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Maintaining a healthy weight – is there a link to the gut?

The new year is a time when we all make resolutions and often these are health and particularly weight related. For some this is to detoxify after the festive season and for others it’s simply a time to kickstart some good habits and perhaps lose a few pounds in the process.

In this article, we discuss some of the factors that can impact our weight and in particular what we can do to support our gut to help maintain a healthy weight at all times.

What factors impact our weight?

Our weight is affected by many factors, both from our external environment and our internal bodily systems – and these factors can change throughout our lives. They include the following:

  • Diet –  the message for many years was to cut calories and particularly the amount of fat we eat in order to lose weight. The reality is that excess sugar and processed carbohydrate intake impacts our blood sugar and excess sugar is removed from the blood and packed into cells in the body as fat for use when it is needed.
  • Exercise – lack of exercise affects our metabolism and both physical and mental health – the positive impacts of moderate daily exercise cannot be understated.
  • Lifestages – our metabolism and health changes as we age and go through the different stages of life and our ‘organ reserve’ diminishes. This can affect all of our organ systems and as a result impact our weight. 
  • Medications medications impact different systems in the body and this lack of function may contribute to weight gain. Many medications list weight gain as one of the possible side effects of taking them.
  • Genetics – often blamed for an inability to lose weight, genetics may contribute to body shape, but recent developments in what is known as epigenetics show that lifestyle choices decide whether genes are activated and we have more control over our genes than previously thought.
  • General lifestyle factors – smoking, alcohol intake, sleep, stress and lack of time spent outdoors all affect health and directly impact weight through their impact on blood sugar and gut function.
  • Gut health – digestive symptoms indicate that we are not assimilating our food properly and suggest an imbalance in gut bacteria and possible nutrient deficiencies as the nutrients in our food cannot be utilised. 

What does the gut do to help manage weight?

As suggested above, there are many factors that influence our weight and the gut is central to many of these effects.

If our digestive system is not functioning optimally, this will impact the other systems in our bodies as we will be unable to digest and absorb the nutrients required for these other systems. 

For example, energy is not simply provided by carbohydrates, but is then taken through a process that requires B vitamins to act as cofactors to make the process work. Similarly, magnesium is a cofactor in more than 300 enzyme reactions in the body and zinc is vital for enzymes that help synthesise DNA.

In relation to weight specifically, chromium is essential in insulin activity and effective insulin activity is essential for managing and maintaining healthy blood sugar levels which are directly related to weight management.

Impaired digestion may also lead to inflammation, which can further impact insulin signalling pathways, leading to fluctuating blood sugar levels and potential weight gain. 

Some of the key things we can do to support gut health include the following:

  1. Increase bacterial diversity – consume prebiotic fibres and beneficial bacteria through supplements and food.
  2. Exercise daily for at least 30 minutes to help support blood flow around the body, stool motility and even bacterial diversity.
  3. Exercising and/or playing outdoors in a natural environment can help to introduce further bacterial diversity.
  4. Limit alcohol intake and avoid cigarette smoking as both reduce microbial diversity in our microbiome and contribute to inflammation throughout our body.
  5. Implement stress management strategies and work on achieving 7-8 hours of restful sleep every night. Any form of stress results in the body releasing a hormone known as cortisol, which not only increases blood sugar and contributes to inflammation, but suppresses digestion as the body is concerned with dealing with the stress.
  6. Examine your diet – eat a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes, as well as fermented foods when possible. Reduce sugar intake and always eat carbohydrates with protein and fat to slow down the rate of absorption and help to regulate blood sugar levels.
  7. Only take antibiotics when essential as they deplete gut bacteria. If you do need them, take a supplement of live bacteria alongside the course of antibiotics and for at least two weeks after. Always leave at least two hours between the antibiotic dose and taking the friendly bacteria.
  8. Finally, it is useful to be aware that as we age, the bacterial diversity in our microbiome diminishes naturally and we may need to change our diet and lifestyle to account for this.

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