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Ultimate guide for a happy & healthy gut

Woman eating a sandwich with happy expression
Gut health is key to overall health. This makes perfect sense as the gut, 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 waste.1

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.

Why is gut health important?

The term ‘gut health’ generally refers to the balance of healthy live bacteria and harmful ‘bad’ bacteria.

We have over 100 trillion live bacteria, known as 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.2

However, if our gut’s healthy natural bacteria balance gets toppled, we can start to experience some problems.

How can a healthy gut improve overall health?

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 system3

Heart health: evidence suggests that probiotic supplements can help control total cholesterol levels in the blood4

Digestive issues: a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut has been seen to help with bowel disorders like lactose intolerance and antibiotic-induced diarrhoea5

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 sleep6

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 assess the health of our gut. 

However, there are some signs that you can look out for that may give you an indication either way.

3 signs of a healthy gut:

1. 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 not going to smell like roses… if you smell something really foul in the bathroom, this could be a sign that something is up.7

2. You’re not bloated often
If you find that you feel comfortable after most meals and that you don’t often experience bloating, it may be that your gut is happy and healthy. Having said this, passing wind between 10-20 times a day is still normal, but if it’s a lot more for you, you may want to invest in your gut health.8

3. You can poo without pain
A key indicator of a healthy gut is also that you can visit the bathroom without experiencing any pain – or having to work too hard to push it out!9

5 signs of an unhealthy gut 

  • constipation or irregular stools 
  • upset stomach 
  • poor sleep 
  • inflammation 
  • spot-prone skin

4 foods and supplements to help you have a healthy gut

The food you eat can have a significant impact on your gut bacteria diversity. In general, high intakes 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:

1. Yoghurt
Yoghurt is made by fermenting lactic acid in milk with Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. There is evidence that consuming yoghurt with live and active cultures, like probiotic yoghurt, can improve digestion for those with a lactose intolerance.23

2. Probiotic foods
Probiotics are live microorganisms that interact with your own microbiota, sometimes helping to restore a balance.24 You can also get probiotic drinks that work in the same way. Examples of probiotic foods include yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, pickles, kimchi, and tempeh.

3. 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 tasks.25 Examples of foods high in prebiotics include: bananas, onions, artichokes, garlic, oats, honey and asparagus.

4. Vitamins and minerals
Micronutrients are important for supporting 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

1. 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. Food high in FODMAPs include apples, pears, milk and cabbage.

2. 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.

3. 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. 

4. Practice gut-focused hypnotherapy
Research shows this can reduce symptoms by at least half in 70% 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.

5. Exercise
Exercise raises your heart and breathing rate, which in turn stimulates the waves of muscle contractions that move stools through the gut – a process called peristalsis.26,27 This helps the gut operate more efficiently.

The UK government advises 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, like cycling, running or brisk walking, each week for adults.

They also recommend strength training – for example yoga, dance, gardening, or lifting weights – on two or more days a week. Try to avoid long periods of sitting still, breaking it up with activity.30,31

The final say

Healing the gut doesn’t have to be difficult.

By eating the right foods, making time for exercise and taking note of your bowel movements, you should be on the right track.  

Disclaimer

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

 

Sources

1. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/gastrointestinal-tract
2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6351938/
3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6104162/
4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5805418/
5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4045285/
6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6290721/
7. https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/voices/health/article/2016/02/26/do-you-have-healthy-gut
8. https://joinzoe.com/post/5-healthy-gut-signs
9. https://joinzoe.com/post/5-healthy-gut-signs
10. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/80/2/245/4690304 (10)
11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3749555/ (11)
12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3749555/ (12) 
13. https://www.badgut.org/information-centre/a-z-digestive-topics/constipation/ (13)
14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4130869/ (14)
15. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/ (15)
16. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/how-to-improve-strength-flexibility/ (16)
 

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