Boosting the health of your gut is one of the most effective ways to enhance your overall health and wellbeing. Dr Megan Rossi explains why gut health is so important, factors that can significantly impact the health of your gut and ways to improve your gut health
Gut health is one of the latest trends to hit the health and wellness world. Unlike many trends, the science stacks up suggesting this is one development that might actually be worth jumping on board.
What is Gut Health?
Gut health relates to the functioning of your entire gastrointestinal tract (the tube that delivers food from entry to exit). This involves digestion and absorption of food, the taking in of your food and other functions that happen without you knowing. However, it was only in the last decade when scientists discovered the community of trillions of bacteria living in your large intestine (your bowel) that gut health started to turn heads. With good reason too; this community of bacteria, known as your gut microbiota (used to be called your gut flora), is thought to be an important contributor to good health.
Why is gut health important?
Anyone who has suffered symptoms of gut distress such as diarrhoea, constipation and stomach pain, knows just how debilitating it can be. One study highlighted that people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) would give up 25 per cent of their remaining life to get relief from their gut symptoms! The importance of gut health extends beyond the gastrointestinal tract though, impacting other vital organs like your brain, heart, kidney and liver. Your gut microbiota has been implicated in many diseases like depression, diabetes and autoimmune conditions. Gut health is not just about preventing and treating disease but can affect your general wellbeing too by shaping your mood, thoughts and even your taste preferences.
How do you know if your gut is healthy?
There’s no universal definition for ‘good gut health’ and to complicate things, no two people’s gut microbiota are the same. It doesn’t just involve one single species, but hundreds of different species with unique properties. The absence of gut symptoms may be used as an indicator of good gut health (See table below) and if you relate to these rest assured you’re not alone; research suggests that as many as 1 in 3 people are bothered by at least one of these symptoms.
Gut symptoms are not the only indicator of gut health and comes back to the complex role the gut microbiota play in influencing your overall health and wellbeing. Other symptoms such as weight gain, anxiety and insomnia can all be signs of poor gut health too. Generally speaking, a greater assortment of gut microbiota is associated with better gut health in both adults and children.
How do you find out how diverse your gut bacteria is?
Food choices and environmental factors can be a good gauge of bacterial diversity. The diversity of the average “Western diet” is poor. In fact of the 250, 000 or more known edible plant species, 75 per cent of the world’s food is generated by only 12 species. It’s thought this lack in diet diversity may, in part, account for the rapid rise in rates of allergies and chronic diseases that have been seen over the last 50 years.
What can upset gut health?
Diet, medications, smoking, stress, sleep and mood can significantly influence the health of your gut although the way in which this happens varies. For example, some sugar-free confectionery contain sweeteners that can lead to severe gut symptoms such as bloating and diarrhoea when eaten in excess. It’s too early to say for sure and needs to be tested in human studies, but in animal studies, eating a diet low in fibre and high in processed foods has been linked with alterations in gut microbiota and this has been linked to increased chronic disease risk.
Extreme dieting and some medicines, particularly antibiotics, not only rapidly alter your gut microbiota, but may cause long term changes. In addition, stress and lack of sleep can also affect your gut health. These lifestyle factors are common triggers of gut symptoms and have been shown to affect your gut bacteria and may explain the association between lack of sleep and weight gain.
Digestion starts in the mouth and chewing your food well is an important part
What do fibre, prebiotics and probiotics have in common?
Prebiotics are a type of dietary fibre and reach your large intestine undigested where it’s fermented by bacteria promoting whole-body benefits. Some people, particularly those with IBS, have a particularly sensitive gut and can’t tolerate some types of fermentable carbohydrates termed FODMAPs. A diet low in FODMAPs has shown to relieve gut symptoms in around 70 per cent people with IBS.
Only recently have scientists started to understand how probiotics may benefit health through altering gut microbiota and supporting metabolism and immunity. Research evidence for the effect of probiotics on health and disease is mixed though and Professor Whelan from King’s College London points out that “some strains work in some disorders”. The most convincing evidence is in the prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhoea and treatment of traveller’s diarrhoea. Nevertheless, naturally occurring food-derived probiotics have been eaten as part of a healthy diet for centuries and it’s important to remember that a lack of evidence does not always equate to a lack of benefit. Interestingly, the lack of claims may be due to the variety of bacteria and effects, not due to a lack of effect.
Being stressed and tired can profoundly affect your gut health
How to improve your gut health
Boosting the health of your gut is one of the most effective ways to enhance your overall health and wellbeing. On the next page are my top 10 simple tips. I’ve got a gut feeling you’ll love them.
10 Steps for better gut health
1) Eat a varied diet rich in fibre
Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and pulses.
Tip: Gradually increase fibre and ensure you drink enough as fibre needs fluid to work
2) Experiment with fermented foods containing probiotics
Foods naturally containing probiotics come at no extra cost and taste great.
3) Avoid unnecessary medications, particularly overuse of antibiotics and painkillers
These can aggravate gut problems and disrupt your gut microbiota.
4) Stop smoking
Cigarette smoking adversely affects gut bacteria.
5) Drink alcohol in moderation
Alcohol irritates the digestive tract and can alter bacterial balance.
6) Take your time to eat, chew your food well
Digestion starts in the mouth and chewing your food well is an important part.
7) Take time to breathe, de-stress and sleep well
There’s a direct link between your brain and gut. Being stressed and tired can profoundly affect your gut health.
8) Exercise regularly
Exercise helps to regulate bowel habit, particularly those prone to constipation. It’s also associated with greater microbial diversity.
9) Avoid excessively tight clothes
Placing external pressure on your gut can aggravate symptoms.
10) Know when to seek medical advice
Gut symptoms can mask underlying disease; alarm features include:
• Unexplained weight loss
• Rectal bleeding
• Family history of coeliac disease, bowel cancer or ovarian cancer
• Aged over 60 years with changes in bowel habit lasting more than six weeks.
Dr Megan Rossi is a Registered Dietitian with a PhD in the area of Gut Health. Megan works as a Research Associate at King’s College London and Consultant Dietitian across industry, media and private practice. To keep updated on the latest gut health news, connect with Megan at: