What makes gut health such an important topic?

Dr Joan Ransley, nutritionist and food writer, has been kind enough to answer some important questions on gut health for Symprove. Joan, who writes for the Yorkshire Post and is a visiting lecturer in nutrition at the University of Leeds, has a PhD in Human Nutrition. Her book Cooking for the Sensitive Gut, written with gastroenterologist Dr Nick Read, came out earlier this year.

Dr Ransley believes passionately that ‘you are what you eat’ and wants to help people understand how the gut works and what may have made it become sensitive. She has created some recipes to calm irritated guts and enable sufferers to live more confidently with gastrointestinal sensitivity.

She likens a sensitive gut to the tenderness and burning your skin feels after overexposure to the sun. Ultimately, like your skin, your gut has the potential to heal and improve with the right care. Joan aims to give us some answers as to how that can be achieved through diet, and why guts can become sensitive in the first place.

What makes gut health such an important topic?

Good gut health relies on a healthy population of gut bacteria. We each have about 100 trillion microbes living in our bodies, mostly in our gut. These microbes are collectively known as the microbiome. Emerging research shows how the microbiome controls some of our body’s vital processes.

Unfortunately, the way we lead our lives can all too easily threaten this delicate balance. For example, powerful antibiotics can decimate the colonic microbiome. Stomach upsets might lead to a lessening of beneficial microorganisms and might leave the body vulnerable to further infection. All this shows how hugely important good gut health is to the body’s overall wellbeing.

What things show that your gut might need some attention?

Pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, nausea and vomiting all are strong indications that your gut is in distress.

Some ‘red flag’ symptoms that may indicate disease include bleeding from the rectum, vomiting blood, weight loss, anaemia or severe or persistent abdominal pain. If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor.

Why does food have a big part to play in gut health?

Food can help your gut to stay healthy, and taking care of your gut means eating a diverse range of foods including fruit, vegetables, and wholegrain cereals. The more diverse your diet, the more diverse the microorganisms in your gut.

Conversely, food can trigger symptoms in a gut that may be sensitised by stress, infection or microbial depletion. A diet that is relatively lower in diversity can deplete the microbiome.

The most common food triggers are foods such as onions, pulses, wheat, apples and stone fruits that contain high levels of FODMAPs. They drag water into the gut and are fermented by the abundant bacteria in the large bowel. Excess gas and fluid then distends the bowel and may cause bloating, pain and change in bowel habit.

How would you describe a ‘sensitive’ gut as opposed to one that has allergies to certain foods?

A sensitive gut is an intolerant gut; it over-reacts to life situations or trigger foods to generate symptoms of abdominal discomfort and gut reactions, such as vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and abdominal distension. Most people with the symptoms of a sensitive gut are diagnosed with IBS.

Food allergies are reactions to specific components of food. Most manifest soon after the food is eaten and can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, numbness and tingling around the mouth, faintness and difficulty breathing. There are also more subtle delayed food allergies. A prime example is the gluten allergy in coeliac disease, which can take the form of a long-term gastrointestinal upset with symptoms of abdominal pain, bloating and bowel upset, and can cause weight loss and anaemia.

What other things are important to consider when maintaining gut health?

Stress can disrupt gut function in many ways. Managing stress is therefore crucial in order to maintain gut health. It is important to have a lifestyle that balances work with enough time out for rest, sleep and physical activity. Other factors include staying well-hydrated and paying attention to food hygiene.

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