It is estimated that around 250,000  people in the UK suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, and recent research suggests that the balance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria that live in our gut could be responsible.
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), sometimes known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) can cause significant long-term disability in people affected.
It seems to primarily affect the young, with peak diagnosis occurring between the ages of 20-45, and predominantly among women compared to men . The younger the age at diagnosis, the better the outcome .
New research from the US has discovered that there is a relationship between people living with CFS/ME and abnormal levels of unhealthy bacteria residing in their stomach.
This correlation was discovered because it was noted that a significant proportion of patients with CFS/ME also have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic condition that causes intermittent bouts of diarrhoea and constipation, bloating, stomach pains/cramping, among other unpleasant symptoms.
The bacteria that live in the gut are known to researchers as “the gut microbiota”, literally meaning “tiny organisms” – and thus includes all small living things such as bacteria and fungi.
Having these microorganisms in our gut is rapidly being recognised as essential for the way our health behaves. Most of these organisms are friendly and helpful to us, but a small proportion are not. Whilst we all have unfriendly microbiota, they are mostly outnumbered by the friendly and therefore do no harm.
But when they grow in number and become a reckoning force to the friendly, ill health can occur such as IBS and now, possibly CFS/ME .
Can we influence our gut microbiota?
The only way to know whether you have an imbalance of microbiota in your gut is to have your faeces (poo) analysed. There are various private companies that will do this for you, such as Map My Gut, but what if you discover you have an imbalance?
The most effective way you can influence the bugs that live in your gut is through your diet. What you eat on a daily basis has a significant effect on your gut, because different bacteria and fungi rely on what you’re giving them. And each species has a preferred diet!
So to encourage the friendly bacteria to grow and populate, and discourage the unfriendly, you need to follow these rules:
- Eat a diet that is higher in soluble fibre. Soluble fibre is the type that dissolves in water, causing a jelly-like substance to occur. The easiest and quickest way to see soluble fibre, is to soak something like flaxseeds in water. After a while, they turn to jelly, not unlike frog sporn! That’s simply the soluble fibre taking up water. Oats, seeds, fruits and vegetables are all good examples of foods higher in soluble fibre.
- Drink plenty of water. When you increase the fibre in your diet, you need to compensate this by drinking more water, because fibre will take up water, denying your body access to it.
- Eat foods higher in fructo-oligo-saccharides. This comes with a special warning though, if you suffer from IBS, you may have to avoid these foods! It’s ironic that the foods that your bacteria want, may also be the foods that cause you pain. These foods are called prebiotics, and include onions, garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, and asparagus.
- Eat foods that already have a high level of friendly bacteria. This includes any food that has been fermented (with the exception of alcohol), such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurt, blue cheeses, kefir, miso, and fermented drinks (like Yakult).
- Consider reading Tim Spector’s book The Diet Myth, it will change your thinking of food and nutrition. Tim is one of the country’s leading expert on diet and the gut microbiota.
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.