Welcome to Ask A Dietitian, a series where Yahoo Canada digs into food trends and popular nutrition questions with registered dietitian Abbey Sharp.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.
In the age of viral TikTok "hacks" and wellness influencers touting miracle cures for gut health, the question arises: can we truly "fix" our gut microbiome?
To shed light on this topic, Yahoo Canada turn to registered dietitian Abbey Sharp for insights into the intricate relationship between diet and gut health.
Here's what you need to know about signs of an imbalanced gut microbiome and how our food choices impact our gut health.
What is the gut microbiome and why is it important?
The gut microbiome plays a crucial role in our overall health, influencing systems like mental health, heart health, immune function, body weight and more.
Sharp explained "the gut is often called our second brain" due to its impact on our mood and immune system, with 50 per cent of our brain's dopamine produced in the gut and 70 per cent of our immune system residing there.
Gut health is about a lot more than just pooping or not being bloated.
"When our gut health is in a state of dysbiosis (imbalance), we actually can see a wide range of different health problems," she claimed. "We really do want to focus on fostering a really good healthy microbiome."
What are the signs of an imbalance in the gut microbiome?
Symptoms of dysbiosis, or an imbalance in the gut microbiome, can vary widely.
Common signs include:
gastrointestinal issues like gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea
mental health disturbances
However, these symptoms can also have other specific causes, so Sharp emphasized it's important to consult a healthcare professional for accurate diagnosis and treatment.
What causes this imbalance? From prenatal circumstance to diet
The microbiome, Sharp explained, is "literally constantly changing every second of every day." But factors contributing to an unhealthy gut microbiome can begin early in life — even before birth.
"Prenatal and early life experiences can set us up for early dysbiosis... It starts as early as mom's diet during pregnancy, or if mom has had to take antibiotics while pregnant, that can affect baby's gut microbiome, having a C-section versus vaginal delivery, being fed formula versus breast milk."
On the other hand, research shows moms who "consume a really plant rich diet that's low in ultra-processed foods while pregnant can positively affect their baby's microbiome," Sharp added.
However, the expert assured the gut isn't set and continues to change.
I never want moms to feel like they've done anything wrong by making the choices that they have, or just by having the birthing experience that they had to have.
Diet also plays a significant role in shaping the gut microbiome. A diet rich in plant-based foods, particularly those high in fibre, promotes a healthy microbiome by providing prebiotics, which feed beneficial bacteria.
In contrast, a diet low in fibre and high in processed foods can lead to dysbiosis, as these foods are quickly digested and offer little to no nutrients for gut bacteria.
Interestingly, consuming high-fibre foods may result in fewer "absorbed" calories, as some of the calories are utilized by gut bacteria. "When we have high-fibre foods, some of those calories are actually being 'absorbed' by the bacteria, so we're not even using them as as fuel," Sharp claimed.
"This is actually one of the proposed reasons why we see that folks who are thin have a different microbiome profile than folks who are larger bodied," she said.
More fibre means more bacteria grow; more fibre means more calories get gobbled up.
As more calories get "gobbled up" by this beneficial bacteria, the risk of chronic disease and obesity is lowered.
Can dietary changes really 'fix' my gut microbiome?
While there's no one-size-fits-all solution to "fixing" the microbiome, certain dietary changes can support its health.
Incorporating probiotic-rich foods or supplements, particularly spore-based bacillus strains, can help restore microbial balance.
"I don't recommend people just take whatever probiotic they want," Sharp said. "Really, it's about variety. If you have a compromised gut, the bacillus strains are my favourite for that reason, because they are just foolproof, and they're safe for everybody."
Additionally, maintaining a plant-rich diet with ample fibre and minimal processed foods is key to fostering a healthy microbiome.
What to know
There are several misconceptions surrounding gut health, including the belief that gut health is solely determined by the absence of bloating or discomfort.
Sharp emphasized the importance of not jumping to conclusions about gut health based on short-term symptoms. Elimination diets and extreme dietary approaches may actually make it worse, by depriving the gut of essential nutrients and prebiotics.
While dietary changes can positively influence the gut microbiome, there's no quick fix.
A balanced approach that prioritizes whole, fibre-rich foods and seeks professional guidance for individualized care is essential for promoting long-term gut health.