Gut health: what does it really mean?
Registered nutritionist and gut health expert Tracey Randell explains what it really means to have a healthy gut and suggests seven ways to improve the health of your gut.
Scientists have discovered that the trillions of bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract don’t just process the food we eat. These bacteria help our body maintain balance and stay healthy and well. But what does it mean to have ‘good gut health’, what does it feel like and what can we do to improve the health of our gut? Read on to learn more.
Discover our top tips for digestive health. Also, check out some of our delicious gut-friendly recipes, from satisfying soups and salads to kimchi and kefir, including a whole range of delicious plant-based options.
What is the gut microbiome?
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria, viruses, yeasts and other microorganisms, these are known as your gut microbiota. Emerging research suggests the microbiota, along with its collection of genomes, together referred to as the microbiome, may well influence your health as much as your own inherited genes do.
Each of us has a unique microbiome, with the diversity and abundance of the flora influencing our general health. Often, a reduced diversity in gut flora is seen in people with certain conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Everything we eat and drink influences our delicate internal gut ecosystem. How we manage stress, how much or little we exercise, the medications we take and even our genetics may all have an impact. In turn our gut health influences the following:
- Immunity – the gut microbiome plays a role in regulating our immune system. Alterations in gut bacteria may lead to autoimmune disorders and raised levels of inflammation.
- Brain health – the gut microbiome may affect brain function. Gut cells and the microbiome produce neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA which may influence your mood.
- Nutrient absorption – the gut microbiome is crucial for the digestion and utilisation of nutrients. Macronutrients and micronutrients, including the B group of vitamins, are important producers of energy, and they also play a role in regulating our metabolism and mood.
How do I know if my gut is unhealthy?
There are a number of signs that may suggest this, including one or more of the following:
- Upset stomach – processing food and eliminating waste challenge an unhealthy gut. Symptoms may include excessive flatulence, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea.
- Unintentional weight changes – an unhealthy gut impairs regulation of blood sugar, absorption of nutrients and storage of fat, which may result in unintentional weight changes in some people.
- Skin irritation – some studies suggest that inflammation of the gut may contribute to skin irritation and conditions such as eczema by causing ‘leaking’ of certain proteins.
Seven ways to improve your gut health
Here are seven ways to get those good bacteria thriving:
1. Reduce stress levels – stress causes the digestive process to slow or be disrupted. This can lead to maldigestion of foods, prompting undesirable bacteria overgrowth.
2. Limit alcohol intake – alcohol changes the ratio between beneficial bacteria (such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium) and pathogenic bacteria (such as bacillus spp).
3. Stay physically active – moderate exercise boosts the level of gut microbes, producing a substance called butyrate. This has many health benefits, from producing satiety hormones that curb hunger to promoting gut motility.
4. Eat insoluble AND soluble fibre to promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. These fibres act in different ways, the insoluble variety found in wholewheat, wheat bran etc. provide bulk to your stools, allowing them to pass more easily, whilst your gut bacteria ferment soluble fibres found in oats, fruit and vegetables. Both types of fibre promote a healthy gut.
5. Reduce sugar intake – a diet high in processed sugar and refined foods may increase inflammation, this may decrease the amount of beneficial gut bacteria.
6. Eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables – colourful fruit and vegetables provide polyphenols, plant chemicals that promote gut health. Studies suggest that by eating 30 different plant foods each week you may help increase the diversity of the microbes in your gut. This isn’t as difficult as it might sound because fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices all count.
7. Include fermented foods – when fermented foods are included regularly in your diet they may bestow benefits such as improving your digestion.
If you are experiencing gut issues speak to your GP because a specialist diagnosis may be required. It is advisable to refer to your GP or a registered dietician before making any significant changes to your diet.
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How do you support your gut health? Comment below and let us know…
Tracey Randell is a qualified nutritionist (MBANT) and Institute for Functional Medicine practitioner (Dip BCNH, IFMCP, CNHC). She lectures at the nutrition college where she trained on various subjects including IBS, coeliac disease, the gut-brain axis and food intolerances. She also offers postgraduate training to other healthcare professionals.
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