Keeping your gut healthy is crucial for your digestion, it’s also essential for your immunity, weight loss and mental health
Your gut is your body’s equipment for processing food, but it does a more far reaching job than just that. Within it is your microbiome – 1-2kg of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, viruses and primitive animals called protozoa. ‘There’s a richer diversity of life than in a rainforest,’ says Dr Michael Mosley, author of The Clever Guts Diet.
These bacteria help us digest our food and synthesise vitamins, but they also help protect us from dangerous infections and influence everything from our mood to our weight.
Help keep yours healthy with plenty of gut-boosting prebiotics from fermented foods such as yogurt and cheeses, and use garlic regularly in your cooking. ‘It’s a particularly rich source of prebiotics that promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria,’ says nutritionist Lily Soutter. Also try leeks and onions or a supplement such as Bimuno Daily, £11.99 for 30 sachets, Boots.
What and where is your gut?
Your gastrointestinal tract (gut), is a long, hollow pipe through which your food travels. It runs from your mouth, down your oesophagus, into your stomach and intestines, and out to your colon and rectum. It also includes your pancreas and liver. It impacts every part of your body, so gut health is so important.
How does your gut impact your immunity?
A healthy gut is crucial for a strong immune system, says immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi, from the University of Sussex.
“Your immune system is something that’s made, not born. You’re born with a blank canvas and over your different life stages, it’s educated by environment – in particular by bugs that live in your gut.”
To reboot your microbiome
- Think fibre. ‘It feeds the microbes in your gut,’ says Dr Macciochi. Eat a wide range of plant-based foods such as vegetables, beans, pulses, legumes and fruit. ‘Go for a diverse approach,’ she says. ‘Include as many different varieties in your diet as possible.’
- Control stress. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, restrict nutrient absorption, cause stomach upsets and suppress our immune systems.
- Avoid antibiotics. Where possible, as they disrupt your good gut bacteria. Always follow your doctor’s advice on exactly how and when to take them if you do need them.
How does your gut impact digestive problems?
It’s not just your gut’s job to break down food – your teeth help, so chew your food well.
“Swallowing whole or poorly chewed food sets off a disastrous chain of events,” says Robyn Youkilis, author of Go With Your Gut. “Your body goes into crisis mode, with organs forced to begrudgingly assist in digesting. They respond with inflammation, farts, belches, bloating and acid reflux.”
To soothe your stomach
- Drink water. Aim for eight glasses a day. Dehydration is a cause of constipation. Food needs water to help motions pass through our digestive tract, and fibre to keep water in your motions.
- Take 10,000 steps Many digestion problems are linked to inactivity. Exercise helps food move through your digestive system, says Woman’s Weekly GP Dr Gill Jenkins.
‘A daily walk improves bowel motility and reduces constipation.’
- Ditch your coffee. ‘Coffee can increase gastrin production, which can speed up bowel movements, triggering symptoms in those with digestive complaints,’ says Soutter.
How does your gut affect your weight?
Our gut’s microbiome decides how much energy our body takes from each meal, which foods you crave, as well as controlling hunger pangs and blood-sugar spikes, says Dr Mosley. ‘So the wrong balance of your microbiome can make you fat.’
Stick to regular mealtimes and make your diet diverse and full of fibre. A Washington University of Medicine study on twins – one of who was obese and the other not – found those who were overweight had fewer types of gut bacteria, which may affect how dietary fats are absorbed in the intestines and stored around your body.
To help the balance
- You can eat chocolate. Make sure it’s above 70% cocoa solids so it contains a rich source of polyphenols, which have prebiotic properties. ‘Prebiotics are food that can’t be digested, but are instead fermented by our healthy gut bacteria, stimulating their growth,’ says Soutter. ‘When our gut bacteria break down these polyphenols, they produce metabolites, which support gut health.’
- Drink red wine. Research from King’s College London found the antioxidants in red grape skin give red wine drinkers a more diverse range of gut bacteria.
- Avoid processed foods. They’re bad for bugs because artificial sweeteners, flavourings and preservatives can kill them off.
How does your gut affect your mood?
There are 100,000 nerve cells in your digestive system – more than in your spinal cord – and your microbiome takes the bits of food your body can’t digest and converts them into hormones and chemicals, which can influence your emotions.
This relationship between our digestive system and our mental health is why scientists often dub our gut the second brain. So gut health is key. ‘The brain and gut are highly interconnected,’ says Dr Anthony Hobson from the Functional Gut Clinic. ‘Signals from the gut go up into the brain, and vice versa.’
Research from the APC Microbiome Ireland at University College Cork found low levels of gut microbes raise the risk of anxiety and depression, while higher amounts lower it.
- Try a Med-based diet ‘Research has shown that a Mediterranean diet increases beneficial gut bacteria and reduces your risk of becoming depressed by 30%,’ says psychologist Dr Meg Arroll (drmegarroll.com).
- Eat oily fish. Once a week. It contains omega three fatty acids to help combat inflammation in the gut.