Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow launched her wellness website Goop back in 2008, gut health has been a hot topic. But what actually is a healthy gut and how do you get one if you’re not a spirulina-eating Hollywood A-lister with a private chef?
By Sarah Hughes
Good gut health refers to the ‘gut microbiome’ aka the trillions of bacteria and microorganisms living in our digestive system. Now I don’t know about you but the word bacteria holds only negative connotations for me… it means dirt, germs and bug-spreading as far as I’m concerned. But it turns out there’s both good and bad bacteria; and the key to a healthy gut lies in the balance between the two. It’s no surprise that everything we eat and drink contributes to that internal equilibrium, but it’s not just what we consume. Stress levels, the amount we exercise and the medications we take all contribute to the balance between the good and bad bacteria. Research also shows that genetics plays a part in how our digestive system functions, which explains why conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome ofter run in families.
So how does our gut health affect us on a day-to-day basis, and what might we expect to happen if we don’t look after our gut?
Well, our gut health affects us in three main ways:
Absorption of nutrients - a healthy balanced gut will allow effective digestion of food and the utilisation of the nutrients contained within that food. It will help us use both macronutrients and micronutrients ensuring that we have enough energy, that our metabolism functions efficiently and that our mood is level.
Brain function - it’s no secret that a weekend of rich or unhealthy food and drink can leave us feeling a bit low in energy and even slightly depressed. That’s because our gut health directly affects the production of serotonin, which our brain needs to feel happy. Recent research has even shown that central nervous system conditions like Autism, ADHD and anxiety can all be exacerbated by the gut microbiome being in poor health.
Immune system - the gut microbiome plays a huge role in how our immune system copes with all those viruses and germs we’re exposed to in our daily lives. Keeping that delicate balance of good and bad bacteria helps us fend off pathogens. Scientists have proven that consistent poor gut health can lead to autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis, where the body might mistakenly attack and destroy its own healthy tissues.
Symptoms to look out for if you think your gut health isn’t great
● Stomach issues such as bloating, loose stools, constipation, abdominal pain and cramping.
● Food cravings; most commonly for sugar or high fat foods.
● Unable to maintain a healthy weight. Research shows that people living with obesity are more likely to have intestinal bacteria which is imbalanced.
● Fatigue. An imbalanced gut tends to lead to low energy and low mood.
● Skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Probiotic and prebiotic supplements can be used to treat inflammatory skin conditions.
● Low mood, anxiety or depression.
● Allergies. Gut health plays a complex role in the creation and control of a range of allergies affecting the skin and the lungs.
● Migraines and ‘brain fog’.
What steps can we take to improve our gut health?
So now we know all the ways a healthy gut could be beneficial for us; it’s time to go about getting one right!? You’ll be pleased to hear you can cancel the spirulina subscription and stop saving up for that private chef, since there are small steps we can take which will elicit big changes. Like most things when it comes to health, consistency and commitment are key.
It’s important to remember not to self-diagnose; if you suffer from any of the symptoms listed above, it’s best to get checked out by a doctor who can rule out any more serious conditions.
After that, it’s time to start implementing some little changes which could make a huge difference to your quality of life:
● Look at your stress levels. If you’re constantly in fight or flight mode, it’s really difficult for your gut to be balanced. Are there things you could do to lower your stress? Examine relationships which don’t bring you peace, a job that is too demanding or time pressures which are simply not doable. If you can’t remove any of the stress try adding in coping strategies such as journaling, yoga, meditation or daily walks.
● Don’t yo-yo diet. A healthy gut microbiome is one which is consistently given a great source of nutrients from a range of food sources. Being too restrictive with your calorie intake and the types of foods you consume can be just as damaging as over-eating.
● Prioritise sleep. Good quality sleep is essential for allowing our metabolism to function effectively and ward off all those symptoms like fatigue and anxiety.
● Eat whole, fresh, fibre-filled foods. Eating whole grains and nuts has been proven to increase healthy bacteria within the gut, and this in turn promotes good digestion, absorption of nutrients and regular bowel movements.
● Look after your teeth! Now this is a strange one but studies show that poor oral hygiene leads to bad bacteria in the mouth finding its way down into your tummy. Have regular check-ups with your dentist and adhere to a rigorous twice daily brushing routine.
● Avoid pre-packaged and processed foods. A good guide is that the bigger the ingredients list on an item, the more processed it will probably be. And the more it’s been processed, the further away from a natural whole food source it is. Our bodies weren’t made to digest foods that have been subjected to so much processing, and a more delicate gut might really struggle to digest these ‘ready-made’ foods. The same goes for refined sugars I’m afraid!
● Eat fermented foods. Ok sorry to get all ‘Gwyneth’ on you, but fermented foods are well documented in their power to improve gut health. Adding natural yoghurt, kombucha, kimchi and kefir into your diet might just be the kickstart your gut microbiome needs.
● If you’re angry at me for suggesting the slightly less appealing fermented foods, then let me redeem myself… how about dark chocolate, cocoa, green tea, blueberries, red grapes and almonds? These foods are all rich in polyphenols which in moderation contribute to a healthy gut.
In summary, a healthy gut really can lead to improved overall health, a feeling of wellness and an increased immune response. Even if you’re not suffering from any of the symptoms at this stage, it’s a great idea to take a proactive, preventative approach and start investing in your gut health today.