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The health-boosting benefits of horticulture

19th March 2019

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David Domoney delves deeper into how growing your own is beneficial for more than just your fitness

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ll have noticed that incredible stories about our gut microbiome are suddenly everywhere. A hot new area of research, the micro-organisms in our gut have been shown to affect everything from the speed of our metabolisms to our mood and immune system function. Looking after our gut microbiome, then, is a great way to improve our overall health – and the easiest way to look after our microbiome? Diet. In this article, I look at growing your own to support a good balance of gut flora and boost your overall health.

How does this work?

Your gut microbiome is the collection of micro-organisms, including bacteria, fungi and protozoa, that live in your gastrointestinal tract. There are around 100 trillion of these inside your gut right at this moment—that’s ten times more than there are human cells in your entire body! Think of it as a delicately balanced eco-system living within you, which can keep you healthy when the balance is maintained or make you sick when it goes off kilter. Evolving alongside us over millions of years, we have come to rely on our intestinal flora to provide us with the raw materials for many vital bodily functions. There are micro-organisms that create fatty acids used to regulate hormone production, appetite, blood sugar levels and colonic cell function, thereby reducing our risk of becoming overweight, experiencing low energy, getting type 2 diabetes and suffering from colonic cancer. There are micro-organisms that make essential vitamins for us, like the B vitamins (for energy, nervous system function and healthy skin) and vitamin K (for healing and strong bones), as well as micro-organisms that are linked with lower levels of stress and greater emotional stability. Conversely, there are micro-organisms that are associated with speedier furring of our arteries and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Getting the right balance in your gut flora, then, is all important to ensuring optimum health.

Say yes to plants

So, what constitutes a healthy microbiome and how do you get one? In a nutshell, a healthy microbiome is a diverse microbiome that has lots of different kinds of microorganisms living in harmony without just one or two types playing the tyrant. By far the easiest and most effective way to ensure that this happens is through your diet. You see, the food that we eat isn’t just feeding us, it’s feeding our gut flora, too. And, since different types of micro-organisms thrive on different types of food, we can boost or shrink the numbers of individual types of gut bacteria with what we choose to put into our mouths. Generally, eating a varied diet with lots of different types of plant matter and dietary fibre supports diversity and has positive health benefits, while feasting on large amounts of saturated fat, protein and sugar creates imbalance which can lead to illness. And here is where your allotment and garden come in.

A brilliant boost

With this in mind, let’s think about how growing your own can support you in your efforts to create a diverse microbiome which benefits your overall health. First up, a ready supply of plants. If you want a harmonious microbiome then there’s no two ways about it – you need to eat lots of plants. What better way to ensure that you eat lots of plants than to grow your own so that there’s always a ready supply on your doorstep? As I mentioned last month, ensuring a year-round crop is all about organisation – and the fantastic news is that you can start planning your garden at any time of year. You can find excellent advice Grow Your Own magazine as well as on my website about what to grow when to ensure a bumper supply of crops all year round.

Second up, growing your own can be a great way to increase variety in yours and your family’s diet. Whereas your local supermarket is likely to stock the same limited range of common fruits and vegetables throughout the year, you’ve got the choice to spread your wings and fly much further afield. Sure, they’ve always got regular orange carrots, but have they got purple, white and black ones? Probably not. They’ll have bog standard English veggies like broccoli, leek and onions, yes, but will they have foreign favourites like Pak choi, Kohl rabi and red chicory? Unlikely. Growing your own is an easy way to expand your diet to include unusual varieties that you won’t otherwise find in the shops.

For maximum variety, you could also swap produce with willing allotment keepers and neighbours so that a few of your cape gooseberries are exchanged for some of their boysenberries, your yellow courgettes for their edamame beans and so on. If you’re new to allotment keeping, you’ll find that seasoned grow your owners are often open to deals like these – when you get good at it, you can often end up with a glut of produce that you’re only too happy to have put to good use by other locals, especially if you get something delicious back in return.

If you’re not sure what to grow for good gut health, go by colour – different colours in fruits and vegetables indicate the presence of different compounds and these, in turn, feed different types of micro-organisms in your gut. This is a great strategy for with young kids as well – grow, and then challenge them to eat, an entire rainbow of colours every single day and you’ll be creating the right environment for optimum gut health in your little ones. For those of us with fussy eaters, you may also be interested to know that research by Cornell University shows that kids are more likely to eat their food when they’ve got six different colours on their plate. So this approach is great for getting them to eat anything at all as well as eat in a way that ensures good balance in their gut bacteria.

With a healthy gut microbiome playing such a huge role in our overall health, growing your own bumper crop of unusual plant varieties is not only a fun pastime but also an excellent way to maximise wellbeing. Get growing your own today!


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