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Chocolate can be good for you

Chocolate can be good for you

Chocolate can be good for you

This week is Chocolate Week!!!!

The History of chocolate 

The history of chocolate dates back over 3000 years to the Olmec civilization.  Cocoa powder is made from cocoa beans that are harvested from a tree called Theobroma Cacao, meaning ‘food of the Gods’.  Aztecs are thought to have enjoyed cacao beans by making a ‘drink’ called Chicolati, which was believed to increase wisdom, boost energy and act as an aphrodisiac. This brew was seasoned with vanilla, chilli, honey or fruit and whipped into a froth using little sticks.  I love their choice of flavours, which have now become commonplace amongst chocolate bars and puddings.

Since its discovery by Europeans and the vast time through to modern day, millions of people have helped to drive the popularity of this ultimate sweet treat.  The reputation of chocolate has evolved over time from a luxury food synonymous with wealth, to an easily affordable comfort food whilst the association with romantic gesture (food of love) and mood has remained since first discovered.

Global retail sales of chocolate are staggering with estimates of over £75 billion per year and in the UK alone, we spend over £3 billion annually.

Types of chocolate

Chocolate comes in many forms nowadays and is defined by the percentage of cocoa it contains.  Milk chocolate contains a low percentage of cocoa (23% cocoa solids) and is high in sugar and saturated fat.  Darker varieties have a greater percentage of cocoa (anything from 70-90% cocoa solids) and slightly less sugar and saturated fat (although still high).  Cocoa powder contains hardly any sugar, low amounts of saturated fat and is rich in minerals and other compounds that may benefit health.

Nutritional content of cocoa

Cocoa in its raw form is a good source of minerals including iron (helps to maintain healthy red blood cell production), magnesium (helps to maintain healthy bones, promotes muscle relaxation and converts food into energy), phosphorus (healthy bones and converts food into energy), potassium (helps maintain fluid balance and helps the heart to work properly),  zinc (helps to make new cells and enzymes in the body and wound healing) and copper (helps to produce red and white blood cells and with iron usage in the body).

Nutritional breakdown of unsweetened cocoa powder per 2 heaped tsp

Calories         44

Fat                  1.9g

Sat fat             1.8g

Carb                 1.6g

Sugar              0g

Fibre               2.3g

Protein           2.6g

Also contains….

Iron                 1.57mg (11% RDA)

Magnesium    73mg   (19% RDA)

Phosphorus    92mg (13% RDA)

Potassium       210mg (10.5% RDA)

Zinc                 0.97mg (9.7% RDA)

Copper           0.55mg (55% RDA)

Other compounds found in cocoa

Cocoa is richer in antioxidants that almost any other food on the planet.  These antioxidant compounds are called flavanol polyphenols and have been shown to help reduce the risk of disease. Cocoa also contains a compound called theobromine, which acts as a stimulant similar to caffeine but without the jittery side-effects. You will also find phenethylamine (PEA) in cocoa, which is a compound that stimulates the central nervous system to amplify the action of brain chemicals including the ‘feel’ good hormones serotonin and dopamine.  Phenethylamine is also thought to mimic the brain chemistry of someone in love, which is why it’s often thought of as an aphrodisiac.

What are the potential health benefits of cocoa?

In moderation there’s nothing wrong with eating chocolate within the context of a healthy diet, but too much of anything can have its downsides and our reliance on high sugar snacks has been instrumental in the rise of diet related diseases including obesity.

Whilst overindulging on chocolate snack bars and puddings is clearly not great for your health, research has shown that there may be health benefits associated with cocoa, which is the raw ingredient.

Just to be clear, there are no benefits associated with tucking into a few packets of Minstrels and any positive impact on health is linked to cocoa in its raw form of cocoa powder or raw cacao.  The closest chocolate comes to having any health benefits is the dark variety with a high percentage of cocoa solids (70% and above), but this still needs to be eaten in moderation given its high sugar and sat fat content.

Heart disease

The polyphenols in cocoa are thought to dilate the arteries, which improves elasticity and may reduce the risk of heart attack. The effect of these antioxidants is also thought to be similar to aspirin in that they help to thin the blood and prevent unwanted clots with research showing that the effect after drinking a cup of cocoa lasting more than 6 hours (1).  Findings from a large analysis of seven studies carried out by researchers at Cambridge University found that both men and women with the highest intake of cocao were 37% less likely to suffer with coronary heart disease and 29% less likely to experience a stroke compared to those with the lowest intakes (2).

Cholesterol

Studies have shown that cocoa may have a positive impact on cholesterol, raised levels of which are considered to be a risk factor for heart disease.  Findings from a clinical trial published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that the polyphenols found in cocoa powder contributed to a reduction in LDL (bad) cholesterol, elevation in HDL (good) cholesterol and suppressed the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which is thought to be particularly damaging to tissues such as those lining the arteries of the heart (3).   The effect on oxidation may be explained by the antioxidant effect of polyphenols as they help to protect the body from free radical damage (4).

Blood pressure

Research around blood pressure stems from islanders of Kuna that don’t appear to develop high blood pressure as they get older, which is in part attributed to the high amounts of cocoa they consume on a daily basis. It was noticed that once they left the island and consumed less cocoa they lost the protective effect on blood pressure.  The link between cocoa and blood pressure is that the flavanols it contains increase the availability of nitric oxide in the blood, which dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.  Researchers from Adelaide University found that drinking cocoa (rich in flavanols) significantly lowered blood pressure when compared to a flavanol-free placebo drink (5).  Similar findings have also been shown in several other studies although the effect is not that strong (6, 7).

