While most of us know it’s important to look after our gut, we may not always be entirely sure of the role it plays, or how it affects our overall health and wellbeing. Gut health and gut microbiome have become hot topics over the past few years. But with so much content and information out there, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to looking after our insides.
Nevertheless, taking care of your gut is one of the most important things you can do to keep yourself strong and healthy. With this in mind, here’s everything you need to know about gut health, including tips on how to give it a boost.
1. What is gut health?
First things first – what do we actually mean when we talk about ‘gut health’? The word ‘gut’ specifically refers to our gastrointestinal or digestive tract, which includes the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, and anus. In the past, the digestive system was thought to be a pretty ‘simple’ system, essentially made up of one long tube that food passed through. But actually, the gut is incredibly complex, and this extends to how scientists define the term ‘gut health’.
Generally speaking, however, gut health refers to the gut microbiome – the microorganisms (or microbes) that live in your intestines. Our bodies contain trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi, and most of these are found in the intestine. Collectively, they’re known as the microbiome. While some bacteria and viruses are harmful, others are enormously important to our health, and essential for maintaining a healthy body and immune system.
2. Why is gut microbiome important?
Your gut has a really powerful impact on your overall health and wellbeing. Having an imbalance in your gut microbiome has been shown to contribute to chronic health conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, and even mental health and depression. Scientists are still researching the precise role that gut microbiome plays in our health, but here are some specific reasons why gut microbiome is important:
It can affect weight. Having too many unhealthy microbes in your gut is often called gut dysbiosis, and this is thought to contribute to weight gain. Several studies of identical twins have found that when one twin was obese and the other was healthy, the gut microbiome was completely different. This suggests that differences in gut microbiome aren’t genetic, and that dysbiosis likely plays a role in weight gain.
It affects gut health. Having a healthy, balanced gut microbiome can improve your overall health, and help to prevent intestinal diseases like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Gut dysbiosis is thought to be responsible for the bloating, pain and cramps experienced by people with IBS.
It may boost heart health. The benefits of having healthy levels of microbiome are thought to travel far beyond the gut, and new studies show that it plays a key role in promoting ‘good’ cholesterol. Having too many unhealthy gut microbiomes can convert nutrients found in red meat and animal-products into the chemical trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO); TMAO can cause blocked arteries, putting you at risk of heart disease, heart attacks or stroke.
It may reduce the risk of diabetes. Studies suggest that the gut microbiome may also help control blood sugar levels, which could reduce the risk of both type 1 and 2 diabetes. One recent study found that among infants who had a genetic high risk of developing type 1 diabetes, the number of unhealthy microbes increased before the onset of diabetes, and the overall microbiome was less diverse, too.
It may affect brain health. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the gut microbiome may even improve brain health. Some species of bacteria can help produce brain chemicals called neurotransmitters – and one important neurotransmitter is the so-called ‘happy chemical’ serotonin, which is mainly made in the gut. Several studies show that people with various mental health conditions have different types of bacteria in their gut when compared to people with no mental health conditions, which also suggests that the gut microbiome may impact brain health.
3. What are the signs of an unhealthy gut?
So, we know that it’s very important to maintain a healthy gut microbiome. The problem is that many aspects of life can harm our gut microbiome. High stress levels, not getting enough sleep, eating sugary and processed foods, and taking antibiotics can all adversely affect our gut. But how can we know when there might be a problem with our gut health? Some of the most common signs are:
Upset stomach. Excess gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn can all be symptoms of an unhealthy and unbalanced gut microbiome. When a gut is healthy, it shouldn’t have as much trouble processing food and eliminating waste.
Eating a sugary, processed diet. Eating too many processed foods and added sugars can reduce the amount of healthy bacteria in your gut and cause enhanced sugar cravings. High levels of refined sugars are linked to increased inflammation, which can lead to several different diseases and cancers.
Unintentional weight changes. If you gain or lose weight without intending to, it may be a sign of an unbalanced gut. When your gut microbiome is unbalanced, it can diminish your ability to absorb nutrients, store fat, and manage blood sugar. If you’re experiencing unexplained weight loss, then it may be due to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and if you’re unexplained weight gain, it may be caused by insulin resistance, or feeling the desire to eat more, due to the fact that your body isn’t absorbing nutrients properly.
Fatigue or disturbed sleep. Insomnia or poor sleep can be caused by an unhealthy gut. Because serotonin – a hormone that affects sleep – is mainly produced in your gut, having a microbiome imbalance can make it hard to sleep well, and can contribute to chronic fatigue.
Irritated skin. Skin conditions like eczema may be linked to impaired gut health. When the gut is inflamed it can lead to increased ‘leaking’ of specific proteins into the body, which can irritate the skin and cause skin problems.
Autoimmune conditions. An unhealthy, imbalanced gut is thought to increase inflammation and affect the way the immune system functions. This can cause autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself, instead of destructive intruders.
Food intolerances. Food intolerances are thought to be caused by poor quality gut bacteria. This can cause the body to have difficulties digesting certain foods and lead to bloating, gas, diarrhea, pain, and nausea. There is also evidence that food allergies, as well as intolerances, may be linked to gut health.
