Amino profiles, plant-based diets and kombucha: everything you need to know about the gut health craze

In the crowded field of nutrition and wellness, rapper Professor Green has just launched a range of gut health supplements. 

Diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as a child, Pro Green — real name Stephen Manderson — spent much of his lifetime battling digestive issues, and has had numerous gut-related surgeries, the first while still a baby.

His gut health epiphany came after a total lifestyle overhaul.

Manderson says his liquid probiotic supplements, Aguulp are absorbed within four minutes. This compares to 20% ingestion of nutrients from tested traditional pill-form supplements after half an hour.

GOOD GUT: Professor Green’s new range of probiotics. Picture credit: Courtesy of Aguulp

The probiotics market is booming, as Al Overton, buying director at Planet Organic, will attest. A qualified herbalist, he has worked at the London-based chain of health food stores for 20 years.

“We’ve been selling probiotics since I’ve been here and we’ve seen that market continue to grow, broaden and develop. Probiotics went through a few years when each new product was stronger than the last.

“Now we’ve got a lot more medical knowledge around different strains, so we can be more targeted.”

Manderson started taking a multi-species probiotic called Symprove, drinking Boo Chi, a brand of kombucha (fermented tea), eating a plant-based diet, combined with plenty of exercise. It had a transformative effect on his previously “terrible” amino profiles and vitamin deficiencies, but it wasn’t the only thing that changed for the better.

“Much to my surprise, the better care I took of my gut, the better I felt mentally. I slept better, my energy was more consistent throughout the day and my mood was better,” he wrote in The Independent.

Our bodies contain more bacteria than they do human cells, meaning that we are more something else than we are ourselves.

The gut microbiome is a complex community of trillions of gut bacteria and fungi — “gut bugs” — inhabiting every nook and cranny of the gastrointestinal tract, mostly in the colon (the main part of the large intestine). This “microbe organ” weighs the equivalent of 2kg in an adult — more than a 1.4kg average human brain — and some claim it might have just as much influence over our bodies. 

It is responsible for making hormones, chemical messengers such as serotonin, vitamins and amino acids. It also communicates with other vital organs, including the brain, liver and heart.

Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle discusses why the gut microbiome is the most important organ you’ve probably never heard of.

The vagus nerve is one of the main ways the gut and brain communicate. It comes from the medulla oblongata at the back of the neck all the way down to the gut. There are more afferent neurones [fibres] going to the brain from the gut, than the other way around. If you’ve got a gut feeling about something, then that’s your gut communicating with the brain.

Growing consensus among medical minds suggests that gut microbiomes also play a major role in the operation of our immune system. Around 80% of our immune cells reside on the gut lining, or GALT, gut associated lymphoid tissue.

The richer, and more diverse our microbiomes are, the lower our risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

More people than ever complain of self-diagnosed food intolerances or gluten sensitivity.

A lot of this boils down to IBS, which is a functional gut condition, rather than a food intolerance.

Dr Megan Rossi, a research fellow at KCL and the author of Eat Yourself Healthy, describes IBS as “a dysfunction in communication between the gut and the brain. We’re not entirely sure why and how that happens.”

Rossi drinks kefir — fermented cows’ milk — daily. It has a positive effect on gut health because the microbes responsible for fermentation produce chemicals that interact with the brain, on what is known as the gut-brain axis.

So the food you eat affects your mental health, as Manderson has found.

In one Australian trial, 76 participants with moderate-to-severe clinical depression were split into two groups. One stayed on their regular medication, but were given a gut-boosting diet high in fibre. The other remained on their usual diet of processed foods.

After three months, 30% of the high-fibre group had such a pronounced reduction in their depression scores that they were no longer classed as clinically depressed. For the placebo group, that figure was 8%.

At present, the medical world still questions the effectiveness of probiotics. “Although microbial research has exploded over the past five years, it is still in its infancy,” said Dr Gemma Newman, a medical doctor of 16 years, with a book, The Plant Power Doctor, out in January next year.

“We don’t yet fully know whether probiotic supplements are going to be any good for us long term. But we know that prebiotic supplements may be. 

“They are essentially ways to feed our good gut bugs. That’s why having more plants in our diets is absolutely integral to long term gut and immune health. 

“Healthy gut bugs feed on dietary fibre. You’re not feeding gut bugs if you’re not eating fibre. That is a prebiotic. Places where you can get these prebiotics are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.” 

Forget three-day green juice cleanses: good gut health boils down to moderation and plant diversity. The consensus is that we should be eating a rainbow of 30 different types of plant-based foods every week. Those differences can be as minimal as green and yellow peppers: each will have a varying composition of chemicals and fibres, appealing to slightly different gut bacteria.

Overton said: “We’re all coming out of the scientific food revolution, where we’re thinking science is going to tell us what to eat, when in reality, it’s our grandparents who are telling us what to eat.”

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