How can I improve my gut health?
- Scientific research is finding possible links between gut health and other health issues.
- Recognising gut health problems involves listening to your body.
- Including different foods in your diet may help improve your gut health.
- Consult your GP or health practitioner if you have any concerns about your gut health.
We all like to look healthy on the outside. Having healthy hair and skin can help us to feel better about ourselves. We also know that having a varied, balanced diet keeps us healthier from the inside.
Now, scientific research is going even further into our insides and finding possible links between gut health and other health issues.
Registered Nutritionist Sarah Gray tells us “There is more research on possible ways the gut can link to so many different potential health issues. It’s so good to see people take notice and understand how important their gut health is.”
Sarah takes us through why your gut health is important, signs to look for that show less than perfect gut health and simple ideas you can do that may help improve your gut health.
Why do we hear about gut health so much??
While it’s always been understood that gut health is important, there’s a better understanding of the importance of gut health for more than just digestive health. It’s also important to other areas, such as the immune system and mental wellbeing.
In the past, it may have taken several years (or longer) for scientific papers to be published and to gain exposure. Nowadays, information is shared quicker and is more accessible – especially when it's related to high interest health issues, such as mental wellbeing.
Easily accessible information means everyone is able to look into things and can start to take steps to optimise their gut health for wellbeing.
How do I know if I have poor gut health?
When you have a healthy gut, you have a healthy balance of microorganisms called the gut microbiome. This helps you to digest food and absorb nutrients. Everyone’s microbiome combination is unique, like your fingerprint. It's these combinations and potential imbalances that are showing to have an impact on your health.
Knowing when you have poor gut health starts with listening to your body.
“Your body’s really good at letting you know when something’s just not quite right,” says Sarah.
There are simple messages, like a mild headache could mean you haven’t drunk enough water. Or sore muscles after doing some heavy gardening could mean you’ve done too much and need to rest.
When there is something not quite right with your gut health, common hints your body may offer include:
- bowel issues such as constipation or diarrhoea
- excess gas or bloating
This isn't to do with having a bad stomach after one particular meal or suffering the effects of a specific illness, like gastro. It's about longer-term issues that have no simple explanation. This could include gut health for women that may be linked with bloating during certain parts of your menstrual cycle.
Increased research into gut health is bringing up new potential links with other signs that might not automatically be linked to gut health, which could include:
- trouble sleeping
- skin health
- immune system
All of these issues could also be signs of something else so if you have any concerns, your first step should always be to visit your GP.
Discussing your gut health with friends has always been a bit of an awkward conversation. Asking about what types of poop your best mate has is not an everyday topic for most people. But having those open chats means you can get to know what is right for your body, because we are all different.
“If you are always feeling run down and get lots of colds, a good place would be to start looking at your gut health and see if that could be linked,” suggests Sarah.
How can I improve my gut health?
Thankfully, taking steps to improve your gut health doesn’t have to be complicated or filled with weird sounding supplements from hard-to-find plants that only bloom once a century.
Making small improvements to your diet may be able to help improve your gut health naturally. Sarah shares some simple ideas that you may want to try.
Add lots of colourful veggies to your plate
“The best veggies are those high in prebiotics. Prebiotics help the good bacteria to grow in the gut,” says Sarah.
Foods to improve gut health could include:
- garlic – try adding some fresh chopped garlic to your bolognese
- onion – red onion is the perfect addition to a fresh salad
- leeks – all sorts of side dishes contain leeks that go with any Sunday roast
Include those whole grains
Improving your diet doesn’t mean removing food such as bread. Sarah suggests to “choose grainy and seedy breads as they will be more nutritious. They have a lower GI which means they will keep you fuller for longer.”
Whole grains will not only be higher in fibre, they also contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals, such as:
- B vitamins
- vitamin E
They are also an important source of nutrients for the gut microbiome to keep them healthy.
Introduce sources of good fibre over time
Insoluble fibre acts like a broom through your bowel and can be very filling. But don’t overdo it. “You don't want to rapidly increase fibre as it can upset your tummy,” advises Sarah.
Simple ways to include more fibre could be to keep the skins on your vegetables, add in some nuts or seeds to your salad or try a new legume-based recipe.
Consider fermented foods
Many fermented foods contain probiotics that may help restore and improve the microbiome in the gut. There are plenty of benefits of fermented foods, but they aren’t all equal.
“You need to include ones that contain live microorganisms, such as certain yogurts. Cheese is also considered a fermented food but doesn't necessarily have those live microorganisms,” explains Sarah.
Consider trying foods such as:
Limit processed foods
Foods that are highly processed with lots of added sugar or salt could potentially increase the not so healthy bacteria in your gut. Reducing these foods in your diet is one way to help improve gut bacteria health and help keep the bad bacteria from becoming unbalanced.
A healthy gut for the future
Learning about gut health and making changes to your diet isn't about how to ‘fix’ your gut health. As our gut microbiome is unique to us, what works for you may not work for someone else. It's about understanding your own ‘normal’ so you can identify any potential issues and take steps towards a healthier you.
But don't forget, if you have any concerns about any health issues, the best idea is always to chat with your GP or health practitioner.
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Sarah Gray is both a Registered Pharmacist and Registered Nutritionist with a particular interest in health education and helping people to take small steps to big change in their health journey. Sarah is the Head of Health and Nutrition on the healthylife Advisory Board.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board August 2021.