The incredible organ that is our gut has become an area of increasing popularity within the health and medical community, showing no signs of slowing down. More and more research has come to light on how our digestive system plays a pivotal role in our overall wellbeing. From skin health, to autoimmune conditions and even our mental health, the gut is a key player in a variety of biological processes that can have widespread outcomes towards our overall wellbeing.
Once thought of as a straightforward system of the body, the digestive system was considered as simply one long tube for our food to pass through, absorb our nutrients and pass out the other end. Yet the gut offers a plethora of health benefits to us, and we can credit much of these to the community of microorganisms living within us, called the microbiota.
The microbiota refers to the various species of bacteria, yeasts and protozoa that reside within the large intestine. Most of you will have heard about ‘bad’ bacteria and organisms that can cause disease, but we also host a variety of ‘good’ bacteria which can promote health.
These beneficial bacteria can support immunity (since 70% of our immune system resides in the gut), as well as influencing our mood (90% of the body’s serotonin, a ‘happy’ brain chemical is produced in the gut). With over 100 million neurons having been identified within the digestive tract, the gut has now been referred to as our “second brain”, due to the body’s longest cranial nerve, the vagus nerve, extending all the way from the brainstem into the colon, connecting and communicating the two organs with one another.
Scientists are now uncovering the various facets that we can implement to our diet and lifestyle in order to promote an abundance of these favourable communities of good bacteria that can ward away infection and illness and generally keep our digestive system (and overall health) in good nick.
With a rise in chronic diseases such as IBS, psoriasis, anxiety and depression, it’s never been more important to ‘go with your gut’ and give it some TLC.
That’s why I’m sharing my top 5 tips on nurturing the health of your gut:
1. Eat probiotic and prebiotic foods –
Probiotics are live bacteria that are introduced to the body for their beneficial qualities. Whilst probiotics can be taken in supplemental form, I always encourage my clients to use food-form probiotics too, for their ability to populate the communities of good bacteria within the digestive tract. Probiotic foods include:
- Kefir – the bacteria in milk kefir can pre-digest the lactose content, making it much easier to digest if you are lactose intolerant. You can also experiment with water kefir, as an alternative.
- Live yoghurt – always check the labelling of yoghurt brands to see if they add ‘live cultures’ to their ingredients lists, to ensure you are reaping some beneficial gut bugs.
- Kimchi – a Korean dish of spicy pickled cabbage that packs a nice flavour punch.
- Sauerkraut – a German dish of chopped pickled cabbage, which is a less spicy alternative to kimchi.
- Kombucha – this is a great swap from a high sugar fizzy drink. Kombucha is a drink produced by fermenting sweet tea with a culture of yeast and bacteria. The small amount of sugar that is added to kombucha for fermentation processes gets broken down, resulting in a low sugar drink full of friendly microbes and organic acids.
Prebiotics are compounds found in food that help to promote the beneficial bacteria colonies that already reside in the gut. In other words, it is food for our gut microbes. Prebiotic foods include:
- Asparagus (it will retain most of its prebiotic content when cooked al dente)
- Chicory root
- Bananas (the less ripe, the higher the prebiotic content!)
- Jerusalem artichokes
2. Up your fibre intake –
Fibre is a plant-based carbohydrate that passes through the digestive system unchanged. Whilst fibre is something that humans cannot digest, it offers a food source for our gut microbes, which ‘gobble’ up the fibre and can produce beneficial by-products, called Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs). SCFA’s can have anti-inflammatory effects in the colon as well as nourishing the cells of the gut lining (Säemann et al. 2000).
It is recommended that we should be consuming 30g of fibre a day, whereas the majority of the population are estimated to only be averaging 18g daily.
Not only does fibre help our microbes to produce SCFA’s, having a high fibre diet can help reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes (Wang et al. 2016), cardiovascular disease (Threapleton et al. 2013) colorectal cancer (Aune et al. 2011) and constipation.
Top tip: if you are someone who suffers with IBS and digestive symptoms, then always increase fibre into the diet slowly as it can exacerbate your symptoms.
3. Eat mindfully –
One in five people in the UK suffer with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), a condition which affects the gut and causes symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, gas and abdominal pain.
A lot of my clients will put their IBS symptoms down to having food intolerances, which are, of course, a very real thing. However, despite avoiding various trigger foods and following an elimination diet, I often see clients still experiencing exacerbations of their symptoms.
This is where lifestyle comes into play and I like to emphasise that the way you eat is just as important as what you eat.
When you eat in a stressful state, your nervous system is in a state of fight-or-flight, which unfortunately means that digestion becomes last on the body’s priority list.
So slow down, avoid any distractions (that means no social media or TV whilst eating!) and chew your food thoroughly, to facilitate the digestive system to work optimally to break down and absorb your food, alleviating any digestive distress.
4. Eat smaller meals and practise meal spacing –
Your digestive system is extremely hard-working and is busy working around the clock, utilising a lot of energy just like the rest of our body. Therefore, we need to give our gut a breather to rest and repair.
If you are someone who suffers with bloating, consuming smaller meals can be beneficial in reducing symptom severity and frequency.
Eating smaller meals can help the stomach to empty much quicker than if you eat a large meal, reducing abdominal pain and distention after eating.
Spacing your meals and avoiding frequent snacking after meals can also be the key to a healthier gut. A special mechanism called the migrating motor complex (MMC) acts as a form of gut housekeeping, sweeping away undigested food particles and bacteria out of the stomach and small intestine to keep the intestines healthy. The MMC is activated after a 4 hour fasting period (Wood, 2017). Therefore, spacing your food and avoiding frequent snacking between meals can help to keep the microbiota healthy and within optimum balance.
5. Diversity is the spice of life!
Whilst you may have heard of the well-known soluble and insoluble fibre, you may be surprised to learn that there have been over 100 different types of fibre identified in the diet. Eating a diverse range of fibre is associated with a strong diversity of gut bacteria, which is a key facet towards optimum health and has been shown to lower our risk of various chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and metabolic syndrome.
In order for us to reap the benefits of these different types of fibres, eat a variety of different types of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds on a daily basis.
Always remember to mix things up – if you often eat blueberries with your morning porridge, try switching this to raspberries the next day to reap different plant fibres which will increase the diversity of your gut microbiota.
Aune, D. Chan, D.S.M. Lau, R. et al. (2011). ‘Dietary Fibre, Whole Grains, and Risk of Colorectal Cancer: Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies’, BMJ, 343, pp. 1-20, BMJ [Online]. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d6617
Säemann, M.D. Böhmig, G.A. Osterreicher, C.H. et al. (2000). ‘Anti-inflammatory Effects of Sodium Butyrate on Human Monocytes: Potent Inhibition of IL-12 and Up-regulation of IL-10 Production’, The FASEB Journal, 14 (15), pp. 2380-2382 NCBI [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11024006
Threapleton, D.E. Greenwood, D.C. Evans, C.E.L. et al. (2013). ‘Dietary Fibre Intake and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’, BMJ, 347, BMJ [Online]. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f6879
Wang, P.Y. Fang, J.C. Gao, Z.H. et al. (2016). ‘Higher Intake of Fruits, Vegetables or their Fibre Reduces the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Meta-Analysis’, Journal of Diabetes Investigation, 7 (1), pp. 56-69, NCBI [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4718092/
Wood, J.D. (2017). ‘Enteric Nervous System: Physiology’, Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, pp. 1103-1113, Science Direct [Online]. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128093245018344