Gut health is key to overall health. Which makes perfect sense as the gut, aka our gastrointestinal tract, is the organ system in charge of digesting the food we eat. The mouth, oesophagus, stomach and intestines work together to extract the energy and nutrients our body needs to thrive from it and then our rectum and anus get rid of any leftover waste1.
However, our busy modern lives can sometimes compromise our gut health, which isn’t hard to do as our gut is incredibly complex. Not many of us can say we’ve never had tummy troubles. Whether it’s a gluten intolerance, indigestion or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), an unhappy gut can make anyone miserable.
Looking for some advice? Here’s our guide on everything you need to maintain a happy and healthy gut.
How can a healthy gut improve overall health?
A really important factor in gut health is the balance of healthy ‘live bacteria and harmful ‘bad’ bacteria. We have over 100 trillion live bacteria, aka our microbiome, living in our gut which help our bodies with a number of tasks. This microbiome actually accounts for 90% of the cells in our body. However, if our gut’s healthy natural bacteria balance gets toppled, we can start to experience some problems.
A healthy gut with the right balance of bacteria may help your body in the following ways:
- Immunity: maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut can help to support your immune system. In the same way as taking too many antibiotics – and disturbing the balance, can weaken the immune system2
- Heart health: evidence suggests that total cholesterol in the blood can be reduced with probiotic supplements3
- Digestive issues: a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut has been seen to help with bowel disorders like lactose intolerance and antibiotic-induced diarrhoea4
- Sleep and fatigue: our gut microbiome may affect the quality of our sleep. This is because our gut is responsible for producing most of our serotonin – a hormone that affects sleep5
Your gut is your ‘second brain’
Our ‘gut brain’ contains millions of nerve cells and helps control digestion, sensing the food we’ve eaten and responding to it, adjusting digestive secretions, absorbing nutrients and telling our brain what’s going on.
Our brain and our gut are closely connected in order to allow digestion to happen under the right circumstances. This is why eating a meal when we’re stressed can cause symptoms like bloating, as our body is focused on fight or flight, rather than digesting our food.
Experiencing an emotional upset while eating can also trigger digestive problems. Your ‘gut brain’ remembers the upset and can develop symptoms around the contents of that meal – after receiving bad news in a fish restaurant, you might then react to fish, for example.
Is your gut healthy?
Gut health is a tricky one to determine. There is never simply a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, as there isn’t a single measure used to asses the health of our gut. However, there are some signs that you can look out for that may give you an indication either way.
Signs of a healthy gut
Healthy bowel movements: we are talking about your digestive system here, so it only makes sense that our stools can be a great indicator for gut health. Smooth ‘sausage-like’ stools are ideal, not hard, lumpy or really squishy ones. And while they’re going to smell like roses… if you smell something really foul in the bathroom, this could be a sign that something is up6.
Signs of an unhealthy gut
Constipation / irregular stools: if your bowel movements are hard and difficult to pass, this is classed as constipation and a sign that your gut isn’t as healthy as it could be. This is the same for loose and watery stools aka diarrhoea. Make sure you are drinking enough water, consuming enough fibre in your diet and exercising regularly7.
Upset stomach: as well as toilet troubles, issues like abdominal bloating, gas and heartburn can all be signs of an unhealthy gut. A gut with a balanced microbiome should process food and eliminate waste more smoothly8.
Poor sleep: having trouble sleeping can be affected by how our body’s production of serotonin – which is made predominantly in the gut. If our gut microbiome is unbalanced, it’s serotonin production may be compromised, which could affect our sleep9.
Foods to help you have a healthy gut
The food you eat can have a significant impact on your gut bacteria diversity. In general, high intake of animal proteins, saturated fats, sugar and salt can create an environment in which pathogenic bacteria thrives. On the contrary, eating complex carbohydrates, plant proteins, omega-3, polyphenols and micronutrients is associated with better beneficial bacteria growth and function.
As well as following the above advice, the following foods may help you maintain a healthy gut:
- Yogurt: yogurt is made by fermenting lactic acid in milk with Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilu. There is evidence that consuming yoghurt with live and active cultures, like probiotic yogurt, can improve digestion for those with a lactose intolerance10
- Probiotic foods: probiotics are live microorganisms that interact with your own microbiota, sometimes helping to restore a balance11. You can also get probiotic drinks that work in the same way. Examples of probiotic foods include: yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, pickles, kimchi and tempeh.
- Prebiotic fibre: prebiotics are non-digestible foods (fibre that passes through the GI tract undigested) that can be beneficial for gut health. Because we can’t metabolise them like normal foods, our gut bacteria metabolises them into short-chain fatty acids, which help our bodies with a number of tasks12. Examples of foods high in prebiotics include: bananas, onions, artichokes, garlic, oats, honey and asparagus.
- Vitamins and minerals: micronutrients are important for regulating energy metabolism, immune function and cellular growth, and they can also have a positive effect on your gut. B vitamins have been seen to be synthesised by fecal microbiota, and vitamin D has been seen to increase the abundance of potential beneficial bacterial strains.
How to improve gut health naturally
- Follow a gut-friendly FODMAP-free diet: FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are groups of carbohydrates that are not absorbed by the gut, so they ferment and bacteria feed on them, causing unpleasant gut behaviour. Foods high in FODMAPs include apples, pears, milk and cabbage.
- Try taking friendly bacteria supplements: These have been shown to be beneficial in some people with gut problems and there is some evidence they may also help with mood fluctuations associated with gut issues.
- Reduce your fibre intake: Too much fibre can overstimulate the gut, making symptoms even worse. Ask a dietician for advice before cutting out any food groups.
- Practise gut-focused hypnotherapy: Research shows this can reduce symptoms by at least half in 70 per cent of patients. It’s thought it may make the gut less sensitive, decrease the strength of contractions and help with the stress and anxiety of having gut problems.
Worried that you have a gut condition?
If you have tried to re-balance your gut yourself but are still struggling with uncomfortable symptoms, there may be something else at play. IBS and gluten-intolerance are quite common, so if your gut problems keep re-appearing, it may be useful to explore their possibility.
Is it IBS?
IBS is a common digestive condition, with symptoms including abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, and either constipation or diarrhoea, or both. Symptoms vary between sufferers, and your own may vary day-to-day.
It’s not exactly known what causes IBS, but experts say a genetic predisposition coupled with a trigger such as gastroenteritis can set it off. Stress may also be a trigger, as can hormones; women are more likely than men to suffer from IBS.
Your GP can prescribe antispasmodics, laxatives or anti-diarrhoeas to help manage your symptoms, but many sufferers find their GP can be unsympathetic as IBS is not yet widely recognised as a serious disorder.
Could it be a gluten intolerance?
Around 1 in 100 Brits suffer from coeliac disease, with 500,000 still undiagnosed. Coleiac disease is not just an allergy or intolerance to gluten – found in wheat, rye and barley – it is an autoimmune disease where the body ‘attacks’ the gluten and damages the small intestine in the process.
Found that helpful? We’ve got lots more advice and articles on how to look after your gut here.
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Last updated: 12 May 2020