As a mum of two boys, I’m pretty unfazed by conversations about poo. After years of changing nappies, it’s actually kind of a relief to just talk about it, rather than having to get my hands involved.
We talk about things relating to poo quite a lot in our family. Not because we have a particular fascination with the subject, but rather because certain family members have sensitivities in their guts that can manifest in somewhat explosive ways (sorry, there’s no delicate way of putting it). There’s absolutely no shame in having a gut sensitivity but it can make you feel pretty awful and it’s not generally something you want to talk to many about. As a result of the various conversations I’ve had over the year about IBS, leaky gut and FODMAP and then doing quite a bit of reading on these matters, I’ve become quite interested in the gut. And I’m not alone.
Gut health is big news. Maybe not sexy news, but definitely big news. You only have to look at the huge growth in probiotic and prebiotic products on the market to get a sense of how the gut or microbiome has become a major health headline. One report says that the global probiotics market is projected to reach over 77 billion USD by 2025. If you don’t know your probiotics from your prebiotics and you think that kombucha might be some kind of martial art, then read on for this beginner’s guide to gut health.
You’ve no doubt heard the saying that you are what you eat. In fact, when it comes to getting the most nutrients out of your food, it’s more accurate to say that you are what you absorb.
Digestion is a complex chemical process that allows your body to get the nutrients it needs from the food you eat. If your digestive system isn’t working properly, your body won’t be able to properly absorb all the nutrients it needs to function properly and this may result in low energy.
Note: if you have concerns about your digestive system with symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea, heartburn, excess wind, bloating, bleeding or abdominal pain, you should get these checked out by a doctor.
Your digestive system actually begins before you even take a bite of food. Digestion starts with the production of saliva in your mouth in anticipation of food, such as when you see or smell it. When you put the food into your mouth and start to chew, saliva starts breaks down the chemicals in the food. When mixed with saliva, chewing allows your body to extract the maximum amount of nutrients from the food you eat, as well as breaking it down into smaller pieces before it goes into the next stage of digestion once swallowed.
Chewing your food properly is really important for good digestion and helps ensure that you get the maximum amount of nutrients from your food. Experts vary in terms of how many times we should chew our food before swallowing it, ranging from 20 to 40.
You probably know that a healthy gut is a good thing, but what exactly is meant by gut health?
Living inside your digestive tract are 300 to 500 different types of bacteria containing nearly 2 million genes. Paired with other tiny organisms like viruses and fungi, they make what’s known as the microbiota, or the microbiome. Like a fingerprint, each person’s microbiota is unique. The mix of bacteria in your body is different from everyone else’s mix. It’s determined partly by your mother’s microbiota – the environment that you’re exposed to at birth – and partly from your diet and lifestyle. The bacteria live throughout your body, but the ones in your gut may have the biggest impact on your well-being. They line your entire digestive system. Most live in your intestines and colon. They affect everything from your metabolism to your mood to your immune system. Good gut bacteria can also help you maintain your day-to-day energy levels naturally.
Your microbiome affects everything from your metabolism to your mood to your immune system.
How do gut bacteria work to maintain energy?
First and foremost, your healthy gut bacteria help to break down and digest all the food you eat so you can assimilate the nutrients you need to feel energised. In fact, without enough of the good bacteria to fully digest your food, that healthy salad you had for lunch may be nothing more than a beautiful digestive cleanser. They also work with your body’s cells to help keep your blood sugar balanced, so you don’t experience the roller coaster of energy levels. Some bacteria even produce their own energy-boosting B vitamins.
How do you get a healthy gut?
1. Eat a wide range of plant-based foods and plenty of fibre
A healthy gut has a diverse community of microbes, each of which prefer different foods. Most people eat less fibre than they should. Fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts and wholegrains are high in fibre and feed healthy bacteria. To note that if your diet is low in fibre, a sudden increase can cause wind and bloating. This is less likely if you make gradual changes and drink extra water. Choose extra-virgin olive oil over other fats when you can. It contains the highest number of microbe-friendly polyphenols.
2.Cut back on highly processed foods and sugar and sweeteners
Highly processed foods often contain ingredients that either suppress “good” bacteria or increase ‘bad’ bacteria. Eating a lot of sugar and sweeteners may cause gut dysbiosis which is an imbalance in gut microbes.
3. Eat probiotic and prebiotic foods and consider taking a supplement
Probiotics are foods, or food supplements, that contain live bacteria thought to be beneficial to us as they encourage more microbes to grow. This includes live yoghurt, some cheeses and fermented foods and drinks such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. Prebiotics are foods that ‘fertilise’ our existing gut bacteria and encourage the development of a diverse community of microbes. Bananas are especially rich in these, as are other fruit, barley, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, onions, soya beans, asparagus, chicory and wheat.
4. Avoid taking antibiotics unnecessarily
Antibiotics kill ‘good’ bacteria as well as ‘bad’. If you need antibiotics, make sure you eat lots of foods that boost your microbes afterwards.
5. Manage your stress
Stress can adversely affect your gut health and the implications are scary from a health point of view. “Ongoing restriction of digestive blood flow brought on by long-term stress takes its toll on the gut in more significant ways than just butterflies though, by reducing microbial diversity and lowering numbers of friendly flora, thereby creating conditions that encourage undesirable strains to thrive. Additionally, the immune system (most of which resides in the gut) doesn’t receive the influx of fresh blood it needs to function optimally. Chronic stress also makes the digestive tract more permeable, as well as alters some of its basic functions. When the gut is compromised in this way, the body becomes more vulnerable to a wide range of unpleasant health challenges including ongoing tummy troubles, difficulty sleeping, unpleasant mood, cardiovascular issues, poor complexion, low energy.” (extract from ‘How Stress Affects your Gut Health (and vice versa)’ by Roberta Pescow).
6. Get enough sleep
Recent research shows not sleeping enough can quickly have a negative effect on microbiome health. Getting enough sleep can improve your energy levels, your mood, your focus and your gut health. Aim for between 7-8 hours every night.
What upsets your gut flora?
Keeping your gut flora in a happy state of balance requires careful nurturing. You will be helping to populate your healthy gut flora by following steps 1-6 above. However, certain things that can make your gut unbalanced and unhappy. Too much sugar and artificial sweeteners, caffeine, alcohol and highly processed foods can have a negative impact on your gut health. Stress is also a major gut disrupter. Conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Leaky Gut are often exacerbated by stress. If you are intolerant to certain foods, this may also upset your gut flora. If you suspect you have a food intolerance, I suggest you find a good local nutritionist or other professional who can have you tested. There is also evidence that lack of sleep can cause changes in the gut, including its microbial community structure. Other factors that can upset your gut include illness and travelling, My advice for those trips to exotic locations is to pop some probiotics during the week before you travel.
The long and short of it is that the health of your gut will generally reflect your lifestyle. There are some conditions such as IBS or Leaky Bowel Syndrome which result in an unhappy gut, despite a generally healthy lifestyle. The same goes for food intolerances. Dietary changes can help but I’d recommend you see your GP in the first instance as you may need professional advice on how to manage your condition and the symptoms.