We spoke to NHS GP, Dr Chris George, to find out what good gut health looks like, demystify common digestive problems including helpful tips and tricks to implement, and tackle how and when you should see a GP.
What does good gut health look like and why is it important?
Good gut health describes the healthy function and balance of microbes found within the gut, known as the microbiome. There are trillions of microorgansims that form the microbiome and have a crucial role in keeping us happy and healthy. In addition to these gut-friendly bugs the term ‘gut health’ also refers to the absence of troublesome digestive symptoms. Gut symptoms include constipation, diarrhoea, loose stools, gas, bloating and abdominal pain.
Signs of a healthy gut include regular bowel motions which varies from person-to-person (anything between 3x per day to 3x per week is considered normal), motions should be easy to pass, soft and medium to dark brown in colour. Another important sign is the time it takes for your food to travel through your digestive system, which in a healthy gut is neither too short nor too long (some studies suggest this can be an average of 26 hours).
What are common gut health problems and how can I help them?
Bloating: This commonly occurs when the gastrointestinal (GI) tract becomes filled with excess air or gas. This can lead to symptoms of discomfort, flatulence, burping and swelling. Lifestyle changes such as reducing gas-producing foods (vegetables in the cabbage family, some beans, and lentils), avoiding carbonated drinks and eating slowly, can help ease these symptoms.
Diarrhoea and constipation: These can be symptoms of IBS but need proper investigation and assessment by a doctor, especially if there have been any changes to your normal bowel habit. Commonly, stress and high caffeine consumption can cause diarrhoea symptoms. Constipation on the other hand can be managed by ensuring a good daily fibre intake (30g per day), staying well hydrated and regular movement throughout the day.
Belching also known as burping: Occurs when air is released in order to reduce distension within the stomach or food pipe (oesophagus). It is often caused by swallowing excess air whilst eating or drinking too quickly, drinking carbonated beverages and anxiety. Being more mindful when eating and avoiding any known triggers is important.
6 ways to support your gut health
You can support your gut health by following these helpful tips:
Eat more fermented foods such as kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, and live yogurt. The process of fermentation not only helps to preserve foods but may also increase the number and diversity of microorgansims within the gut. This has been associated with numerous health benefits including improved digestion, better immunity, and nutrient absorption.
Exercise regularly as this can help reduce stress and improve sleep quality which positively impacts gut health. Recent studies have shown that exercise may actually increase the number of beneficial microbes in the gut. The recommended amount of exercise for the average person is 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 mins of vigorous plus 2x strength building activities.
Reduce stress as this can have a big impact on the microorganisms that live in our gut. Our gut is connected to our brain via the gut-brain-axis. Reducing stress can improve digestive symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea and urgency. IBS symptoms can be made worse with increased stress and anxiety due to the connection between our brain and gut so relaxation techniques can have a big impact on gut symptoms.
Increase the number of plants in your diet. Aim to eat at least 30 different types of vegetables per week. Increasing the number of plants in your diet helps to increase the diversity of our microbiome which is linked to better health. Vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, legumes, herbs and spices all count towards the goal of 30 plants per week. So become creative and adventurous with meals!
Eat less sugar and processed food as this may negatively affect our gut microbiome by changing the balance of good-to-bad bacteria.
Add a food supplement this can help deliver a large number of live, gut-friendly bacteria which can help reduce digestive symptoms.
When should I see my GP and how do I talk to them about gut issues?The most important thing is that if you develop new gut symptoms, notice any changes or are worried then please see your GP to discuss this. Sadly, it’s all too often that I see patients in clinic who have self-diagnosed themselves incorrectly or delayed seeking help of fear and embarrassment.
I would strongly encourage anyone to come forward who is worried as we would rather hear from people than find out they have been suffering unnecessarily in silence. When it comes to your appointment keeping a gut-symptom diary, looking at the Bristol Stool Chart, bringing a close friend/family member, or even writing down your concerns are all very useful in helping your doctor investigate your symptoms.
Most of the time gut symptoms can be easily managed and treated with a routine appointment but if you have any of the following symptoms then please make sure you book an urgent GP appointment:
- Change in your usual bowel habit
- Blood in your poo or from your bottom
- Unexplained weight loss
- Extreme tiredness
- A lump/pain in your tummy.