While many 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 our microbiomes have become hot topics over the past few years. But with so much content and information out there, it can be tricky to know where to start when it comes to looking after our insides.
With this in mind, here’s everything you need to know about gut health, including tips on how to give it a boost.
What is gut health?
First things first: what do we actually mean when we talk about gut health? The word ‘gut’ refers to our gastrointestinal or digestive tract – which includes the mouth, throat, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, and anus.
In the past, the digestive system was thought to be pretty ‘simple’; 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 essential for maintaining a healthy body and immune system.
Why is the 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 depression.
Scientists are still researching the precise role the gut microbiome plays in our health, but here are some specific reasons why it’s important…
It can affect weight
Several studies of identical twins have found that when one twin was obese and the other was healthy, their 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
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 a healthy balance of microbes are thought to travel far beyond the gut, and new studies show that it plays a key role in promoting ‘good’ cholesterol.
However, research shows that having too many unhealthy gut microbes can convert nutrients found in red meat and animal products into the chemical trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO can cause blocked arteries and put you at risk of heart disease, heart attacks, or strokes.
It may reduce the risk of diabetes
Research also suggests that the gut microbiome may help control blood sugar levels – meaning it could affect how likely we are to develop type 1 and 2 diabetes.
One study found that among infants with a high genetic 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, having a healthy gut microbiome may even improve brain health. Research shows that some species of bacteria can help produce brain chemicals called neurotransmitters – including the so-called ‘happy hormone’ 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 compared to people with no mental health conditions, which also suggests that the gut microbiome may impact brain health.
What are the signs of an unhealthy gut?
So, we know that it’s essential to maintain a healthy gut microbiome. The problem is that many aspects of life can have a negative effect on it. High stress levels, not getting enough sleep, eating sugary and processed foods, and taking antibiotics can all be harmful to 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, diarrhoea, 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 – Research shows that eating too many processed foods and added sugars can reduce the number of healthy bacteria in your gut and cause enhanced sugar cravings.
High levels of refined sugars are also linked to increased inflammation, which can lead to several different diseases and cancers.
Unintentional weight changes – Gaining or losing weight without intending to could be a sign of an unhealthy 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, it may be due to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). And, if you’ve gained weight without obvious reason, it may be caused by insulin resistance or the desire to eat more because your body isn’t properly absorbing nutrients.
Fatigue or disturbed sleep – An unhealthy gut can cause insomnia or poor sleep. Because serotonin – a hormone that affects sleep – is mainly produced in your gut, studies show that a microbiome imbalance can make it difficult to sleep well and 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 rest of the body, which can irritate the skin.
Autoimmune conditions – An unhealthy, imbalanced gut is thought to increase inflammation and affect how 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, which can cause the body to have difficulties digesting certain foods and often leads to bloating, gas, diarrhoea, pain, and nausea. There’s also evidence that food allergies may be linked to gut health too.
7 simple ways to improve your gut health
Luckily, there are lots of small changes you can make in your day-to-day life that can have a positive effect on gut health.
We’ll outline some of these below.
1. Try to lower your stress levels
While stress is still often regarded as a psychological concern, it can have a significant impact on your physical health – including that of your gut. So, where possible, it’s worth setting aside some time for relaxation.
2. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
Getting enough regular, good-quality sleep is essential for improving your overall health. Insufficient sleep can interfere with your digestive processes and metabolism, which can, in turn, harm your gut health.
Most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. So, if you’re not getting this, you might find it helpful to try and establish a daily routine that can help improve sleep patterns.
Examples include doing some form of daily exercise, getting plenty of fresh air and sunlight, and switching off electronic devices 30 minutes before bed. Our article, How to create the perfect bedroom for sleep, has plenty more useful tips.
Alternatively, you can head over to our sleep and fatigue section. Here, you’ll find advice on everything from coping with insomnia to age-related sleep conditions you should know about.
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. While mindful eating sounds simple enough, many of us have such busy lives, which means it’s easy to grab food on the go or eat a meal too quickly because we’re in a rush.
It can be helpful to make it a habit to eat mindfully and really appreciate every bite of your food, rather than wolfing it down because your thoughts are elsewhere. You can read more about this in our beginner’s guide to mindful eating.
4. Eat more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and beans
Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and beans are all very high in fibre. While your body can’t digest fibre, it can be digested by specific types of healthy gut bacteria, which science shows promotes their growth and aids digestion.
Many studies have found that plant-based diets lead to lower levels of disease-causing bacteria and 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. Research shows that 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 for many people, taking a probiotic supplement can be a good way to improve gut health. Studies have revealed that probiotics can alter the overall composition of the gut microbiome and support a healthy metabolism.
While most studies suggest that probiotics have little effect on the gut microbiome of healthy people, others show that they can improve the gut microbiome after it’s been compromised by 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, they shouldn’t cause unpleasant side effects.
However, because probiotics aren’t regulated in the same way that medicine is, you can’t always be sure 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, you should always speak to your GP first. 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 them into your diet. Things 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.
Alternatively, to keep things quick and easy, 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 and healthy. Even swapping your normal bread for sourdough (which is fermented) can be a good step to take.
7. Eat fewer processed foods
Processed foods are usually high in salt, sugar, fat, and additives – all of which can harm your gut microbiome. They can also introduce new, bad bacteria to your digestive system, as well as limit good bacteria. As a result, it’s important to try to limit your intake of processed foods and junk food.
One way to avoid processed foods is to make more meals from scratch, and use whole foods wherever possible. You’ll find plenty of healthy recipe inspiration in the diet and nutrition section of our website. Or, you might find some of these 15 quick and healthy diet swaps for a healthier lifestyle useful.
Recent research has shown that the gut is far more complex than previously thought, and having a healthy gut microbiome is crucial for many key aspects of your health. It can have a powerful impact on our immune system, mood, sleep, heart health, brain health, and digestion, so taking care of it is one of the most important things we can do.
Luckily, there are several lifestyle changes that can help you maintain a healthy gut microbiome – and, as a result, protect your overall health and wellbeing.
Have you ever had issues with gut health – or do you take probiotic supplements? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.