How to improve your gut health

How to improve your gut health

Team ErbologyErbology

Gut health has been a popular topic in recent years and yet so many of us still struggle with it. Let’s find out what you can do to improve your gut health today!

August 03, 2022 2:37 pm

How do you know if your gut is healthy?

There is no single tell-tale sign of a healthy gut. In fact, there are several factors that come into play. Irritable bowel symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea or stomach cramps may all be signs that you need to address your gut health. 

However, the absence of any gut symptoms may not mean that you have perfect gut health. In fact, factors such as the frequency at which you get sick, the types of medication you take and whether or not you are on a restrictive diet can all impact your gut health.

Furthermore one of the quickest ways to tell whether your gut is unbalanced is changes in your bowel movement. In fact, if you notice changes in your stool this may be cause for concern. 

Normal stool should never include blood, that is something you should check with your doctor as soon as you notice it. Experiencing issues with bowel movements is absolutely normal, all of us have noticed changes at some point in our lives. 

The Bristol stool chart can be a helpful guide to  understand what is going on with your gut. It’s important to voice any concerns you may have with your doctor. Furthermore, what is considered “normal” may look different from person to person. In addition to bowel movements, there are other signs to look out for that mean your gut needs to be looked after. If you are experiencing abnormal weight loss, bleeding when passing stool, pain in bowel movements, or anaemia, contact your doctor to explain your symptoms.

How can you improve your gut health?

Diet is one of the largest influencing factors on our gut health. This is because the microbes in our gut rely on the food that we feed them. For this reason, even identical twins have different gut microbiomes. 

Factors such as sleep, physical activity, and stress can also alter your gut microbiome. Therefore diet should be considered within a holistic view, accounting for all other lifestyle factors as well.

Fibre-rich whole foods 

It will probably come as no surprise that fibre rich whole foods including whole grains, fruits and vegetables are good for your health. It turns out they are also excellent for gut health. 

As if we needed more reasons to eat whole foods, whole grains such as quinoa, amaranth and brown rice contain fibre that we need for bulk in our intestines in order to keep us regular.

The bacteria in our microbiome uses whole grains as food to grow and proliferate. In fact, increasing your whole grain consumption can increase the type and number of bacteria in your gut. 

Similarly, nuts contain gut-friendly fibre to keep your gut health in check. Remember that variety is key. walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews and pecan are great nut options. They not only provide heart-healthy fats but also gut-loving fibre. Aim for one small handful per day. You can also read more about the benefits of nuts and healthy fats here.

Whole fresh vegetables, fruits beans and legumes are rich in fibre and other nutrients that the microbes in your gut can feed on. Where possible, try to buy seasonal produce which is not only fresher but also more sustainable. 

Variety is key

Not only is it important to eat plenty of fresh produce, but variety is an essential requirement for a healthy gut. In fact, research from the American Gut Project has shown that ideally, you should aim to eat 30+ plants per week.(1) This may sound like a lot, but when you include nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and grains along with fruits and vegetables, the numbers add up quickly!

The research looked at the microbiomes of tens of thousands of volunteers and found that people who eat at least 30 varieties of plant foods per week had greater microbial diversity compared to people who ate just 10 varieties. So next time you’re planning for your next meal, have a think about what different plants you can add to your plate, your gut will thank you for it!

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"[...] people who eat at least 30 varieties of plant foods per week [have] greater microbial diversity compared to people who [eat] just 10 varieties."

Oral health can affect gut health 

Did you know that your oral health can affect your gut health? Yes, that’s correct. In fact the health of your teeth and gums can directly impact what goes on in your gut. 

You may not think that brushing and flossing your teeth regularly and having regular Dental check-ups is relevant to your microbiome but in fact it is. Studies have shown that harmful bacteria from your mouth can transfer to your stomach and subsequently cause issues.(2) 

One way to take care of your teeth and oral health is to limit sugary foods. One of the main offenders are sugary beverages. Not only is sugar inflammatory to your body, sugar can cause yeast to grow and lead to imbalances in the gut. The same can be said for ultra processed foods.

There is evidence to suggest that bacteria in the mouth can lead to inflammation in the body by altering the gut microbiome. In fact, a group of researchers carried out a study to examine the relationship between oral health and gut microbiome in the elderly.(3) 

The researchers evaluated the passage of oral bacteria into the gastrointestinal tract. They found that the prevalence of oral bacterial transition to the gut may be higher in the elderly compared to adults. Thus it is hypothesised that focusing on oral health in the elderly can directly impact gut microbiome composition and subsequently promote better health. 

Do fermented foods benefit your gut?

We’ve all heard that eating yoghurt is good for our gut, but what about fermented foods in general? What is the evidence surrounding fermented foods and our gut health? Fermented foods contain large amounts of bacteria, particularly lactobacilli, which are popular for their supposed health benefits. 

Such foods include sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, tempeh, sourdough bread and yoghurt. By definition, fermented foods are produced through controlled microbial growth, enzymes convert food components through this process. Recently, there has been an increased interest in fermented foods, mainly sparked by the health and wellness industry touting the supposed health benefits of such foods. 

