Top nutrition scientist, Dr Federica Amati, is at the cutting edge of gut health and widely acclaimed for making the myriad activities of your bowel seem exciting — even sexy.
She works closely with Professor Tim Spector at ZOE, the nutrition science company that everyone is talking about, and was part of the team which developed the new ZOE x M&S Gut Shot which has been flying off the shelves.
Here she explains why we should all share her gut-related enthusiasms and reveals her sometimes surprising advice for achieving optimal gut health. . . fast.
‘It may not sound sexy, but my work has become dedicated to understanding as much as possible about how the food we eat and our lifestyle affects the populations of bacteria, fungi and microbes that live in our gut — and to helping others improve their gut health.
My own microbiome has had its ups and downs; from a natural birth and breastfeeding (good) to regular antibiotic use due to recurring tonsillitis as a child (not so good), I have subjected my internal gut garden to a variety of challenges.
A happy microbiome is your route to higher energy levels, less hunger, feeling less bloated and better sleep
Dr Federica Amati explains why we should all share her gut-related enthusiasms and reveals her sometimes surprising advice for achieving optimal gut health. . . fast.
Luckily for me and my microbes, that gut garden is a resilient ecosystem, and I’ve been hugely reassured by all the fast-emerging science which shows we can rapidly improve our gut health — no matter how depleted and unhappy our microbiome might be.
And I’m very excited by the growing research which shows what a far-reaching impact a happy gut can have on so many aspects of our mental and physical health.
The role of the gut microbiome has been underestimated until fairly recently, but we now know we have more microbial genes in our body than human genes. The role these tiny organisms play in orchestrating our health is frankly mind-blowing.
Our microbiome can influence our mood, our appetite, our food choices, our immune system, whether we will sail through menopause or not, and even our bone health. It controls our resilience against disease and our body’s ability to mount appropriate immune responses, as well as how well our lungs recover if we catch covid or a bad cold.
This happens because of a wonderful trade that occurs in the gut —when we eat foods rich in fibre and colourful plant chemicals called polyphenols, the microbes living there break down these fibres and, in return, produce hundreds of different chemicals (called postbiotics) making us feel and function better.
This includes enzymes, vitamins, short-chain fatty acids, amino acids and neurotransmitters (signalling molecules in the brain).
Thanks to this symbiotic relationship, a happy microbiome is your route to higher energy levels, less hunger, feeling less bloated and better sleep. And there’s no longer any doubt that nurturing your gut is the best way to fortify your body’s immune defences and lay the foundation for long-term health.
Your biological dating app can choose a mate
Our gut microbes are so influential they can affect mood, behaviour and even play a part in your choice of mate — helping you pick a compatible partner like a biological dating app.
Scientists believe microbes in the gut control the release of sexual chemicals known as pheromones, which can stimulate desire.
Key microbes, densely populated in the armpits and groin, help to regulate the release of these pheromones as well, and they also work to convert skin oils into your own personal blend of fatty acids which go to make up your personal fragrance.
During sex, or when you kiss, millions of microbes are swapped, and over time, if you share an environment and eat similar foods, you will start to share similar microbial features as your partner — for good as well as bad
This is important because smell is one of the key senses in sexual attraction and partner selection.
Through their smell, pheromones are thought to play a role in signalling immune compatibility (which is a crucial factor in fertility), directly linked to our gut microbiome health. Your microbes may — without you realising — nudge you towards selecting a mate with a complimentary immune profile, as identified by their odour.
During sex, or when you kiss, millions of microbes are swapped, and over time, if you share an environment and eat similar foods, you will start to share similar microbial features as your partner — for good as well as bad.
Swell your midlife support squad
From the age of 50 onwards, our health can really start to nosedive. Yes, midlife health is partly determined by genes, but genes are merely the musical notes in the concerto that is our lives.
How loudly, softly, quickly or poignantly those notes are played depends on many other factors including the annotations (epigenetics — or the steps we take to mitigate the effect of our genes), the conductor (lifestyle and diet) and the other players in your orchestra (your microbiome), as well as the hall you’re playing it in (context and environment).
It’s the difference between singing a solo in the school hall and performing with a professional orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall. The notes (your genes) are the same, but the performance (your health and longevity) is very different.
Midlife is a very important time to pick up the baton and start swelling the ranks of your orchestra.
