Gut health is a hot topic, but what does it actually mean to have a healthy gut?
The human gut is an incredible organ, a long inner tube stretching mouth to bottom, which coordinates the digestion and absorption of everything you eat and drink, as well as forming an essential part of your immune system.
But what exactly does it mean to have a healthy gut? A healthy gut is able to do its job properly, digesting and absorbing nutrients effectively, which in turn influences your health as a whole.
But it’s not just the gut itself - we also need to consider the 100 trillion microbes living in your gut - collectively known as your microbiome. Beneficial microbes in your microbiome support immune function and transform the fibre you don’t digest into anti-inflammatory compounds. The numbers of beneficial bacteria in the gut are important, because they help to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, working alongside your immune system.
What are the signs of a healthy gut?
Although we’re not typically comfortable talking about bowel movements (aka poo or stools), they’re actually a very helpful indicator of what’s going on in your gut. You might be under the impression that you should poo daily, but frequency varies greatly between people. In fact, a normal poo habit can be anywhere from three times a day to three times a week.
The appearance of your poo matters too, a helpful tool to refer to is the Bristol Stool Chart – the ideal poo being a type 3-4.
If you’ve noticed a change in your bowel habits or gut symptoms that last longer than a couple of weeks, it’s important to speak to your G.P. who can rule out any gut conditions.
How can I take care of my gut?
There are many factors that influence gut health, but we can group them into three key areas - mind, diet and movement.
1. Calm mind
We’ve all felt the effects of anxiety and stress on our gut - needing to rush to the loo is a normal response to an exam or interview, as stress hormones increase contractions in the gut. But over longer periods, experts believe stress may impact the levels of beneficial bacteria in our gut1. Taking time out and learning to manage stress in healthy ways isn’t just important for your mental wellbeing, it’s also important for your gut health. The charity MIND has some great advice around coping with stress.
2. Healthy diet
Diet is one of the biggest influencers of the balance of beneficial bacteria in your microbiome, because the microbes feed on whatever is left after food has moved through your small intestine. Their preferred nutrient is fibre - a complex matrix of sugars found in plant foods, that we can’t digest. Fortunately your gut bacteria can, and they harvest this leftover fibre into energy which feeds both themselves and the cells lining the gut.
Studies show that high fibre diets can increase the numbers of beneficial bacteria in your gut, and the levels of helpful anti-inflammatory compounds they produce2. In the UK, it’s recommended we aim for around 30 grams of fibre a day. To learn more about the fibre -gut health connection, click here.
There is also growing interest in the positives of a varied plant centered plate for gut health. Plant foods (like fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds) are rich in fibre, but also contain various compounds that help to feed your gut bacteria. Results from The American Gut Project found that people who regularly ate more than 30 plant foods each week had a more diverse micorbiome than those who ate ten or fewer. Click here to learn more.
Just like the rest of your body, your gut benefits from regular exercise. Moving your body helps to move waste through your digestive system. Equally, exercise is a positive way of helping to reduce stress, making it a great habit for both mind, body and gut. Aim for 30 minutes of execise most days of the week - all forms of exercise count, but to stick with it, the best advice is to choose something you enjoy.
1. Qin HY, Cheng CW, Tang XD, Bian ZX. Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome. World J. Gastroenterol. 2014;20(39):14126-14131. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i39.14126.
2. Tap J, Furet JP, Bensaada M, et al. Gut microbiota richness promotes its stability upon increased dietary fibre intake in healthy adults. Environ. Microbiol. 2015;17(12):4954-4964. doi:10.1111/1462-2920.13006.