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A guide to caring for the Indian gut

It turns out that what works for the West may not work best for you. Gut bacteria varies from culture to culture, and scientists are only now unravelling the implications of this.
By Cherylann Mollan | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON FEB 15, 2020 03:51 PM IST

Gut health, gut bacteria, and their role in our overall health, immune systems and even brain function, have become part of almost every how-to-live-healthy guide.

A healthy gut can boost immunity, elevate mood, even keep obesity and diabetes at bay. There are initiatives dedicated solely to studying gut microbiome, like the American Gut Project, British Gut Project, EU MyNewGut Project.

Indian guts are a belly apart. Read on to find out a little more about why, as well as how to care better for your gut.

STOMACH RUMBLINGS

Researchers from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhopal, and the National Centre for Microbial Research, Pune, have found the gut microbiome of healthy Indians to be different from those of healthy people from China, the US and Denmark.

What new research is uncovering

A study by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences revealed that healthier gut flora is found in those living at higher altitudes as compared to those living in urban areas and at sea level.

Studies by TCS Innovation labs, Pune, and the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad, revealed that malnourished children have a higher number of harmful pathogenic gut bacteria than healthy children

India is now gearing for its very own Human Microbiome Project. Set to cost Rs 150 crore, it aims to map the trillions of microbes found in Indians, including those found in the gut.

The project will cover 20,000 individuals from across 100 communities, to generate baseline microbiota data for Indians, define the core microbiome of remote tribal populations, and determine linkages between changes in gut microbiota and heightened risk of certain diseases.

They liken it to the difference between flora and fauna in different ecosystems. In the same way that you don’t find the same plants and animals in Delhi as you do in Denmark, the kinds of bacteria that you find in the gut differ from region to region.

“That’s because gut microbiota is easily influenced by diet, environment and genetics,” says professor NK Ganguly, president of the Gut Microbiota and Probiotic Science Foundation (GMPSF, India), a non-profit organisation focused on educating health care professionals.

“The Western diet is high in fat and protein, whereas ours tends to be high in carbs and fibre,” adds Dr Neerja Hajela, secretary of the GMPSF. “Hence there are different sets of microbiota determining the functioning of the Western and Indian gut.”

The different diets traditionally followed are part of the reason for these differences. “There is no scientific evidence to suggest that Western probiotic rich foods will not work as well for the Indian gut or vice versa. But it will take longer for the stomach to adjust to an unfamiliar foodstuff, well enough, for it to work as well,” Dr Hajela says.

GUT SUPERFOODS FOR YOU

To promote the growth of good gut bacteria, Indians should eat more wholegrain wheat, oats, millets and bajra for fiber. “Green vegetable like kale, spinach and broccoli are also good for the Indian gut,” says Dr Hajela.

Dr Amreen Shaikh, head dietician and nutritionist with Wockhardt Hospital, Mumbai, suggests having a bowl of curd or a glass of buttermilk every day, and / or haldi doodh (hot milk with turmeric). Traditionally, these were the foods that boosted gut bacteria in Indians, and they remain the ones likely to work best.

In addition, Shaikh suggests adding spices like coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, ginger and garlic to soups and gravies as they aid digestion, and boost gut health.

Traditional fermented foods like idlis, dosas and dhoklas are rich in probiotics — living microorganisms that help restore gut flora. “Along with being easily available, these preparations are also more suited to the Indian gut, since they’re familiar foods.”

Dr Roy Patankar, director of Mumbai’s Zen Multispecialty Hospital, says it’s important to check that the yoghurt you’re consuming contains lactobacillus, since it’s often missing in store-bought varieties.

“There’s also this fad of consuming probiotic tablets. If you’re doing so, see that it’s not the variety that gets destroyed by hydrochloric acid in the gut,” he says. “Also, don’t ingest the same probiotics for months at a time. It works better to have a rotation where you switch sources every two weeks.”

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