At around nine metres long and encompassing 10 separate organs, the digestive tract is a pretty big deal in the human body. So it’s no wonder that when your gut isn’t performing at its best, its impact can be felt in many different ways.
Aside from its key task of digesting food and extracting nutrients, the gut has a crucial role to play in general wellbeing. Living inside the digestive tract is a microscopic community of bacteria, viruses and fungi – known as the microbiome – that not only keeps your gut healthy, it’s also thought to influence everything from mood and memory to immune function and weight.
“We think gut health is more important for overall wellbeing these days than we did some years ago, because we’re more aware about the microbiome and its effect on every part of the body,” explains Professor Terry Bolin, president of The Gut Foundation. “It’s all part of a whole system.”
The organisms that make up your gut microbiome are unique to you, and while scientists don’t yet know exactly what an ideal one looks like, having diverse bacteria is considered to be very important.
The inside story
When your gut’s in good shape, it should be quite quiet, not noisy or erratic, says Professor Bolin. Gastrointestinal symptoms such as disturbed bowel function – either diarrhoea or constipation – or bloating, excessive wind or abdominal pain are common signs that your gut needs attention.
“There are many reasons that your gut health may be suffering, including a poorly balanced diet or a recent course of antibiotics,” says accredited practising dietitian Chloe McLeod. “Antibiotics work by killing bacteria to help the body fight infection. Unfortunately, they can kill both healthy and unhealthy bacteria.”
Other things that the microbiome really doesn’t like? Detoxes (like juice cleanses), highly processed, fatty foods, and cutting out carbs. This is because, without a wide variety of food sources to feed on, particularly fibre, the microbiome’s diversity can take a hit. “Without the proper nutrients they need to thrive, microbes will start to suffer, leaving the strong, but not necessarily ‘good’ microbes to take over,” explains Chloe. “This can disrupt the microbial balance and result in unpleasant gut issues.”
Certain foods can also cause symptoms. Alcohol, spicy foods and caffeine can all irritate the gut, for example, so it may be worth keeping a food diary to pinpoint your specific triggers.
And, if you’ve ever felt ‘worried sick’, you’ll know that stress can play havoc with your tummy, too. It’s thought to affect the microbiome via the gut-brain connection, a signal that runs between the gut and the central nervous system. “When you’re highly stressed, it can result in a disruption to the gut,” says Chloe.
Road to repair
Looking after your gut starts with eating a rainbow. “There’s no particular wonderful food for the microbiome – we think that a healthy, varied diet is the way to go,” says Professor Bolin.
“You need a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, and a breakfast cereal of some sort – nothing high in sugar, fat or salt.” But, he warns, if you have constipation, take it slow to avoid bloating.
Whether you’re looking to improve or maintain your gut health, your microbiome will also benefit from eating both prebiotic and probiotic foods, says Chloe. “Probiotics are the ‘good’ bacteria that are naturally found in our guts, whereas prebiotics are the fibres and sugars that feed the good bacteria,” she explains. “Foods that are naturally rich in probiotics include fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and miso. Foods that are high in prebiotics include bananas, onion, garlic, many types of vegetables, and wholegrains.”
Healthy habits like exercise may also promote more diverse gut flora. While scientists haven’t yet pinpointed how movement affects the bugs in your gut, a study by the University of Illinois found that just six weeks of regular exercise led to positive changes in the microbiome. Similarly, relaxation practices such as yoga and meditation have been shown to reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
If your gut issues don’t improve, it’s worth reaching out to an expert who can guide you through treatments, such as a diet to help identify your gut triggers and medications to ease symptoms. You don’t have to put up with the discomfort, says Professor Bolin. “Find a sympathetic GP or specialist who’s going to listen to your complaints and be aware of changes in therapies as they arrive.”
The gut connection
Have you ever heard that there’s a second ‘brain’ in your gut, or that probiotics could help your heart? It’s part of a new wave of research exploring the link between gut health and disease. While promising – for example, bacteria could one day be used to treat depression or manage cholesterol – scientists don’t have clear answers yet. “At this stage, the evidence suggests the relationship between different types of bacteria and chronic health conditions could be bi-directional, meaning our general health influences our gut health, and vice versa,” explains Chloe.
For now, simply looking after your gut is considered a safe bet. “We have trillions of bacteria down there that beaver away and keep you healthy, so you should look after them,” says Professor Bolin.
Take care of your microbiome with these tips:
- Be aware: Watch out for common gut symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, bloating or abdominal pain.
- Relax: Try to minimise stress. This will help to reduce discomfort and promote a healthy balance in the gut.
- Eat well: Aim for a healthy, balanced diet with a variety of fresh fruit and veggies and plenty of wholegrains.
- Go pro: Try gut-loving probiotic foods such as natural yoghurt and kefir – especially if you’ve recently taken antibiotics.
- Move: Exercise regularly to encourage a healthy variety of gut flora and a diverse microbiome.