Gut health has become a huge health buzzword. We're seeing a proliferation of products claiming to be gut-healthy.
All of a sudden we're thinking about what's going on deep down inside.
It's interesting because once, scientists thought the population of bacteria that inhabits our bodies — known as our microbiome — was sitting there benignly co-existing with us, just coming along for the ride.
Now, the microbiome is the focus of some of the most exciting research around. It's emerging that gut bacteria can affect almost every aspect of our health, from how likely we are to develop diseases, to our mental health, to how fat or thin we are.
Some of the most interesting gut research is happening here in New Zealand. At the University of Otago, a project in the Healthier Lives National Science Challenge is investigating the use of probiotics — so-called good bacteria — to treat diabetes.
The trial is looking at whether adults with prediabetes who take a probiotic supplement can improve the glucose and fat levels in their blood. If the results are good, the potential is there for a simple treatment to prevent type 2 diabetes developing. It could be as simple as a powder or pill added to a meal.
The link between weight and gut bacteria is also interesting. It's emerging that a particular microbiome pattern may predispose some people to gaining weight.
Mouse studies have found that when the microbiome from fat mice is transplanted into mice with no gut bacteria, the mice develop obesity. When the microbiome from skinny mice is transplanted, the mice stay skinny.
You may be wondering how these transplants happen. This is where this conversation gets fascinating or really icky, depending on your perspective.
Gut microbiome transfer involves isolating the bacteria from a healthy person's poo and transplanting it to an unhealthy person.
In a ground-breaking trial at Auckland University's Liggins Institute, researchers are using this technique (via flavourless, odourless capsules, reassuringly) to transplant the gut bacteria from healthy, lean young people to obese teens.
The result could ultimately be a treatment for one of our most serious problems.
It's fair to say there's a huge amount still to learn about the gut microbiome.
But for those of us not in clinical trials, it appears there are some things we can do to help our gut bug populations become super healthy, short of a DIY poo transplant (which does happen — Google it!).
Having a diverse microbiome appears to be a feature of lean healthy people, so eating a diverse diet is a good start. Eat a wide variety of fibre to feed your bugs; vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
We know stress and anxiety has a negative impact on our microbiota, so dealing with stress is good.
Cutting the processed food, avoiding alcohol and smoking and eating fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha can also boost the bugs.
• Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide. www.healthyfood.co.nz