You have probably heard the term ‘gut health’ but what does it mean and what can you do to ensure you and your family have a healthy gut. Read on to hear more about this emerging area of nutrition science and some simple steps to put into practice.
Gut health is gaining a lot of attention these days as researchers have discovered that the healthiness of your gut (the functioning of your entire gastrointestinal tract) is linked to many areas of our overall health beyond the more obvious such as IBS, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) and bloating. Links have also been established with mental health, skin health, immune system functioning, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. More research is needed to fill in knowledge gaps but it is widely accepted that supporting our gut to be as healthy as we can is key for our overall health.
The healthiness of your gut has been linked to the diversity of the microbiome within your digestive tract. It contains trillions of microbes from around 1500 different species of bacteria, virus and fungi. The most diverse microbiomes are found in Amazonian tribespeople living in the rainforests that lead a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, eating fruits, vegetables and other items from the land and free from any form of processed food. It is thought that our modern lives are restricting our microbiomes partly due to the food we eat and how we live our lives.
So how can we ensure our personal microbiome is as diverse as possible?
1) Ensure variety in your diet – What scientists don’t know at the moment is what your ideal microbiome should contain. As with many other aspects of nutrition, it is very much a personalised approach. What works for you might not work for your friend, family member or even twin sister. Therefore, the advice at the moment is to encourage as much diversity as possible from eating a broad range of foods. Leading gut health expert Dr Megan Rossi (@theguthealthdoctor), recommends aiming for 30 different types of plant-based food items per week. With plant-based food items, we need to eat more than just fruit and vegetables and try to include nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrains. If 30 is proving difficult, try 15 and work up from there. Trying out new foods can really make a difference here. Swap rice for a different type of grain. Roast a different selection of vegetables to your usual preference.
2) Explore ‘probiotic’ food options – A probiotic is the term for any food, drink or supplement that contains beneficial bacteria to complement our existing microbiome. So what counts as a probiotic?
Dairy products – Kefir is a traditional homemade fermented drink that contains milk with live bacteria and has the most scientific evidence to support its use. There are plenty of options on the market. If you are buying yoghurts, look for options that contain ‘live bacteria’.
Fermented foods – while the process of fermentation has been around for thousands of years, these types of food are gaining in popularity. Options include sauerkraut, kimichi (a Korean dish with pickled cabbage and sauerkraut) and fermented beans such as miso and tempeh. The fermentation breaks down some of the fibre that enables some of the good bacteria to thrive. It is also thought they make food easier to digest and nutrients easier to absorb. Fermented foods are very easy to make at home, with lots of recipes available online or via books.
Drinks – Kombucha is a type of fermented tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast and its popularity has exploded in recent years so you should have no problems finding it in stores. There is limited research that confirms its benefit on gut health but due to its content, leading researchers suggest it should have an overall improvement. If you enjoy the taste then go for it.
One word of caution is that if you have IBS, many of the fermented foods can trigger gut symptoms. Speak to your healthcare practitioner if you are concerned. Another consideration is that taking probiotics doesn’t cancel out a poor diet as research has found it is the diversity rather than the specific quantity of good or bad bacteria that provide the most benefit to overall gut health.
3) Increase your fibre intake – Fibre is an important part of our diet and certain high fibre foods can be termed prebiotics – meaning they feed the good bacteria in our guts. These types of food include artichoke, Brussel sprouts, beans, pulses and legumes. Including a variety of these within your diet can only be a good thing, but keep eating other types of vegetable too so you get that much-needed variety. Our government recommends we need around 30g of fibre per day but gut health experts suggest 50g per day would give you and your body the most benefit. This is achievable by upping the variety of fruit, vegetables, bean, pulses and legumes. However, if you’ve been habitually eating a low fibre diet it is wise to up your fibre content slowly. Don’t do it suddenly overnight otherwise you may have stomach issues including discomfort and wind.
4) Learn to manage stress – There’s no denying that life can be stressful. Juggling work, family commitments, financial pressures, injuries and illnesses and the rest. Research has shown that stress and anxiety have an effect on your microbiome and gut function – remember those feelings of butterflies in your stomach or a much-needed trip to the toilet before an important presentation? This is all due to the neural and physical connection (the Vagus nerve) that runs from your brain through to your gut, a two-way communication between the organs. The way in which you manage stress and/or anxiety needs to work for you but exercise, yoga, mindfulness or meditation are all helpful tools. If you’re new to mindfulness or meditation, some apps worth checking out are the Nourish App and Clementine.
5) Keep up your carb intake – The recent trend for low carb diets can have a negative impact on your gut health. Fibre itself is a type of carbohydrate and if you restrict it, you aren’t allowing your microbiome what it needs.