There has been a lot of speculation surrounding the bacteria in our gut and how to maintain it healthy or balanced. Gut health is traditionally measured by motility (transit time, stool frequency, stool consistency), histology (structure of cells), permeability of the gut, endoscopy, and other measures of compounds in the stool or tissues. More recently, gut health has also been assessed by the diversity of the bacteria in the gut and what kinds of bacteria can be found.
With that in mind, it is important to point out that the bacteria in our gut depends on the food we eat for energy. Foods high in dietary fiber have a positive effect on the human gut microbiota, or simply any moderated intake of food and drinks with pre and probiotics. Waku for example contains 6 grams of prebiotic fiber, which basically represents 25% of the daily fiber intake we should be consuming.
Consuming grains and wheat, in particular, has been shown to have a positive effect on gut health. Studies using whole grain breakfast cereals show improvements in beneficial gut bacteria, likely due to the fiber content.
Research from eight studies examining the impact of wheat on the gut microbiota showed that increasing wheat fiber over the whole day had positive effects on gut bacteria composition. The opposite was shown to occur with reduced wheat fiber consumption. When subjects of whole grain fiber decreased their intake, it led to significant increases in opportunistic bacteria and reductions in beneficial bacteria.
Grains, especially wheat, contain lectins. These are a type of protein believed to help protect the plant against insect pests. Research has found eating large amounts of lectins may cause inflammation and irritate the gut wall, damaging the intestinal lining. They can also decrease nutrient absorption and may disrupt the balance of the gut bacteria.
Gluten forms a sticky mass when mixed with water, which is why it’s ideal for bread making. Because gluten is a large and complex molecule, this may mean it’s not fully broken down if our digestive enzymes or stomach acid aren’t doing their job effectively enough.
If gluten is absorbed into the blood before it is completely digested, the immune system may mistake it for an invader, leading to gluten intolerance.
Grains can be a part of healthy food choices as long as they’re not allowed to dominate the diet. Variety is the key. But remember we are all different and some people will be able to tolerate grains better than others.
It’s sensible to stick to unrefined grains, choose ancient wheat grains when you can, which naturally contain less gluten, and eat organic, as most grains are routinely treated with fertilizers and insecticides. Sprouting, soaking and fermenting grains can reduce some of their anti-nutrients. Be wary of pre-packaged gluten-free products which are high in sugar and salt to increase their palatability.
It’s clear that we have a lot more work to do to understand how our gut microbiomes respond to what we eat and how this impacts our overall health. However, study after study shows that if our gut microbes aren’t happy, usually we aren’t either. All that is left for us to do is attempt to keep the peace by maintaining a healthy diet.