Gut health. Gut microbiome. You may have heard the terms, but how well do you understand what they mean? We take a closer look…
Gut health is a trending topic right now, but with seemingly endless advice out there about what it means and how to maintain it, it can be hard to separate fact from conjecture. This guide should fill you in on the basic facts surrounding healthy gut bacteria, as well as offering some tips on boosting your own gut health.
What is gut health?
‘Gut’ is another word for the gastrointestinal or digestive tract, which starts at your mouth and ends at your rectum.
‘Gut health’ refers to the overall health of your digestive tract. It is a term that’s come to prominence over the last couple of decades as more research has been done into what constitutes a healthy gut and how the wellbeing of your gut affects your health overall.1
The gut is very complex, and there are various scientific opinions on what the definition of ‘gut health’ should be.1 However, in general parlance, gut health is used to refer to the balance of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. This is also known as your gut microbiome.
- What is a gut microbiome?
Your gut microbiome is made up of many different microorganisms, many of which are bacteria, which are the constituents best understood by Western medicine.
It’s thought that there are around 300-500 species of bacteria in our gut, and that the overall number is approximately 10 times the number of cells in the human body.
Although we often hear about bad bacteria, there are also good bacteria. Our bodies need good bacteria to function, and the same is true of our gut. A healthy microbiome should contain a wide variety of good bacteria and should not contain high levels of the bad.2
Why is my gut microbiome important?
The microbiome is responsible for all sorts of things in your body, including aiding digestion and the absorption of nutrients, helping to regulate things like bile and vitamin levels, and supporting the immune system.2
The health of your gut has a huge impact on your overall health
Much research is currently being done into just how important the gut microbiome is to overall health and bodily function. An imbalance in gut bacteria has been found to contribute to chronic diseases such as IBS, diabetes and carcinoma.3 Studies have also suggested links to mental health and depression,4 cholesterol levels,5 and obesity.6
While we still don’t know everything there is to know about the gut microbiome, we do know that the health of our gut has a huge impact on our overall health. So, boosting your gut health can only be a good thing.
- How do I know if a have an unhealthy gut?
An unhealthy or unbalanced gut can show itself in many ways. If you have concerns, you should speak to your GP who will help to diagnose you as well as giving tailored advice.
Some symptoms that can be a sign of poor gut health include:
- An upset stomach or changes in your bowel movements7
- Gas or bloating8
- Tiredness and problems sleeping9
- Skin problems10
- Food sensitivity11
These things can all have many other causes, but you should always speak to a doctor if you have symptoms and you don’t know why.
How can I keep my gut healthy?
There are countless products out there right now that claim they’ll help you get a healthy gut, but really you should focus on making healthy lifestyle changes to improve your gut health – and in turn the wellbeing of your whole body.
These are our top tips for protecting the health of your gut microbiome:
Eat more healthy whole foods
Despite what the internet says, there’s no confirmed gut health diet. What is known is that healthy, whole foods feed the good bacteria in your gut.
Most people eat too little fibre. Try getting more into your diet. (This recipe might help.) Fibre is found in wholegrains, nuts, pulses, fruit and vegetables.
Many people advocate a wholly plant-based diet to promote gut health, and there is evidence to support this.12 However, you don’t have to go full vegan to look after your gut!
What you should do is try to eat as many portions of fruit and veg as you can. At least 5 A Day but ideally more.
Cut back on processed foods
Processed, fast and convenience foods are generally high in salt, sugar, fat and additives. These are all things that can disrupt your gut microbiome; they have the potential to add bad bacteria as well as reducing good bacteria.
If you need to eat convenience foods, check the labels and go for the healthiest option you can find.13
Eat mindfully and regularly
A simple yet important way to promote good digestion, and therefore good gut health, is to eat slowly and eat regular portions at regular times. It sounds easy, yet with our increasingly busy lives so many of us end up grabbing food on the go, or wolfing down meals in front of the TV.
Eating at irregular hours, skipping meals, overeating, eating too quickly… all of these things can upset your gut health. And if you do these things regularly, you may start to see problems.14
Make a conscious decision to eat mindfully and regularly. Your gut will thank you.
Reduce your stress levels
Stress is often seen as a primarily mental concern but it can be damaging to your whole body. Periods of stress upset the balance of your digestive tract, worsening existing problems and even creating new ones.13
Regularly getting enough sleep is one of the most important steps you can take to look after your health inside and out. Most adults need 7-9 hours’ sleep a night.
Poor sleep can interfere with your metabolism and your digestive process, both of which can negatively affect your gut health.
Drink less alcohol
A few drinks now and then should not harm your digestive system, but binge drinking will. It can cause your stomach to produce more acid, upsetting the balance of your gut microbiome.13
If you are regularly drinking more than six units in one session (or eight if you’re a man), cutting back could boost your gut health.
Prebiotics and probiotics
Probiotics are healthy bacteria. Prebiotics feed healthy bacteria. You should be able to get enough of both from a healthy diet.
- Foods containing prebiotics
- Whole wheat
- Foods containing probiotics
- Live yoghurt
The jury is still out on how effective prebiotic and probiotic supplements are – if at all. However, there is some evidence that they can help with certain side effects of poor gut health, such as diarrhoea.
They are generally acknowledged to be safe, and many people do report benefits, so they could be worth a try.15 You can always ask your doctor’s advice if you are uncertain.
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