Girls, say hello to your ‘estrobolome’
You might have read that a healthy diet can help ease the transition through menopause, but now we know why — scientists have recently discovered a specialist team of gut microbes (called the estrobolome) which work as a microbial control centre to regulate the amount of oestrogen in your system.
We now think a happy estrobolome helps to increase the amount of oestrogen in your system. This discovery means eating well at this time of life is pivotal.
A healthy diet can help ease the transition through menopause
Looking after these microbes could hold the key to steadier oestrogen levels, which means fewer (or less intense) menopausal symptoms and reduced risk of the post-menopausal health concerns (obesity, cancers, cardiovascular disease) which are associated with depleted oestrogen.
ZOE studies show that for most women, after menopause, the gut bacteria profile becomes more like that of a man of the same age, than that of a premenopausal woman. The change in microbes and metabolism means we respond to foods differently and this helps to explain why so many women report weight gain (and increased belly fat) even though they might be eating the same food as before.
Quick results from simple choices
It is clear that your gut responds badly to a poor diet of processed foods, stress, and antibiotics.
But adopting a diet rich in fibre and fermented foods can bolster a diverse and robust microbiome and fortify this critical ecosystem — and fast. A single dose of mixed curry spices can be enough to have a beneficial impact. One study has shown kimchi can help with metabolic markers in obesity and another that drinking coffee could lower your risk of depression, by altering the microbiome.
30-a-week is the new ‘5-a-day’
I’m afraid five portions of fruit and vegetables a day isn’t enough to sustain a happy gut — particularly if you tend to stick to the same carrots, peas and apples day in and day out.
To properly support your gut health, three-quarters of your plate (breakfast, lunch and dinner) should be plants (wholegrains, beans, nuts and fruit and vegetables of all types).
Five portions of fruit and vegetables a day isn’t enough to sustain a happy gut — particularly if you tend to stick to the same carrots, peas and apples day in and day out
The latest science shows that although the fibre and nutrients from vegetables are great for your health, our microbiome thrives on diversity, so we need to ideally consume 30 different types of plant foods in a week.
Try it — it’s not as overwhelming as you might think. Each spice or herb, for instance, counts as one, coffee is plant-sourced, so is tea, and every type of nut and seed, bean and lentil offers its own beneficial plant compounds.
Fermented food as fertiliser
Scientists are getting very excited about adding fermented foods to the diet because it’s like adding fertiliser to a flower bed.
Yes, a probiotic capsule might introduce one or a few strains of beneficial bacteria, but these microbes arrive naked, isolated from their ecosystem.
When you eat a spoon of sauerkraut, a cube of stinky blue cheese or a dollop of live yoghurt you are delivering multiple strains of helpful bacteria embedded in their own ecosystem which helps them thrive in your gut.
Eating a spoonful of sauerkraut can help your gut to thrive as it delivers multiple strains of helpful bacteria
Aim to eat three to five small portions of different ferments throughout the day. Try kefir (fermented milk drink) for breakfast, a spoon of kimchi (a spicy fermented cabbage) or sauerkraut (another fermented cabbage) with your lunch.
Other useful fermented options include natural live yoghurt, some cheeses (traditional Cheddar, parmesan, Swiss cheeses, and blue cheese), unfiltered or raw apple cider vinegar (drink one tablespoon in a glass of water or make it into a salad dressing with olive oil), miso paste, kombucha fermented green tea).
But start slowly to give your microbiome time to adapt.
Drink wine, But keep track of how much
I grew up with my big Italian family drinking just one glass of red wine with dinner.
Unfortunately, society’s drinking culture has shifted to more unhealthy patterns. It may come as a shock to hear, but alcohol is a carcinogenic neurotoxin, and your microbiome doesn’t like it at all.
Drinking too much alcohol increases your risk of breast cancer and it acts as an irritant in your gut causing inflammation and increasing your risk of all intestinal cancers
Drinking too much increases your risk of breast cancer (if you are genetically predisposed to the disease) and it acts as an irritant in your gut causing inflammation and increasing your risk of all intestinal cancers. Drink less or cut it out completely.
As told to Louise Atkinson
Dr Amati is author of Recipes for a better menopause, published by Octopus (out now). Recipes created by Jane Baxter.