What is Gut Health?
Gut health is a topic that has gained considerable attention in recent years, and with good reason! The health of our gut can impact our health in so many ways and can make the difference between feeling comfortable in our body or not. In this post we’ll discuss gut health, why it matters and the steps you can take to optimise your gut health.
What is our gut?
This sounds like a funny question, but it’s something I always like to clarify before I go into further detail about gut health. The gut is one of the largest organs in the body. It’s a whopping 9 meters long which is at least 4 times the length of the tallest person you know! The gut is a muscular tube, albeit a very fancy one with fancy things attached. It is comprised of the mouth, food pipe (oesophagus), stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum and anus. Due to the length of it, it’s no surprise that it’s one of the most metabolically active tissues or to put it another way, one of the busiest parts of our body.
How does the gut impact our health?
It has lots of important roles and it needs to be at it’s healthiest to complete them:
- It turns our food and drinks into nutrients through a process called digestion. These nutrients can then be absorbed into the body and used for energy, growth and repair. Ultimately, keeping us alive, and allowing us to live a full life.
- It provides a physical barrier to the bad stuff in our environment that can make us sick. So, it physically gets between us and some of our body’s enemies. What’s more, it has the largest number of immune cells. Immune cells are the soldiers of our immune system that help fight the baddies should they manage to make it into our gut.
- It’s in regular communication with the nerves in the body which helps the gut communicate with the brain, this is known as the Gut-Brain Axis. This communication is supported by the gut microbiome, but more on that later.
What is gut health?
When we talk about gut health we’re talking about the overall health and function of our digestive system. We want to be symptom free or as close to symptom free as you can realistically expect. So, for instance, if you are suffering from poor gut health you may experience nausea, vomiting, indigestion, bloating, excess burping or farting, stomach pain or discomfort, or irregular bowel movements. Not only do we want to be relatively symptom free, but we also want our gut to flourish and do its job to the max of its ability. This is in part achieved though supporting the gut microbiome.
The gut is home to trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi. Together all of these microorganisms make up the gut microbiome. We may house and feed these guys but they produce certain vitamins like vitamin K as well as nutrients to feed us and the lining of our gut. More famously, they also help communicate with our brain. Although you’ll find these microorganisms in every nook and cranny of the body, there’s an abundance in our large intestine. When it comes to a healthy microbiome, the aim is to have a varied collection of microorganisms. We should be trying to balance the beneficial bacteria in our gut, while limiting the number of harmful bacteria in there. Too much or too little of any one thing can upset the balance of bacteria and cause issues in how our gut and body function.
How can a healthy diet support a healthy gut?
- Fibre and water:
You’d be hard pressed to talk about gut health and not mention the 2 important amigos; fibre and water. Fibre increases the amount of water in our stools, the amount and diversity of microorganisms in our large intestine, the weight and size of our stools, as well as the speed at which things move through our gut.
We need to eat about 14 grams of fibre for every 1000 calories we eat each day. Typically, this means we need about 25 to 35 grams of fibre each day. Unfortunately, most people do not eat enough fibre. So how do you make sure you’re eating enough fibre? You can meet this marker if you enjoy 7 portions of fruit and vegetables each day and choose wholegrain carbohydrates. Some foods that are particularly high in fibre include berries, pears, pulses, flax and chia seeds so perhaps consider enjoying them too.
It’s important that we consider fibre and water together. When you increase your fibre intake, increase it slowly and increase your water intake at the same time. We need about 2.5 litres of water a day. Most of this should come from fluids but some will come from the food we eat. Requirements do differ and depend on lots of things including what age we are, gender, weight, height and physical activity levels. However, research suggest we’re not drinking enough each day, especially water. This is unfortunate as it is so important to drink enough water as it’s central to human health.
Another big focus when it comes to diet and gut health is the variety of plants that we eat, we should be trying to maintain a balanced diet. Not only does this help you reach your target for most vitamins and minerals, but it also helps to achieve a varied and flourishing gut microbiome.
You should avoid ultra-processed foods such as deli meats, ready-made meals, sweet desserts etc. Ultra-processed foods are filled with additives that are very difficult for your gut to break down.
To work towards a goal, why not aim for 30 different types of plants per week. This includes all wholegrain carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. By doing this you’ll be serving up your gut microbiome an array of different fibres which can feed the friendly bacteria and organisms.
Probiotics are another important part of improving your digestive health. Probiotics are bacteria that can be found in every day foods including yoghurt and cheese, as well as added to certain foods e.g. yoghurt with ‘live cultures’. This type of healthy bacteria can also come from fermented food sources such as kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi. When it comes to taking a probiotic supplement, please get advice from a health care professional as you will need to take a specific variety and dose for a specific problem.
Although dietary aspects such as fibre and water are important for ensuring a healthy gut as well as eating a varied diet full of plants, please don’t forget to consider lifestyle aspects. Managing stress levels, getting regular exercise and optimising sleep will also help lead you on a path to a healthier gut.
If you have any queries in relation to gut health, diet or advice on your overall health, our team are here to help and support. Speak to our team today for advice.