Brain health

Studies have shown that drinking cocoa at least 5 days of the week boosts the flow of blood to the parts of the brain that help with cognition and may improve performance and alertness (8).  The antioxidants in cocoa also help to neutralise the low-grade inflammation associated with ‘foggy’ thoughts. Studies of older people that are mentally impaired have found that those who regularly drank cocoa had greater improvements in memory and verbal reasoning than those who did not (9). It’s for this reason that cocoa has been of interest to researchers investigating dementia.

Chocolate as a functional food?

Advances in innovation have seen a rise in chocolate products with added health benefits.  Companies such as Ombar produce a dark chocolate bar fortified with probiotic cultures.

How to add more cocoa into your diet

Whilst many people enjoy eating chocolate and may understand the potential benefit of choosing dark over milk varieties, less people know how to use cocoa powder beyond a drink.

If you’re not familiar with using cocoa powder, then try these ideas below for a little inspiration:

  • Add 1 tbsp to your protein shake.
  • Add 1 tbsp to porridge.
  • Make homemade energy balls by blending cocoa or raw cacao powder, dates and chopped hazelnuts to a food processor.
  • Combine 1 tbsp with hot milk of choice for a warming evening drink rich in magnesium that helps to promote muscle relaxation and has been shown by research to induce sleep. Try adding cinnamon, ground cardamom or chilli for extra flavour.
  • Add cocoa or raw cacao powder to chilli con carne for richness and intense flavour.

The reality of chocolate and health

The truth still remains that chocolate, even dark chocolate, is never going to be considered a healthy food as it contains high amounts of sugar and saturated fat, which if eaten in excess will counteract any potential health benefits of cocoa.  However, you can reap the health benefits of cocoa by incorporating it into your diet in ways that allow you to control the amount of sugar and saturated fat.  It’s also worth pointing out that the true benefit of nutrition lies in the overall diet and not single foods so whilst the health potential of cocoa is interesting, you still need to focus on eating a well balanced and varied diet.

Try this recipe from my book The Detox Kitchen Bible.  These brownies are still a sweet treat but contain much less sugar than usual recipes and harness the benefits of cocoa.

Beetroot Brownies

Makes 9

Ingredients

150g raw beetroot, peeled and cut into small cubes

50g hazelnuts

100g gluten and wheat-free flour

1 tsp baking powder

60g raw cacao powder

120g runny honey

½ tsp salt

3 eggs

75ml rapeseed oil

Method

  1. Preheat your oven to 200°C. Line the bottom and sides of a 20cm square cake tin with greaseproof paper.
  2. Put the beetroot in a microwave-safe bowl with 50ml water, cover with clingfilm and cook on a high heat for 7 minutes until soft. If you don’t have a microwave, wrap the beetroot in foil and bake in the heated oven for about 40 minutes until soft.
  3. Put the hazelnuts in a blender and blitz until they are roughly chopped. Transfer them to a large mixing bowl. Sift in the flour, baking powder and cacao powder.
  4. Now blitz the cooked beetroot in the blender for 1–2 minutes until smooth. Add to the dry ingredients in the bowl but do not mix just yet.
  5. Using the blender for the third time, put the honey, salt and eggs in it and blitz for 3 minutes. Pour into the bowl and mix with the rest of the ingredients using a wooden spoon. Be gentle, as you want to keep air in the mixture whilst combining it thoroughly.
  6. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake in the heated oven for about 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool completely before cutting into squares.

You can find more delicious recipes from Lilly and the gang at the Detox Kitchen website.

If you liked this blog and want to learn more about chocolate then have a read of these:

Raw cacao and avocado mousse recipe 

Raw cacao and cashew nut milk

 

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10871557
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21875885
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17513403
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11684527
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19910929
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17609490
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22301923
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16794461
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25733639

 

Ten prebiotic foods you need to know about

Ten prebiotic foods you need to know about

Ten prebiotic foods you need to know about

Gut health has become a hot topic in the world of nutrition and as research evolves it’s becoming very clear that the beneficial role of microbes found in the gut goes way beyond digestion.  The collection of microbes in your gut are referred to as your microbiome and advice about how to protect it has become commonplace.

Your gut microbiome is sensitive to your lifestyle and dietary habits; both  can either promote a good diversity of microbes in the gut or tip the balance in the opposite direction, which may have a negative impact on your health.

The foods that can have the biggest positive effect on your microbiome are those containing beneficial bacteria (probiotics) and those containing indigestible fibres referred to as prebiotics.

Your microbiome is unique like a fingerprint

The term ‘microbiome’ refers to the collection of microbes that live in and on the body, of which there are around 100 trillion, the majority of which are found in the gut.  These bugs form a protective barrier defending the body from foreign invaders, which can be harmful to health.

The microbes in your gut include bacteria, which are essential for efficient digestion.  These bacteria also help to digest antioxidant polyphenols, synthesise vitamins such as B12, D, folic acid and thiamine, and produce short chain fatty acids that provide energy to the cells of your colon helping to maintain a strong gut barrier.  Gut bacteria have also been shown to play a role in immunity and new research is starting to explore the effect on the brain with early findings linking the diversity of bacteria in your gut to mental health and obesity (via the effect on hormones that control appetite).

