There are many contributing factors that can have an impact on our gut health. Due to this, we need to use a multi-factorial approach. So let’s look at the key pillars to consider if we are optimising the health of our gut…
FOOD – firstly (and certainly most obviously) gut health is related to what we are eating (or not eating). Our gut needs sufficient amounts of dietary fibre per day to function at its best. Fibre is the non-digestible part of plant-based carbohydrates. Although we don’t have the capacity to digest it, fibre helps to support regular movements through the gut and crucially has a feeding effect on the microbes that live in our gut (we’ll come onto that next). Fibre is found in all plant-based foods including vegetables, fruits, nuts & seeds and whole grains. Aside from quantity (guidelines indicate around 30g per day for adults) it is important to think about diversity – aiming for 6-7 different types per day across these groups. In real terms that could equate to one piece of fruit, six portions of vegetables, two servings of wholegrains and three portions of nuts & seeds. Initially that might seem an arduous task but adding a spoonful of nut butter to porridge oats, along with a serving of berries, sprinkling seeds over soups or salads and aiming for a mix of three different type of veggies at lunch/dinner and you have pretty much hit this quota! Note: if you are an IBS sufferer then you might find that too much fibre or certain types of fibre can trigger symptoms, especially those that are high in fermentable carbohydrates – often referred to under the acronym FODMAPS. If you suspect this is the case then it is best to seek the advice of a registered dietician who can help guide you. Otherwise getting a rich, diverse and plentiful amount of fibre is one of the basic things we can do to help support our gut.
MICROBES – the health of the gut also depends on the microbes that reside there, collectively known as the gut microbiota. This has a vital role in helping to absorb our food, enable movement through the gut, managing inflammation, balancing blood sugar levels and producing neurotransmitters. Fundamentally, our gut microbiota relies on us feeding it with fibre to thrive. Certain types of fibre called ‘prebiotics’ have a more potent feeding effect on the gut microbiota. These are found in thousands of foods including top hitters such as garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, cashews, pistachios, mushrooms and wholegrains. If you can tolerate these well, including them regularly in the diet can help to facilitate an enhanced feeding effect on the gut microbiota. The other way to enrich the gut microbiota is through fermented foods which provide a food-based source of beneficial bacteria. These include sauerkraut, kimchi, ‘live’ yogurt, crème fraiche, cheese, kefir, tempeh and miso to name a few. In addition, a liquid formula like Symprove has both pre and probiotic benefits, in that it helps to deliver beneficial bacteria and also feeds the good bugs that are already in the gut – that’s a double whammy boost for our gut microbes!
SLEEP – is not something we might typically associate as one of the key pillars for gut health but many of us have felt troubles in our tummy after a restless night. In fact, our gut microbiota works on similar circadian rhythms as we do so it needs ample pillow time too. Prioritising pre-bedtime to optimise sleep is therefore crucial if we also want a well-rested gut. Switching off devices at least an hour before bedtime and setting the scene for good quality zzzs will certainly help. This could include taking a bath, reading, listening to some soothing music or practising some meditation. Basically, anything that helps us to wind down and rest.
MINDFULNESS – the gut-brain connection is one that is very much a bi-directional relationship. A healthy and happy gut requires nourishing the mind to help to support this connection. Practising some kind of stress management is vital. This could be meditation, breathing exercises or gentle yoga to help alleviate stressors and promote a more tranquil gut. Diaphragmatic or ‘deep belly’ breathing is often used to support this as it can assist in soothing the vagus nerve that joins the gut and the brain. It is a very simple practice that involves breathing deeply into the belly (usually to a count of 4 or 5) and breathing slowly out to the same number of counts. The best thing about this is that it can be done anywhere, anytime anxiety is heightened. We can also extend this mindfulness to taking ample time over our meals to chew, be present and so switch into rest & digest mode, which has significant benefits for our gut.
MOVEMENT – this can also help from a mindset perspective to support the gut-brain connection as well as alleviate symptoms such as excessive bloating and/or gas. Studies have shown that yoga can help IBS sufferers but if that’s not your thing even going out for a walk can help in a similar way and the best part is that it doesn’t cost anything. It can be even better if you have some green space available to you as nature brings benefits for the mind too.
And last but by no means least one more pillar…
JOY – this is one is largely underrated yet has such a significance for our overall health and wellbeing (with our gut at the centre of that) – I believe there is something in the phrase ‘belly laugh’ for example. Taking joy from simple pleasures and surrounding ourselves with the people we love and make us happy is just as important as all of the other pillars. Take time every day to find the small joys.