Gut health is not something we usually think about until we have a spot of tummy trouble, but the truth is that it is more closely linked to our overall wellbeing than we realise. Did you know that more than 70% of our immune system cells live in or around the gut, and 90% of your body’s serotonin (happy hormone) is made in the gut? With this in mind, it’s easy to see how a healthy digestive tract is vital to achieving optimal health and happiness.
Research suggests the vast ecosystem of organisms that lives in our digestive systems might be as complex and influential as our genes in everything from mental health to athleticism and obesity. The hard-working gut allows nutrients and water to enter the body while preventing the entry of toxins/antigens. It’s a selective barrier between “us” and the outside world. A healthy gut barrier depends on intact mucosa (our gut lining replaces itself every 3-7 days); a healthy immune system; and balanced intestinal bacteria.
Gut health can also be compromised by several factors, which can lead to gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of bacteria), including taking antibiotics (these will destroy all the good bacteria in your gut), a diet high in refined sugars and sweeteners, and/or pesticides in foods.
Some bacteria are beneficial to our gut and some are less helpful, particularly if present in too large a quantity compared to the ‘good’ bacteria. The good bacteria help us to digest our food, absorb the nutrients from our food and provide us with energy. They feed off the fibre in our diets and convert these into ‘short chain fatty acids’ which have been linked with improved immune function and a decrease in inflammation. Good bacteria also help to synthesize B vitamins and vitamin K.
The bad bacteria may be harmful to us, and ill-health can stem from inflammation and poor gut health.
How can I eat a gut-friendly diet?
That’s where nutritional therapy may help. The right diet strengthens the gut, improving health and well-being.
Cutting out foods that are pro-inflammatory, e.g. sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed foods and/or trans fats may help to reduce inflammation. The aim is to support and strengthen our gut environment to encourage growth of a diverse spectrum of bacterial species that will help to protect us from disease and illness. By including anti-inflammatory foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids in the diet i.e. fish and sea vegetables, as well as a ‘rainbow’ of fresh vegetables and fruit, rich in phytonutrients and soluble fibre, this will feed the beneficial bacteria and promote microbial diversity (try to aim for seven servings a day). Eating enough fibre also adds bulk and helps with regular bowel movements. Additionally, eating fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and live bio-yoghurt, or taking probiotics can promote a good environment for good gut bacteria.
What harms the gut?
When the gut wall is irritated or inflamed we may get increased permeability. Common triggers include inflammation, stress, some pharmaceuticals, bacterial balance, malnutrition, compounds in food (gluten, casein, lectins, fructose, etc), and food additives can all influence the tight junctions in our gut mucosa and may increase permeability. Also, during exercise blood flow to the gut can drop to less than 20% of the resting rate and can lead to increased intestinal permeability. A dysfunctional intestinal barrier is associated with various diseases and disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease, and food allergy.
Top tips for good gut health
- Eat real food, avoiding processed refined foods as much as possible.
- Have a daily cup of bone broth, it is rich in minerals that support the immune system and contains superb gut-healing nutrients such as collagen.
- Eat plenty of omega-3 rich foods such as flax, walnuts, hemp, chia, and wild oily fish and other ‘healthy’ fats found in olives, avocado, coconut, nuts, and seeds to help dampen down inflammation.
- Flavonoids and fibre found in fruit and veg may help improve gut health.
- Eliminate any foods/drinks you know to be problematic. Do this by setting up an elimination re-challenge diet or by organising Functional laboratory testing with a Nutritional Therapist.
- Balance your bacteria. Beneficial bacteria strengthen the intestinal barrier. Choose 1-2 probiotic/prebiotic rich foods/drinks and consume them regularly.
- Try not to over or under eat.
- Eat slowly and chew properly.
- Check nutrient levels such as iron and vitamin D levels.
- Leave 10 hours from dinner until breakfast to give your gut a break and a chance to repair
- Make sure to get enough sleep.
- Manage stress with gentle exercises e.g. yoga.
- Don’t over-exercise as this can lead to poor gut health.
Adopting these strategies can greatly help with existing gut conditions or prevent occurrence in the first place.
Joanne Jackson is a Cardiff-based nutritional therapist who has seen in clinic how diet and lifestyle directly impact upon energy, concentration, mood, and ability to handle day to day stress, and has developed nutrition programmes which gives people the knowledge and tools they need to look after their own health and wellbeing. She addresses common every day health concerns and offer simple and practical meal and snack suggestions to beat energy slumps, feel clear headed & focused, lose weight, boost mood and concentration, and safeguard your health.