We all know that overindulging – in sugar-laden treats and alcoholic beverages – is unhealthy. Imagine the temptation of a platter of log cakes, honey-glazed ham, gingerbread cookies, eggnog, wine and hot chocolate. Few of us can resist a buffet table filled with our favourite Christmas goodies.
At a single glance, the relationship between overindulging on rich foods and alcohol on our health appears straightforward. Sugar has been labelled the culprit behind obesity and coronary heart disease, while alcohol damages our liver. The overconsumption of alcohol can lead to addiction and cognitive problems. These effects, coupled with a lack of exercise… well, you get the picture.
Now what if this isn't the entire picture?
It turns out that there is an additional factor, which has been overlooked for decades – our gut microbiome. Overloading our bodies with sugar and alcohol has far-reaching consequences that were unrecognised in the past. Today, this new-found knowledge allows us to solve some of the most common health ailments.
Understanding the gut microbiome
The gut microbiome refers to the ecosystem of microorganisms comprising of bacteria, yeasts and fungi living in our digestive tract. We harbour trillions of them inside our bodies. Putting them together, they can weigh up to 2kg – even heavier than our brains!
Two-thirds of our gut microbiome composition is unique. It is heavily influenced by the food that we eat. Studies have also suggested that it might be partially influenced by our genes as well.
In recent years, scientists have discovered how the bacteria in our gut microbiome may have an impact our well-being. Our gut bacteria is involved in metabolism, immunity, growth, and the fermentation of undigested carbohydrates. An imbalance of the bacteria has been linked to:
Infants with a lower diversity of gut bacteria at 3 months of age were found to be more sensitive to foods like eggs, milk and peanuts by the time they reach their first birthday.
Specific bacteria strains in the gut have been linked to cancers such as stomach cancer and colon cancer. In addition, a low gut microbiome diversity is linked to a poorer response to cancer treatments, like chemotherapy.
Effects of too much sugar and alcohol
Consuming too much sweets and booze can upset the balance of microbes in our gut, a condition known as gut dysbiosis.
More significantly, sugar has been found to suppress a beneficial bacteria (Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron) that is found in the digestive tract of healthy individuals. B. thetaiotaomicron plays a crucial role in fermenting fibre found in vegetables and fruits.
Sweeteners aren't exactly safe substitutes either, because sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose and stevia can affect the composition of our gut microbiome too. Saccharin in particular, has been shown to cause inflammation, because it disrupts the make-up of our gut microbiome.
The overconsumption of alcohol is harmful to our bodies. Not only does it damage the liver, alcohol has been found to reduce our gut's ability to produce naturally occurring antibiotics. The reduction in antibiotics allows harmful bacteria to flourish, further harming the liver. In this case, the damage caused by alcohol is two-fold.
So how does your gut tell you that something is amiss? Symptoms may range from subtle to the obvious, and you might experience one or more of the following:
- Tummy bloating
- Excessive gas (flatus, burping)
- Stomach ache
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sleep disturbances and chronic fatigue
- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
How can we protect our gut's health?
Changing our diets can have a positive impact on our gut bacteria. This can happen as quickly as 6 – 9 months after implementation.
Diet-wise, here are 3 simple things that you can do (both during the festive season and daily in your life):
1. Eat a wide variety of foods
The bacteria in your gut prefers a wide spectrum of foods and nutrients. Hence, to maintain gut microbial diversity, it is best to consume a range of food groups. This means that you can eat all your favourite foods at Christmas, but do consume them in moderation.
2. Increase your intake of prebiotics
The beneficial bacteria in your gut feeds on carbohydrates called prebiotics. Eating more prebiotics encourages them to multiply – which in turn results in better health. Prebiotics that can be easily incorporated into your diet include asparagus, beans, bananas, garlic, nuts and onions.
3. Probiotic supplements
Probiotics are good bacteria that bring about health benefits. A well-known probiotic is yogurt. Other fermented foods like kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut are good choices too. If fermented foods are not to your liking, you may consider a probiotic supplement instead.
Other simple, yet effective changes are sleeping more, managing stress, and making time for exercise. That's because disrupted sleep and stress can affect your gut microbiome negatively, while exercise increases the diversity of your microorganisms.
However, if your gut problems persist despite your best efforts, your next course of action might be to consult a gastroenterologist. He or she might be able to advise you on the next appropriate step – be it diet modification, lifestyle changes or investigations to check your digestive tract, such as an endoscopy or a breath test.
If you haven't already reached that point, be sure to take the right steps and prevent it from happening. As the wise saying goes, prevention is better than cure.