carbs – and should – because carbohydrate-rich foods that specifically contain fibre feed the most beneficial bacteria in your gut. The trick, though, is to never eat too much at once, so powerful carbs don’t wind up as candida. Stick to one serving of whole-food carbs at every meal.

    3. Eat as many vegetables as you can. Vegetables are full of phytochemicals that specifically foster beneficial microbes and discourage inflammatory microbes. Every vegetable has a different phytochemical profile, so the more variety you get, the better.

    4. Add some berries and fermented foods. Every week, try to fit in at least three cups of different kinds of berries, which foster anti-inflammatory microbes, plus a few servings of fermented foods, which contain probiotics (good bacteria and yeast) to improve gut balance.

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    5. Avoid meat and dairy high in saturated fat. Research has proven that a lot of saturated fat feeds the bacteria that increase inflammation. Opt for low-fat dairy products and lean cuts of fresh meat. Or, ease yourself into plant-based eating for the best microbiome-balancing results.

    6. Get more exercise and sleep. Exercise and sleep may not seem to be directly related to your gut, but science has demonstrated the microbiome benefits from moderate to intensity exercise, and seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

    7. Go outside and get dirty. Surprisingly, being less hygienic with more outdoor time around animals actually strengthens your microbiome and increases your beneficial microbes (especially during childhood). Try gardening, visiting a farm, or going on hikes through the woods. Even having a pet helps.

    8. Stop worrying. Because of a direct connection between the gut and the brain (called the gut-brain axis), stress can actually cause dysbiosis. People who exercise less or are chronically stressed tend to have more microbiome imbalance, even when they eat a good diet. Take measures to reduce stress (I like yoga and meditation), and don’t worry too much – not even about your total gut balance. Just do what you know is good for you, and enjoy the health-enhancing side effects of a healthier mycobiome.

    Total Gut Balance (£21.99, Countryman Press) by Mahmoud Ghannoum with Eve Adamson is out now.

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