7 simple ways to improve your gut health
So what steps can we take to maintain a healthy gut? Luckily, there are lots of small changes you can make in your day-to-day life that can have a big effect on gut health.
1. Try to lower your stress levels
While stress is still often regarded as a more psychological concern, it can have a significant impact on your physical health, including that of your gut. Trying to reduce your stress levels is really important for boosting both physical and mental health, so try to set aside time for relaxing.
You may want to have a read of our article on coping with stress to find out more – or alternatively, check out our guide to mindfulness. It might also want to practice these breathing exercises when you feel stressed.
2. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
Regularly getting enough sleep is also vital for improving your overall health. Insufficient sleep can interfere with your digestive process and your metabolism, which can in turn harm your gut health.
Most adults need between 7–9 hours sleep each night. So, if you’re having trouble sleeping, you might want to try establishing a daily routine, which can help improve sleep patterns. Doing some form of exercise every day, getting fresh air and sunlight, and switching off electronic devices 30 minutes before bed can also help. To find out more, you may want to check out our article on improving your sleep.
3. Eat more slowly and mindfully
Eating slowly and mindfully can reduce digestive discomfort, increase the absorption of nutrients, and help you maintain a healthy gut. This sounds simple, but because many of us have such busy lives, it’s easy to grab food on the go, or eat a meal too quickly because we’re in a rush.
It’s helpful to try to make it a habit to eat mindfully and really appreciate every bite of your food, rather than wolfing it down because your mind is elsewhere. Have a read of Healthline’s guide to mindful eating to find out more.
4. Eat more fruits, vegetables, legumes and beans
Fruits, vegetables, legumes and beans are all very high in fibre. While fibre can’t be digested by your body, it can be digested by specific types of healthy gut bacteria, which promotes their growth and aids digestion.
Many studies have found that plant-based diets lead to lower levels of disease-causing bacteria as well as reduced weight, inflammation and cholesterol levels.
Some of the best foods for gut health include artichokes, peas, broccoli, chickpeas, lentils, beans, whole grains, onions, oats and bananas. These foods feed the friendly bacteria in your gut, which can help promote a healthier digestive system.
5. Have a chat with your GP about the possibility of taking a probiotic supplement
Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide certain health benefits when consumed, and taking a probiotic supplement can be a good way to improve your gut health. Probiotics can alter the overall composition of the gut microbiome and support a healthy metabolism. While most studies suggest they have little effect on the gut microbiome of healthy people, they can improve the gut microbiome after it’s been compromised from illness, stress or disease.
Probiotics usually come in the form of food supplements. According to the NHS, as long as you have a healthy immune system, probiotics shouldn’t cause any unpleasant side effects. However, because probiotics aren’t regulated in the same way that medicines are, you can’t always be certain that the supplement contains enough bacteria to actually have an effect, or that the bacteria will stay alive long enough to reach your gut.
If you’re having issues with your gut and want to try a probiotic supplement, then you should always speak to your GP before choosing or deciding to take one. Typical dosages vary depending on the product, but for adults they generally range from 10 to 20 billion colony-forming units (CFU) per day.
6. Eat more fermented foods
If you don’t eat many fermented foods, you might want to think about incorporating these into your diet. Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, live yoghurt, tempeh, miso, and kefir are great dietary sources of probiotics, and many studies show they have a beneficial effect on the gut microbiome.
You may want to try experimenting with making your own fermented foods; if so, have a look at these fermented recipes by The Kitchn. From sauerkraut to kombucha tea to probiotic breakfast bowls, there’s hopefully something for every palate here. Alternatively, simply having a warming bowl or mug of miso soup each day can make a difference – these miso sachets from Itsu take seconds to prepare and are delicious as well as healthy. Even swapping your normal bread to sourdough, which is fermented, can help!
7. Eat fewer processed foods
Processed foods are usually high in salt, sugar, fat and additives, which can all harm your gut microbiome. They can also introduce new bad bacteria to your gut, as well as limit good bacteria. Try to limit your intake of processed foods and junk food.
The best way to avoid processed foods is to make more meals from scratch, and use whole foods wherever possible. These whole foods focused recipes from Greatist are fresh, healthy and full of flavour: from healthy banana bread breakfast cookies to courgette boat tacos and quinoa buddha bowls, there’ll hopefully be some recipes to whet your appetite here. Alternatively, have a look at these quick 30-minute whole food recipes from Forks Over Knives.
The gut is far more complex than previously thought, and having a healthy gut microbiome is crucial for many key aspects of your health. The gut has a powerful impact on the immune system, mood, sleep, heart health, brain health, and digestion, and so taking care of it is one of the most important things you can do. Luckily, there are several lifestyle changes you can make that can help you maintain a healthy gut microbiome – and as a result, protect your overall health and wellbeing too.
Have you ever had issues with gut health – or do you take probiotic supplements? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave us a comment below or join the conversation on the Rest Less community.