Just in case you haven’t heard by now (although I’m not sure where you’ve been if you haven’t!) gut health is kind of a big deal in the nutrition world. We know that certain biochemical reactions that go on in your gut can have implications for reducing inflammation, controlling appetite, controlling fat storage, regulating glucose metabolism, improving bowel regularity, increasing immune response, regulating neurotransmitter production and hence affecting brain and mood health and much more.
You can read more about gut health in my article Can You Do Too Much Gut Lovin and Are Gut Health Supplements Worth It? however one question I get asked often is how long does it take for gut health to improve if we do start incorporating the recommended habits associated with a healthy gut?
The first thing that is important to note here is what does a ‘healthy gut’’ actually mean? Is there a certain checklist of bacteria that need to be present in exact amounts to confirm that you have a healthy gut? Not quite. When it comes to gut health we determine how ‘healthy’' it is by assessing if it is performing all of the functions it should be, as opposed to assessing it for having a specific balance of bacteria and other microorganisms. What we do know however, is that the more diverse the bacteria in your gut, the more associated health benefits for you.
So if you begin on what many refer to as a gut healing journey, how soon can you expect results? Some studies, mostly on animals but also a few on humans, show that you can see differences within a couple of days. However, if the new healthy habits are ceased, then the microbiome reverts back to it’s original composition.
Another thing to consider here is that microbes can be opportunistic whereby they can stay dormant and when the right environment is presented (this could be stress, a high sugar diet or other dietary pattern), they thrive. A good example of this is re-bound weight gain.
So imagine me as the body size I am now (within the healthy weight range), I have a particular composition of gut bacteria that is reflective of that size. Then picture me if I had an extra 20kg on my body, I would have a different composition of gut bacteria that was reflective of me at that larger size. Now if the overweight me, did an 8 week challenge and lost a heap of weight, my bacteria composition would start to shift to be more reflective of a lean body shape. However, the bacteria doesn’t just die off that quickly, so in the meantime it can sit there dormant. Now that dormant bacteria likely thrived off refined and junk food that was the culprit of the extra body weight in the first place, so if after my 8 week challenge I go back to eating those foods, the bacteria are still there just waiting patiently until they can thrive on it again and hence the weight can be put back on, and very likely even more weight, which is what we refer to as re-bound weight gain.
Something else to consider, especially for pathogenic bacteria is that they can exist in something called biofilm which in non scientific terms is basically a slime layer that encloses the bacteria as well as other molecules and is embedded in the matrix of the GI tract. This provides protection and can make it difficult for even something as strong at antibiotics to penetrate and kill off the bacteria.
So to answer the question…to kill off dormant bacteria it can take up to 6 months. This highlights the importance that if any healthy habits are being adopted they must be sustained for at least this amount of time to result in permanent shifts in your microbiome. One thing we do know however is something that can speed up the killing off of dormant bacteria is polyphenols (you can read more about them here).
You must take into consideration however what your starting point is. If you’ve just come off multiple rounds of antibitoics (which kill the good and the bad bacteria) then it might take more than 6 months for you to fully rebuild a healthy microbiome. Likewise if you’ve had a diet filled with processed food, lots of alcohol and a lot of stress. If biofilm is a barrier then it may take more time also and you might require added support with antimicrobial supplements too.
So the take home message here is that there is no short term fix to healing your gut. Building a healthy microbiome can take up to 6 months if the correct healthy habits are adopted (diet, exercise, sleep and stress management - and also supplements if needed) however it really is a life long journey because you need to continue these habits to maintain a healthy microbiome.
Just in case you’ve forgotten, the best foods for a healthy microbiome are an abundance of vegetables, fruits, legumes, wholegrains, extra virgin olive oil, yoghurt, kefir, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, fermented vegetables and bone broth.