Like a fingerprint, your microbiome is unique, and its composition is dictated by the world around you and within you.

Cultivation is key to a healthy microbiome

It’s yet unclear what constitutes a ‘healthy’ microbiome but one thing for sure is that it takes a bit of cultivation.  If your gut becomes overrun with bad bacteria then this can upset the balance of your microbiome, which may lead to symptoms such as bloating, excessive gas, abnormal bowels, bad breath and fatigue.

A poor diet is characterised by an over-consumption of sugar and bad fats, whilst lacking in nutritious foods such as vegetables and other wholefoods including beans, pulses and wholegrains.  This type of diet has been shown to promote the overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut  (1, 2, 3).

Medication can also impact on gut bacteria as the overuse of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and antibiotics have the potential to destroy them, which can leave your gut vulnerable and increase the risk of infection.

What are prebiotics?

No doubt you will have heard about probiotics, which are friendly bacteria found in foods such as live yoghurt and supplements.  Other foods such as kimchi, kefir and miso also contain bacteria, which are beneficial to health.

The role of prebiotics is less well understood but they’re equally, if not more important than probiotics as these indigestible fibres help the bacteria in your gut to thrive.  Probiotic supplements have the potential to be very beneficial, especially if you need to re-balance the diversity of bacteria in your gut but the same is not necessarily true of prebiotics.

There are many food sources of prebiotics, which include inulin, lignin, oligosaccharides, mucilage gums, non-starch polysaccharides (pectin and beta glucans) and resistant starches.  Foods containing these prebiotics can easily be incorporated into your daily diet and many of which you may already be eating on a regular basis. You’re more likely to be eating prebiotic foods if your diet is healthy and contains plenty of plant-based foods.

Ten top prebiotic foods to include in your diet

There are quite a few prebiotic foods, but I have chosen the ones that are more commonly eaten and easily accessed from your local supermarket.

1.Jerusalem artichoke

This vegetable is now available in larger supermarkets and is in season between October and February.  Jerusalem artichokes contain 2g of fibre per 100g and 76% comes from inulin. You can also glean a good source of thiamine (healthy nervous system and releases energy from food) and iron (healthy immune system, red blood cell production and wards of tiredness) from Jerusalem artichokes.

These are not a commonly eaten vegetable as many people are unsure how to use them.  Jerusalem artichokes have a nutty flavour and can be used in the same way as potatoes in that they can be roasted and mashed, and also work well in soups.

2.Garlic

This vegetable is closely related to onions and leeks. Garlic can form the base of many home-cooked dishes alongside onions, which means it’s easy to add to your daily diet.  Around 11% of the fibre found in garlic comes from inulin and 6% from fructooligosaccharides, which add a slight sweetness to its flavour.

3.Onions

Onions are another food that can easily be included into your daily diet as it acts as a base for many home-cooked dishes.  Around 10% of the fibre found in onions comes from inulin and 6% from fructooligosaccharides.  Onions also contain a good source of vitamin C (protects cells, maintains healthy skin and helps with wound healing) and the flavonoid quercetin, which acts as an antioxidant in the body.

4.Leeks

This vegetable is similar to garlic and onions but less commonly used.  Around 16% of the fibre found in leeks is from inulin.  Leeks are also high in flavonoids, which support the body to respond to oxidative stress.  You can also glean a good source of vitamin A (healthy immune system, eyes, skin and mucosal linings such as the nose), vitamin C (protects cells, maintains healthy skin and helps with wound healing) and vitamin K (blood clotting and healthy bones) from leeks.

You can serve leeks as a side dish, incorporate into soups or a topping for pies.

5.Apples

There’s a lot of truth in the saying about an apple a day keeping the doctor away, and this includes the health of your gut.  Around 50% of the fibre found in apples is from pectin.  This prebiotic not only benefits the health of your microbiota but has been shown to help reduce cholesterol.  Apples are also high in polyphenol antioxidants.

As well as snacking on apples you can use them to make fruit puddings, add to savoury dishes and grate as a topping for yoghurt or soaked oats.

6.Asparagus

This vegetable is now available all year round with supermarkets importing it from countries such as Peru.  To savour the best tasting Asparagus and save on food miles, you’re better to wait until the British asparagus season, which occurs between April and May.   Asparagus is not as rich in prebiotics as other vegetables with only around 5% of the fibre coming from inulin. This vegetable also contains a good source of vitamin A (healthy immune system, eyes, skin and mucosal linings such as the nose), vitamin K (blood clotting and healthy bones) and folate (healthy red blood cells and protection against neural tube defects in unborn babies).

Asparagus is delicious served on its own with a big drizzle of olive oil or topped with a poached egg for breakfast.  You can also add asparagus to pasta dishes, risottos and soups.

7.Bananas

These fruits are one of the most commonly eaten in the UK and contain small amounts of inulin.  Unripe (green) bananas are high in resistant starch and feature as an ingredient in many Caribbean dishes. Bananas are also a good source of vitamin B6 (converts food into energy and helps to form haemoglobin in red blood cells).

Bananas can be eaten as a snack, baked and used in smoothies and fruit puddings.  For something different, try adding to curries.

