Health starts from the gut

We used to eat as hunter-gatherers, grazing a wide array of plants.  When we started farming, we were able to sow crops of all kinds.  Fiber-rich grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables were grown and stored. 

Methods of preservation, such as salting and fermentation, became prevalent, which allowed storage of crops for an extended period of time. 

The second world war saw the development of modern preservation technologies and global distribution of food products.  This has meant wider distribution or fruits and vegetables out of season.  It has also meant the evolution of modern food processing methodologies and preservatives to maintain the maximum shelf-life of products.

That all sounds incredible BUT - the world has over 50,000 edible plants, yet 60% of what we eat comes from three crops – wheat, rice and corn (read more here).

On top of that, global distribution of food has led to fewer companies having control of our food supply, for example, in the UK, just eight companies control 90% of the food supply (read more here) and often such corporations have profitability, rather than health and wellness, as their driver.

Globally, there has been an increase in protein consumption.  In western countries, this trend is predicted to slow as Europe and North America reach “peak meat” in the next decade (read more here).  Protein consumption is still increasing rapidly in countries in Africa and Asia as wealth grows.

Within the last 40 years, the average meal size in western civilisation has increased, so too has the sugar content and degree of processing/refinement.  The modern western diet is high in poor quality carbohydrates and low in biodiversity. 

This has led to a reduction in fibre content and the ramifications of this on the gut microbiome and human health are significant.  Fibre intake in unindustrialised rural communities in African countries, such as Burkina Faso and Tanzania, is up to seven times greater due to more consumption of fibrous plants (Holscher, 2017, Gut Microbes).

Low-fibre intake in western societies is thought to be a driver in the depletion of the human gastrointestinal microbiota and subsequent increases in chronic non-communicable diseases, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer.

The concept of health “starting from the gut” is not new - over 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates, the grandfather of modern medicine, hypothesised that all disease begins in the gut. 

More recently, advancements in our understanding of the role of the microbiome in human heath have increased dramatically.  The adult gut harbours as many as 100 trillion resident microbes (compared with about 37 trillion human cells), called the microbiota.  The corresponding genomes (microbiome) has been estimated to contain 150-fold more genes than the human genome (read more here) .

This diverse microbiome, with the “right mix” of populations, is linked to overall wellbeing and a decrease in mortality via improved digestion, increased immune response, and the ability to prevent or remedy various inflammatory diseases (read more here).

Overall, the gut microbiome interacts with the human body and plays a vital role in:

  • Gut development;
  • Promotion of fat storage;
  • Promotion of blood vessel formation;
  • Modulation of bone density;
  • Synthesis of vitamins and amino acids;
  • Modification of the nervous system (gut-brain axis);
  • Breaking down food compounds;
  • The immune system.

In our next blog we will discuss what happens when things go wrong in the gut “dysbiosis” and then, what we can do about improving gut health.

Darcy Schack and Dr Anna Campbell.