‘Gut health’ is the phrase on everyone’s lips… and taking care of yours is a worthwhile endeavour; the microbes that live in your gut affect everything from your brain chemistry to your body weight, and they might even be responsible for food cravings too.
So what can you do to take care of your gut and the microbes that reside within it? In this post I’m going to take you from lights up to lights down, with seven simple (and inexpensive) changes you can make during your day to benefit your gut health.
1. Start Your Day With 10 Mindful Minutes
Stress and anxiety frazzle more than just your mental health - they affect your gut health too. Stress hormones like cortisol travel from the brain to the gut, where they can trigger gut symptoms like tummy pain and more frequent trips to the loo. Over the longer term, these hormones can shift the balance of bacteria in your gut in unfavourable ways, so taking steps to keep stress in check is a smart move.
Mornings can particularly heighten anxiety, as we wake up feeling the pressure of the day ahead with perhaps a long commute and an even longer to-do list. Instead of hitting up social media (or your emails), swap your phone for a cushion and a comfortable chair, and start your day with 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation. Research shows that regular practice can lower stress levels and combat anxiety. If you’re new, try Headspace or Calm.
2. Brush up on Brekkie
Just like you need specific nutrients to stay healthy, so do your microbes, and breakfast is the first opportunity you have to feed them well. The number one nutrient they need to thrive is fibre - found in wholegrain cereals, fruits, veggies, nuts, pulses and seeds. Consider fibre a type of fertiliser for your microbes - without it they are forced to feed on less beneficial nutrients.
If your go-to brekkie is cereal, choose a high fibre option - oats are a good choice, as are cereals like shredded wheat, weetabix and bran flakes. If you’re unsure check the ‘fibre per 100 grams’ info on the back of the back - more than 6 grams per 100 grams is considered high. Added points for adding fruit on top - or a few spoons of live yoghurt or kefir.
Toast lover? Swap white toast for wholemeal or seeded - and add a slick of peanut butter and sliced banana for an extra fibre boost.
3. Walk Part of Your Commute
Most of us will admit that we feel better when we move our bodies regularly - and research indicates that your gut does too. As well as helping to prevent constipation, exercise increases the amount of butyrate (a type of fatty acid) your microbes produce - which helps to keep your gut lining healthy.
However, the challenge can be fitting in exercise. A helpful way to make it part of your day is to walk your commute. If the whole way is too much to ask, hop off public transport a few stops early. If you work from home, get a 20 minute blast of fresh air before you sit down at your desk, or go for a walk at lunchtime.
4. Pimp Your Lunchtime Salad With Pulses
Choosing a salad at lunchtime is a great way to score your daily veggies (hello fibre!) - but don’t stop there. Pimping your salad with pulses (beans, chickpeas or lentils) can double the fibre content, giving your microbes a feast. Pulses also contain protein, which together with fibre will keep your energy levels steady throughout the afternoon. Canned pulses are cheap and easy to use - half a can provides a quarter of the 30 grams of fibre we should be aiming for daily.
You’ll get extra points if you dress your salad with a little olive oil - it contains polyphenols - naturally occurring plant chemicals which also feed your microbes.
(Tip: If you suffer with IBS, keep your portions of pulses small, as they can trigger gas and bloating in IBS sensitive tummies).
5. Swap Sweets for Dark Chocolate
When the 4pm energy and motivation crash rears its head, swap out sweets for a few squares of dark chocolate. Cocoa compounds in dark chocolate can benefit the microbiome by encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria. Snaffle a few squares with a handful of walnuts for a sustaining snack that contains nutrients for both belly and brain.
6. Go for ‘Buch Over Beer (Or Red over White)
Ah, the post work wind-down...often assisted with a beer or a glass of wine. Whilst it’s true that alcohol can initially help you feel more relaxed, too much can aggravate anxiety and cause poor sleep. We also know that drinking lots of alcohol creates less favourable conditions for the beneficial microbes living in your gut.
Try swapping an after-work beer for a kombucha or enjoy one beer and then switch to soft drinks. Or if your vice is a glass of wine, swap white for red - which contains more of those gut-friendly polyphenols.
7. Mealtimes Without Meat
One thing we know about gut health is that eating plenty of plant foods is a helpful habit - as they contain numerous nutrients that help to keep your gut and microbes healthy. This doesn’t mean you need to go veggie - simply including a couple of meat-free meals per week helps to boost your intake of plant foods. Find some inspiration here.