8.Barley

This grain is not as commonly used as others such as rice but is actually hugely versatile once you know how to use it.  Barley contains around 8g of beta glucan per 100g, which is not only good for your gut but has been shown to help reduce cholesterol. Barley also contains the minerals magnesium (converts food into energy, promotes muscle relaxation and healthy bones) and selenium (protects cells and promotes a healthy immune system).

Barley can be used in place of rice to make risotto, added to soups or salads (cooked).

9.Potatoes

Potatoes are a starchy carbohydrate as are other foods such as grains.  Starches are long chains of glucose, which the body uses for energy.  When potatoes are cooked and then cooled, they develop resistant starches, which the body is unable to break down and as such behave as prebiotics.

10.Flaxseeds

These seeds are hugely healthy and a good source of prebiotics with 20-40% of their fibre coming from mucilage gums and 60-80% from cellulose and lignin.  Flaxseeds also contain phenolic antioxidants and are a useful source of protein. You can also glean a good source of minerals from flaxseed including magnesium (converts food into energy, promotes muscle relaxation and healthy bones), iron (healthy immune system, red blood cell production and wards of tiredness), calcium (healthy bones and teeth) and zinc (converts food into energy, involved in making new cells and enzymes and helps with wound healing).  Flaxseed are also rich in omega 3 and although the conversion to more usable forms of this fatty acid in the body is poor, it’s still a useful source, especially for people following a plant-based diet.

You can add seeds to any dish and also smoothies.

If you’re eating a healthy diet, then many of the foods included will naturally take care of your gut and including the foods listed above will be especially useful to promote the health of your microbiome.

 

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3493718/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4005082/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4083503/
Can the food you eat really ‘boost’ your immune system?

Can the food you eat really ‘boost’ your immune system?

Can you really ‘boost’ your immune system?

As much as I love basking in the sun, I actually love the Winter.  Cosy nights in, wrapping up in Winter woollies and the celebrations of Halloween, bonfire night, Christmas and New Year are all something to enjoy.  What I don’t relish is the prospect of Winter bugs and no matter how healthy you are, they always manage to creep their way in.

As the colder months approach, it becomes more important to eat and live well to support a healthy immune system, which helps to protect us against infections.  Even the best of us are up against it during the Winter and the challenges these months present can hamper good diet and lifestyle practices.  Comfort eating, and the influence of dark mornings and early evenings offer the perfect excuse to lapse on our healthy diet and exercise regimes.

The immunity ‘boost’ conundrum 

As Winter approaches, so comes the advice on how we can ‘boost’ our immune system to ward off infectious bugs.  The idea that you can ‘boost’ your immune system is a little misleading.  This concept conjures up a false expectation of ‘supercharging’ your immune system and in some way making it invincible to anything that attempts to challenge it. The reality is that immunity involves a system and not a single entity. There are many cells of the immune system that have to respond to many different types of microbes. Pinpointing the specific cells and defining to what degree they should be increased is hugely complex and a question that’s yet unanswered by science.

Given the intricacies of the immune response, the science behind the impact of diet and lifestyle on immunity is not definitive, but research is continuing to evolve and it’s clear that maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a key part of keeping your immune system strong and healthy.

Why do we need our immune system?

You couldn’t survive without an efficient immune system, which is made up of special cells, proteins, tissues and organs that defend the body against infectious organisms and other foreign invaders through a series of processes referred to as the immune response.

Foreign invaders in the body are referred to as antigens. These are toxins or other foreign substances that induce an immune response in the body, especially the production of antibodies. One example of an antigen is the common cold virus. What makes the immune system truly remarkable is that once it has encountered an antigen, antibodies are hard coded to fight this invader should it try to attack the body again.

Can the quality of your diet help to maintain a healthy immune system?

The simple answer is yes. Exactly how diet is linked to immunity is not fully understood but is an area of research that continues to evolve.  Scientists acknowledge that malnourished people are more vulnerable to infectious diseases, which helps to illustrate the importance of diet on immunity.

Maintaining a healthy balanced diet is key and there are many micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) required to maintain the normal functioning of the immune system.  If your diet is compromised in any way through dieting or illness for example, then you may not be eating enough food or the right quality of food that allows you to glean the nutrients required to support your immune system.

Findings from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) have shown that amongst certain groups of the population, intakes of certain vitamins and minerals that support immunity are lacking in the diet (1).  Vitamin D plays a key role in immunity and during the Winter months a significant percentage of people have been shown to have low levels of this nutrient, given the lack of sunshine, which is the main supplier.  Minerals such as selenium, iron and zinc also play an important role in immunity and have been shown to be lacking the diet of some people as have intakes of vitamin A.  This doesn’t necessarily mean your immune system will be compromised but that attention should be paid to eating the right foods to support healthy immunity.

Foods that can support your immune system

Diet is defined by food and not nutrients.  Eating a balanced diet consisting of whole foods such as vegetables, wholegrains, lean proteins and healthy fats, will support your immune system. However, for the purposes of this blog I’m going to lay out some of the foods that contain specific nutrients that support good immunity.

Vitamin A

Orange and green fruits and vegetables contain a pigment called beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system (2).  This nutrient helps to maintain the integrity of the mucosal cells of the gastrointestinal tract, eye and respiratory system that function as a first line of defence to infection, forming a barrier between from the environment outside the body.  Vitamin A is also important for the normal function of immune cells and the production of antibodies that respond to infections.

