‘Gut’ is another word for the gastrointestinal or digestive tract, which starts at your mouth and ends at your back passage. When we talk about ‘gut health’ we refer to the overall functioning of the digestive tract and the balance of microorganisms (or gut bugs) that live in there.
There’s no single way to know if you have a healthy gut or not, however, signs and symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, gas and abdominal pain may indicate an unhealthy gut. Our gut health is also closely related to our overall health and so an unhealthy gut may present less obviously with symptoms like frequently getting sick, fatigue or tiredness. Stress, medications, diet, travel and the menstrual cycle can also impact the functioning of our gut. If you’re concerned about yours, it’s best to speak to your GP to help find the cause of your symptoms before self diagnosing.
Here are my top tips to look after your gut:
1. Eat a diverse, plant-focused diet
As a general rule; the more diverse your diet, the more diverse and healthy your gut microbiota will be. One recent study found that those who consumed more than 30 types of plants per week were more likely to have a healthier, more diverse gut microbiome, as compared with those consuming less than 10 types of plants per week (1). But this isn’t just fruit and veggies - it includes all different types of plant based foods such as; beans and pulses, nuts and seeds, grains - even herbs and spices.
Some quick ways of bumping up your plant points might be:
- Adding frozen mixed berries to porridge & smoothies.
- Choosing a mixed bag of nuts instead of just cashews or almonds.
- Sprinkling seeds on oats, yogurt and even salads.
- Swapping or mixing in beans and lentils to meat-containing meals.
- When food shopping, trying a new fruit or vegetable instead of always picking the same.
2. Eat more fibre
Adults should be aiming for around 30g of fibre a day, but for the most of us we massively undershoot that. Fibre is a type of carbohydrate that the body cannot break down and so it passes through our gut into our large intestine, providing bulk to stool and preventing constipation. Some types of fibre also feed our good gut bacteria - allowing them to thrive and, in turn, support our gut health and overall health. You can find fibre in all plant foods like fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, pulses, and wholegrain breads and cereals.
3. Chew your food slowly
We often forget that the chewing is the first step of digestion. Slowing down and chewing your food will not only prevent gut discomfort but can also help you to absorb more nutrients and allows you to check in with your feelings of fullness. Try chewing 10-20 times per bite and putting your fork down between mouthfuls. Most of us follow pretty fast-paced, busy lives so it’s understandable that not every meal will be as slow and mindful as we would like but where possible try to eat your meals slowly, in a relaxed environment, without distraction.
4. Practice stress management
Those butterflies in your tummy, or the really strong gut feeling you can’t ignore – it’s a sign that your body and brain are talking to each other. We call this the ‘Brain-Gut axis’. It’s a two way system - not only does your brain have an impact on your gut health, but your gut, and the food that you eat, influences the brain - and your mood. Take time to unwind where you can whether that’s mindfulness or meditation, yoga, or something as simple as going for a 10 minute walk in the evening. The benefits of stress management reach far beyond a healthy gut!
5. Move your body daily
Movement is great to prevent constipation and keep your gut happy, and research shows your microbes like it too (even better if it’s outside and close to nature). The good news is that most forms of exercise appears to have a positive effect on microbial diversity so choose the one you enjoy and can stick to. The catch is, however, in studies where participants stopped exercising after the end of the study their guts returned to how they were at the start of the study; lacking beneficial microbes and the diversity (2).
6. Where possible, avoid unnecessary antibiotics and support your gut when you do take them.
A doctor discouraging antibiotics? Let’s be clear, this doctor is not against antibiotics - they’re incredibly helpful and save lives! but it’s important to use them appropriately. I’ve come across patients who have picked up antibiotics abroad or have some left over at home from the last time they were unwell, and will then self medicate if they feel under the weather. The thing is, antibiotics don’t work for viral infections such as coughs and colds, or the flu, and many mild bacterial infections often get better on their own without antibiotics. So taking them won’t speed up recovery and could lead to unnecessary side effects.
Antibiotics can also wipe out both the good and bad bacteria, so it’s important to make sure that you help to nourish your gut microbiome with prebiotic foods (like onions, garlic, artichoke, leeks, and oats) and probiotic rich foods (such as kefir, yogurt with live active cultures, miso and tempeh) following a course of antibiotics. You could also consider taking a probiotic while you’re taking antibiotics to help reduce the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhoea.
- McDonald, D., Hyde, E., Debelius, J. W., Morton, J. T., Gonzalez, A., Ackermann, G., ... & Knight, R. (2018). American gut: an open platform for citizen science microbiome research. Msystems, 3(3), e00031-18. [accessed April 2022 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29795809/]
- Allen JM, Mailing LJ, Niemiro GM, Moore R, Cook MD, White BA, Holscher HD, Woods JA. (2018) Exercise Alters Gut Microbiota Composition and Function in Lean and Obese Humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2018 Apr;50(4):747-757.