To shed light on the facts, a group of researchers investigated the evidence around the impacts of fermented foods on the gut microbiota and their effects on gut health and disease.(4) Supposedly, fermented foods provide probiotic effects and reduce anti-nutrients (compounds that interfere with absorption of nutrients), amongst other things. 

The evidence is limited yet promising

Only certain fermented foods have been tested in at least one randomised controlled trial in relation to their effects on the gut. These foods include kefir, sourdough bread, sauerkraut and natto (fermented soybeans). For other fermented foods such as miso, kimchi, kombucha and tempeh, there have been several in vitro studies yet no randomised controlled trials investigating their impact on gut health. Most of the research on fermented foods has focused on kefir. In fact, evidence suggests beneficial effects in lactose malabsorption and in eradicating H. pylori infection. 

Overall, the clinical evidence for the effectiveness of most fermented foods in gut health and disease is quite limited. However, given that in vitro findings are robust, high-quality clinical trials on the benefits of these foods are required. So for now, although the evidence is not strong enough to make claims around fermented foods, there is enough literature to believe that fermented foods may very well have positive impacts. So you probably can’t go wrong by including them in your diet!

Polyphenols for the win

Polyphenols are naturally occurring micronutrients in plants. Many foods contain polyphenols, from green tea to dark chocolate. 

It has been shown that flavonols (a type of polyphenol) can lead to an increase in the growth of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium in the gut. We know that these good bacteria are essential for a healthy gut microbiome. In addition, these polyphenols may also play a part in reducing levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) which is a blood marker of inflammation.(7)

Other great sources of polyphenols include red grapes and wine made from red grapes, almonds, onions, berries, broccoli and cocoa powder. 

Exercise and the gut

Our gastrointestinal tract contains a myriad of microorganisms which play various roles in our intestines. They serve protective, structural and metabolic functions. The gut microbiome provides nutrients, takes part in the signalling network and affects our immune system. In fact, over 70% of our immune system is found in the gut! 

Given our microbiota’s ability to respond to physiological changes, some researchers have compared it to an endocrine organ. Many different factors can influence changes within our gut microbiota. Such changes can be quantitative or qualitative and lead to changes in the composition and activity of the gut microbiota. Consequently this can affect health and disease processes. 

Studies have shown that exercise can actually increase the amount of beneficial microbial species in the gut, enriching the microflora diversity and improving the development of good bacteria.(5)

Exercise benefits metabolic health

The literature has shown that the gut microbiome plays a major role in our health and that issues within the microbiome can lead to metabolic diseases. Our genes and our environment, including nutrition and exercise, heavily influence our microbiome. Physical activity is known to have therapeutic effects in respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. 

However, up until recently, the information regarding the beneficial effects of exercise on gut health and microbial composition was still lacking. In addition, it was not known whether the benefits of exercise on microbiome diversity can have a positive impact on body organs and tissues. 

A study published in the Review of Diabetic Studies analysed the literature on exercise-induced microbiome changes and how they may cause inflammatory, immune and oxidative responses that could play a role in improving metabolic disorders.(6)

The review found that physical activity causes changes to the microbiome which in turn affects our immune system. In fact, microbes release certain compounds that may decrease inflammation and oxidative stress. Overall, it appears that exercise can induce changes in microbial diversity which can improve cardiorespiratory fitness and insulin resistance. As if we needed an extra reason to exercise! Now we know it also benefits our gut and metabolic health!

Limit Your Alcohol Intake

Too much alcohol is toxic to every aspect of our health, this is universally agreed on. What’s more, drinking excessively can negatively impact your gut microbiome as well. 

In fact, alcohol abuse is linked to gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining which can lead to a host of different issues, from heartburn to ulcers and infections. Intestinal inflammation can alter your gut microbiome and lead to microbial imbalances.(8) 

If you have IBS, alcohol can worsen your symptoms. Make sure that you limit your alcohol intake, especially if you already have gut issues such as IBS. And if you do choose to drink, do so in moderation, have a few alcohol-free days per week and ideally choose a polyphenol rich drink such as red wine!

Reduce Stress Levels

Stress can wreak havoc on all aspects of our body, from our mental health to our physical health. Stress is much more than just mental. If you’ve heard about the “gut-brain connection”, you’ll know that our mind and our stomach are inextricably linked. There’s a reason why you feel “butterflies” in your stomach when you’re anxious or nervous, that is your brain sending a signal to your gut! 

Whilst there is still a lot to uncover about the connection between brain and gut, what we do know is that they are closely intertwined. Anxiety and depression are affected by our gut and they can increase the incidence of IBS. Similarly, people with IBS are more likely to suffer from mental health issues. 

So, finding ways to reduce stress and looking after your mental health is of utmost importance for a healthy gut. Speak to your GP if you think you could benefit from professional mental help, they can refer you to a qualified psychologist who can assist you with your individual needs. 

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