Iron, selenium and zinc

All of these minerals are required for the production of antibodies, which are cells of the immune system that fight infection (3, 4, 5). Findings from the NDNS survey have shown that 27% of adult women and 54% of teenage girls do not get enough iron from their diet and partnered with menstrual blood loss, this puts them at particular risk of deficiency.  Selenium intakes are also low with 38% of adults being shown to have inadequate intakes. Zinc is also lacking the diet, with 8% of adults and 17% of teenagers shown to have inadequate intakes of this mineral (1).

You can maintain good intakes of iron by eating foods such as meat, poultry, oily fish and eggs.  Plant foods such as beans, pulses, dark green vegetables and dried spices are also a good source and you can increase the uptake of iron from these foods by partnering with foods rich in vitamin C.   Selenium is found in Brazil nuts, oily fish and wholegrain foods such as brown pasta, rice and bread. Levels of selenium do vary depending on where the food has been grown and the quality of the soil. Zinc is found in meat, shellfish, eggs, beans, pulses, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and cheese.

Vitamin C

This vitamin is the one people most associate with immunity and the common cold, which is backed up by some research suggesting its effectiveness at reducing the risk and length of infection (6).  Research has shown how several cells of the immune system accumulate vitamin C and requires this vitamin to perform their task, especially T cells and phagocytes.

Most people get more than enough vitamin C in their diet, but appetite can lesson if you do get ill, which may impact on your intake. You can keep your levels topped up by eating foods such as red peppers, citrus fruits, berries, broccoli and potatoes. Vitamin C is water soluble and easily destroyed so try not to overcook vegetables and avoid soaking before cooking.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D has been shown to play an important role in the immune system by increasing the antimicrobial effect of white blood cells that fight infection (7). Low levels of vitamin D can suppress the immune system, putting you at a greater risk of viral infections. Research involving more than 19,000 people found that those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 36% more likely to develop a common cold than those with higher levels (8).

Findings from the NDNS have shown that 30-40% of all age groups are classed as being deficient in vitamin D due to the lack of sunshine (1). Public Health England recommends everyone takes a supplement providing 10mcg of vitamin D during the Autumn and Winter.

Gut bacteria also play a role

Over 70% of immune cells are located in the gut so it makes that a relationship exists between the two. We’re beginning to understand that it’s quality and not quantity that’s key to gut health and the diversity of microbes in your gut is referred to as your microbiome.

Probiotics are bacteria that have been shown to have a positive health benefit.  Well researched strains include those from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium family.  Live yoghurt is the most well-known probiotic food and contains strains such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Lactobacillus Casei. Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and miso also contain strains of bacteria that can support good gut health.

Probiotic supplements offer a way of delivering large doses of specific bacteria to the gut and may be beneficial in the prevention of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) such as the common cold (9). The effect of probiotics on the immune system has been widely researched and certain strains have been shown to promote the production of antibodies. The same strains have also been shown to stimulate the activity of immune cells such as natural killer cells and T-lymphocytes, which help regulate immune responses.   A Cochrane Review showed that probiotics were better than a placebo in reducing the incidence and duration of a URTI (10).

Choose a supplement that contains both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria per serving.

Mushrooms are interesting too

The overall quality of your diet is more beneficial than focusing on any single food or nutrient, but mushrooms do appear to be interesting when it comes to immunity.  Not only are they one of the few foods to contain a natural source of vitamin D, but they also contain beta-glucan polysaccharides that have been shown by some studies to modulate the immune system (11).  Chinese medicine has long considered mushrooms to be medicinal and especially varieties such as shiitake.

Immunity is a hugely complex system that involves many different cells that work together to fight foreign invaders in the body.  Your diet is known to have a role to play although exactly how is yet fully understood.  Eating a balanced diet is no doubt helpful and there are certain nutrients that play a key role in maintaining the proper function of your immune system. Diet shouldn’t be defined by nutrients as food is what matters but understanding the nutrients that support your immune system help to support the importance of a balanced diet made up of a wide variety of foods.

 

References 

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11375434
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3173740/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3723386/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3724376/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23440782
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3166406/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19237723
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3560336/
  10. https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD006895.pub3/abstract
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4684115/

 

The benefits of gut health go beyond digestion

The benefits of gut health go beyond digestion

The important role of the gut

Diet, exercise and sleep are key to good health and the prevention of disease.  The health of your gut is inextricably linked to the quality of your diet, which impacts on digestion. Besides this, research is beginning to identify how your gut may also be linked to immunity, sleep, mental health (stress, depression) and obesity, all of which can affect your health in a multitude of ways (1).

The initiative, ‘Love Your Gut Week’, starts on the 17thSeptember (2018) and highlights the importance of our digestive system to good health.

What is the microbiome?

The term ‘microbiome’ refers to the collection of around 100 trillion microbes that live in and on our body, most of which are found in the gut.  An army of microbes (including bacteria) colonise the body even before we’re born to form a protective barrier that defends against foreign invaders harmful to our health.

Your microbiome is unique like a fingerprint

Your microbiome is unique like a fingerprint reacting to the world both around and within you.  The microbes you cultivate make up the unique diversity of your microbiome. The bacteria in your gut help maintain the efficiency of your digestive system.  These bacteria also help to synthesise vitamin D, K, B12, folic acid and thiamine as well as assisting in the digestion of polyphenol compounds shown to protect the body against disease.  Gut bacteria also produce short chain fatty acids that supply energy to the cells of your colon and have been shown to play a key role in the maintenance of health and prevention of disease (2).

What can impact on the ‘health’ of your microbiome?

 Diet and lifestyle choices can impact on the diversity of bacteria found in your gut.  The ‘typical’ Western diet is characterised by an overconsumption of foods high in ‘added sugars’ and ‘bad’ fats. The impact of overeating and a lack of exercise has led to an overweight nation although the complexities of weight management are not as simple as calories in and calories out.

Being overweight is a risk factor for many diseases and the physiological effects it triggers such as inflammation are now widely recognised as being a contributory factor.  It’s often suggested that a diet overloaded with sugar and ‘bad’ fats encourages the growth of bad bacteria, but these effects don’t seem to be that clear cut. Another more straightforward explanation is that people who eat an unhealthy diet are less likely to eat the foods that support an environment that allows good bacteria to thrive such as vegetables, wholegrains and other high-fibre foods.

Five strategies to support the health of your microbiome

Whilst the overall quality of your diet can impact on the health of your gut, certain foods have been shown to be particularly beneficial in supporting the diversity of bacteria that live there.  Lifestyle factors and the use of medication have also been shown to impact on your microbiome.

1. Don’t underestimate the effects of stress

Stress is fast becoming a common side-effect of our modern lifestyle.  We all experience stress, sometimes on a daily basis, but the effects are usually short lived.  Problems can arise when stress becomes chronic, not only impacting on mental health but triggering inflammation within the body (3).  Stress can also increase the demand for certain nutrients such as the B vitamins and magnesium as well as influencing food choices that can result in a failure of the diet to provide everything the body needs.

Feeling ‘butterflies’ in your stomach or nausea are common symptoms of stress and illustrate how the brain is closely linked to the gut.  Sadness, happiness and anger are a few examples of the emotions that can affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is sensitive to such emotions.  In some cases, psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and bowel symptoms that characterise conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (4).  Psychosocial factors such as stress can influence the actual physiology of the gut, affecting movement and contractions of the GI tract, increasing inflammation and even making you more perceptible to infection (5).

The link between the gut and brain is referred to as the gut-brain axis and the association with gut bacteria is a new area of research.  Studies are beginning to unveil the potential impact this relationship between the gut and brain has on the microbiome.  Mental health is just one area of research and stress has been shown to alter the diversity of gut bacteria (6). These changes also appear to be amplified when stress is more severe or prolonged. In this regard, the concept of psychobiotics is being developed and refined to find ways of targeting the microbiota to help with mental health outcomes

Don’t dismiss the impact stress has on the body.  Addressing your mental health is just as important as the food you eat, exercise you take and sleep you get, all of which are intertwined.  Try exploring techniques such as meditation that has been proven to help with stress. There are many apps available that can help to teach you this practice.

2. Eat prebiotic foods in your diet

Certain fibres in foods are indigestible and commonly referred to as prebiotics.  Gut bacteria feed of these fibres, helping them to flourish and process by which they break them down (fermentation), produces short chain fatty acids.

The different types are prebiotic foods include:

  • Onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and bananas contain inulin and fructooligosaccharides that act as prebiotics.
  • Oats and barley contain beta-glucans that act as prebiotics.
  • Starchy foods such as pasta, rice and potatoes form resistant starches (resistant to digestive enzymes) once they’ve been cooked and then cooled. Resistant starches act as prebiotics.

3. Watch your medication

Many people rely on the long-term use of medication to help manage the symptoms of their health condition. Aspirin and ibuprofen are types of Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS) commonly used to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, but these drugs have been shown to reduce levels of good bacteria in the gut (7).

Other medications such as antibiotics are prescribed as a short course to support the body’s ability to fight infection.  These drugs are not a friend of gut bacteria as they can wipe out swathes of both good and bad.  In certain cases, such as severe bacterial infections, they’re required to help the body recover but are of no use in fighting viral infections such as colds or flu.

Using probiotics alongside certain medications such as NSAIDS or after a course of antibiotics can help to re-balance your microbiome.

Another interesting issue surrounding antibiotics is their extensive use in the farming of food animals.  The issue is a topic of debate but eating less meat and choosing better quality meat may not only be better for your health but reduce the transmission of antibiotics through the food chain.

4. Include probiotic foods in your diet

Strains of bacteria that have been shown to have a positive health benefit are referred to as probiotics.  Bacteria from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium family are some of the most widely researched strains.  One of the most common probiotic foods is live yoghurt, which contains strains such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Lactobacillus Casei.  These strains are also found in yoghurt ‘shot’ drinks that have become very popular. When you’re choosing live yoghurt or yoghurt products try opting for those that are low in sugar.

Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and miso also contain strains of bacteria that can support good gut health. These foods are now widely available in most supermarkets.

5. Take a probiotic supplement

Probiotic supplements offer a way of delivering large doses of specific bacteria to the gut.  Stick to preparations that contain well researched strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria per serving.  To help with their transit to the gut, avoid taking with hot food and drinks or alcohol that can destroy them.

As the research linking gut bacteria to health and disease outcomes evolves, so does the potential role of probiotics supplements.  Their use and efficacy have recently come under scrutiny, but there’s still plenty of good quality research that points towards their beneficial role in health.

Prevention and treatment of diarrhoea

Bacterial strains such as Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Lactobacillus Casei have been widely researched for their ability to prevent and reduce the severity of diarrhoea.  Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that taking probiotics helped reduce the risk of diarrhoea associated with antibiotic use by 42% (8).  Further research published in the Lancet showed that probiotics helped to reduce the risk of travellers’ diarrhoea by 8% and from all other causes in adults by 26% (9).

Immunity

The cells found in the gut are thought to make up almost 70% of the entire immune system, so it makes sense that it’s inextricably linked to immunity.  Research has shown how probiotic supplements containing certain strains can promote the production of antibodies. The same strains have also been shown to stimulate the activity of immune cells such as natural killer cells and T-lymphocytes that help to regulate immune responses.

Research has shown how probiotic supplements may prove beneficial for upper respiratory tract infections such as colds, coughs and flu. Research published in the British Medical Journal found that children who regularly took probiotics (Lactobacillus GG) had 19% fewer infectious diseases over three months compared with those that didn’t (10).

Obesity

This is new area of research and the question of whether obesity is linked to gut bacteria is not yet answered.  Data suggests that the composition of bacteria in the gut differs between people who are obese and those that are lean (11).  It’s also been shown that the typical Western-style diet rich in fat and refined carbohydrates may even increase the strains of bacteria linked to obesity (12).  Research has provided several potential reasons why the diversity of bacteria in the gut may be linked to obesity.  Certain bacteria are involved in the digestion of carbohydrates and fats (13), whilst others have the potential to increase inflammation in the body (14). Other may impact on the production of hormones that influence appetite (15).

Whilst in its early stage, this research highlights the future potential for probiotic supplements as part of personalised nutrition guidance to help in the fight against obesity.

Essential steps to good gut health

The bacteria in your gut play a role in health that’s essential to life.  New research not only helps to confirm this but is exploring the many benefits that go beyond digestion. Diet and lifestyle can both influence the diversity of bacteria in your gut and this can have a negative impact on your health.  Following a healthy balanced diet will help to maintain the health of your gut and the bacteria that reside in it as will addressing lifestyle factors such as stress. Research into the use of probiotic supplements is ever evolving but they can provide a useful way to help maintain the balance of bacteria in your gut.

Healthy gut plan

  1. Maintain a balanced diet and try to avoid foods high in sugar and ‘bad’ fats.
  2. Eat wide variety of plant-foods such as vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains that are high in fibre and support efficient digestion.
  3. Include prebiotic foods in your diet – onions, garlic, bananas, oats, barley.
  4. Include probiotic foods in your diet – live yoghurt, kimchi, kefir and miso.
  5. Use relaxation techniques to address the issue of stress.
  6. Factor the use of medication into your diet and the effect on gut bacteria.
  7. Take a probiotic supplement that includes strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria.

 

References

  1. https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24388214
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341031/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202343/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15740474
  6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352289515300370
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26482265
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22570464
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16728323
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11387176
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27648960
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28199845
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15505215
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23985870
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27616451/

 

 

 

Time to join the culture club – your guide to probiotics

Time to join the culture club – your guide to probiotics

 

Time to join the culture club (download PDF here The culture club)

So, you’re clean eating, gluten free, fasting, eating avocados like their going out of fashion, chugging down green juices with the latest wonder powders and using coconut oil to cook and apply to every part of the body from top to toe to achieve an enviable state of health and wellness.  But health trends come and go, and whether they stand the test of time is usually based on popularity over real results.

One area of health that has always been popular is the gut and the one thing we know for sure is that an efficient gut equals good health.  Probiotics have been hip for a while now and this is one trend with a lot of research to back up the claims. The discovery of how to sequence the bacteria that live in the gut has widened this area of research and allowed scientists to explore it in a similar way to DNA 20 years ago.

 


“One area of health that has always been popular is the gut and the one thing we know for sure is that an efficient gut equals good health”


 

Good digestion insures that your body can process foods efficiently and deliver all the essential nutrients without bloating or other digestive complaints that can impact on how you feel day-to-day and the role of gut bacteria in this context is well established.  But these clever microbes are not just about good digestion and new exciting research is drawing associations between the microbiome and areas of healthy you may never have considered before. 

 

What’s the deal with bacteria?

The body is full of bugs that make up one of the most complex ecosystems in the world with over 400 different species living in the gut.  Generally, these bugs are not harmful and many have a beneficial role to play in the body. 

Gut bacteria are essential in the process of breaking down food to extract nutrients that are required for our survival.  Bacteria help to synthesize certain vitamins including B12, folic acid and thiamin that are required for energy metabolism, red blood cell production and maintaining a healthy nervous system.   These microbes also teach our immune systems to recognize foreign invaders and produce anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off disease-causing bacteria.  Clever stuff.

 


“Gut bacteria are essential in the process of breaking down food to extract nutrients that are required for our survival”


 

Nurture your own culture club

 The community of bacteria in your gut is specific to you and is referred to as your microbiome.  The diversity of your microbiome is especially important to help maintain a healthy gut as bad bacteria are limited and tightly controlled by the good variety.  If your diet is unhealthy and rich in sugary or processed foods then there’s a chance that the good bacteria in your gut will become weakened, impacting on health as you provide an all-you-can-eat buffet for bad bugs to thrive on and take over.   A buildup of bad bacteria may result in a number of health problems such as food allergies, yeast infections or inflammatory bowel disease. 

 


“A buildup of bad bacteria may result in a number of health problems such as food allergies, yeast infections or inflammatory bowel disease”


 

Interestingly, the trend for carbohydrate free diets could have an impact on the diversity of bacteria in your gut.  A high fat and protein diet is not necessarily the issue as bacteria will find something to live on in the gut but the diversity of bacteria and their activity may change in the absence of carbohydrates.  Like us, bacteria prefer to live on carbohydrates (glucose) and from this they produce short chain fatty acids that are good for your gut.  Once carbohydrates are taken out of the diet, bacteria start to thrive on amino acids that make up proteins, which produces other compounds that are considered more poisonous than beneficial

 

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that contain strains that have been shown to have a positive health benefit.  There seem to be a lot of interesting foods labelled as being probiotics ranging from chocolate through to tea but to get the most benefit you need to look for well researched strains such as Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium with at least 10 billion bacteria per serving.  Some foods such as kimchi are also touted as being a probiotic and although they may have health benefits for your gut the strains they contain (and there are many strains) are often not well researched and so cannot be classed as such.

 


“Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that contain strains that have been shown to have a positive health benefit”


 

How do probiotics benefit health?

One of the key benefits of probiotics is in maintaining good digestive health and research has shown how they can help with common digestive complaints such as diarrhoea and constipation.  Probiotics have also been shown to be of benefit for people suffering with IBS and food intolerances such as lactose intolerance. 

 


“One of the key benefits of probiotics is in maintaining good digestive health and research has shown how they can help with common digestive complaints such as diarrhoea and constipation”


 

Immunity is also a key area of research.  Around 80% of the immune system resides in the gut and studies have shown that probiotics are successful in preventing upper respiratory tract infections (coughs and colds) as well as reducing the infection time.  Probiotics are also essential for anyone that has had to take antibiotics that have an apocalyptic effect on all the bacteria in the gut.   Taking probiotics alongside medication and for a few weeks afterwards should be a common place recommendation to help restore your microbiota.

 

The future of probiotics

Where things get very exciting is in the research that is starting to put science to the concept of that “gut feeling” by exploring the relationship between gut bacteria and how this may impact on behaviour, metabolism and mood via a signaling pathway called the gut-brain axis with early findings suggesting a possible link to conditions such as obesity and depression.

The future of gut bacteria is also fascinating as researchers at Kings College London predict that we may be able to receive individualized probiotic advice relating to the unique diversity of strains that make up our own personal microbiota.  Researchers have commented that it is naive to think that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to probiotics and that in the future.  Metagenomic testing may be able to map your microbiome by sequencing every gene in every living organism in your gut.  This would provide data on the functions of your microbes as well as viruses, fungi, virulent genes and antibiotics resistance.  Understanding this may help link in with the research around the how certain bacteria strains are associated with specific health conditions.

It may also be time to ditch expensive skin care products in place of probiotics to achieve a healthy, clear, glowing complexion.  Whilst the link between skin and gut bacteria is complicated, it has been shown that the health of your microbiome may be a significant player in the quest for healthy skin.  If your gut is overrun with bad bacteria or yeast then this can increase the permeability of the gut, which can result in inflammation as the immune system produces inflammatory cytokines in response to microbial toxins that enter your system.  Inflammation is at the root of skin conditions such as acne and research has shown how probiotic strains such as Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus plantarum may help to regulate the cytokines.  This doesn’t mean you can just pop a probiotic and expect great skin but there is an association with your microbiota.

 

Do we need to take probiotics?

If you have a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet then their maybe no need to invest in a probiotic but there is certainly no harm in taking them daily.  Probiotics are intended to be used in a therapeutic context as they help to deliver a beneficial dose to the gut that you may not be able to achieve by eating foods such as probiotic yoghurt.

 

What is the best way to take probiotics?

This is up to you really.  Probiotics are available in a capsule or tablet form such as Healthspan Super50 Pro (60 capsules for £28.50).  This form of probiotic is freeze-dried and activated on entering the gut. Other sources of probiotic yoghurt and drinks do contain beneficial strains but these are often not in as greater volume as a supplement or with as much variety.  You also need to be aware of the high sugar content of certain probiotic foods as some brands of ‘shot’ drinks have been shown to contain as much as 2 tsp of sugar. Probiotic foods are a good way to help maintain good bacterial levels but to make a real impact on the diversity of your microbiome you need a supplement.  Like all supplements, the key is to take them regularly to get the most benefit and this is even more important with probiotics as you are essentially trying to increase the amount in the gut.

 

What to think about when choosing and taking supplements

 If you’re considering taking a probiotic supplement then there are a few things you should consider when buying and whilst taking them.

  1. To be effective you need to choose a supplement that contains at least 10 million bacteria per serving.   
  2. Don’t take a probiotic supplement with hot food and drinks like tea or coffee as this can lessen the chance of the bacteria getting to your gut unharmed. Give it 30 minutes after taking them before you reach for the teapot.
  3. Alcohol can also render the bacteria in probiotic supplements useless so avoid knocking back with a glass of pinot!
  4. Research suggests that breakfast might be the best time of day as this is when bacteria have the greatest chances of surviving the acidic conditions in the upper part of the gut.
  5. Make sure you check the check the expiry date because once that’s passed there may not be any live bacteria left in the product.
  6. Choose a probiotic that includes a wide variety of strains to get the most benefit.

 

 Download PDF here (The culture club)