The term ‘gut health’ is being thrown around left, right and centre but do most people really understand what having a healthy gut is, why it’s important and how to achieve it?
For some people having a healthy gut is associated with the absence of gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, flatulence or abnormal bowel habits whilst for others it’s about supporting a healthy gut profile. Let’s start from the beginning when we talk about the gut we’re talking predominantly about the large intestine. The large intestine houses a wide variety of bacteria species, whilst this may sound pretty unattractive, this bacteria is pivotal to supporting our overall wellbeing. In recent years, science has taught us that certain species of bacteria are associated with positive health benefits such as cognitive function, mental wellbeing, increased nutrient absorption, weight management, dietary choice and so much more. The food that we eat allows these beneficial bacteria species to produce short chain fatty acids such as butyrate, propionate and acetate in the gut. These short chain fatty acids are associated with positive health outcomes such as reducing inflammation and contributing to reducing the risks of multiple diseases. As a result, we’ve started to understand the importance of nurturing these beneficial bacterial species (otherwise known as commensal bacteria). Over the past decade we’ve learnt more and more about what we can do, what we can eat and how we can live our lives in order to provide the commensal bacteria with the best possible opportunities of surviving in the gut.
On the flipside, as much as the commensal bacteria can be beneficial for our health, we also know that the less beneficial bacteria (known as the pathogenic bacteria) can be equally less favourable for our long term health. Just as commensal bacteria can be associated with improved cognition, better dietary choices, weight management, nutrient absorption etc. these pathogenic bacteria can have the opposite effects. As a result, not only is it just important to nurture the beneficial bacteria it’s also important to prevent the pathogenic bacteria from growing.
Evidently, focusing on promoting the commensal bacteria is really key and the more commensal bacteria the more it can displace the pathogenic bacteria. Unfortunately, many of the dietary and lifestyle protocols of the western world can contribute to the growth the pathogenic bacteria. For example, high intakes of saturated fats from foods such as fried foods and ultra-processed foods, low fibre intakes, high salt intakes, smoking, poor sleep and stress are huge contributors to the growth and development of the pathogenic bacteria. Naturally, in today’s world if we want to be healthy, we have to work hard to adopt healthy behaviours and minimise those behaviours which are not conducive to a healthy lifestyle or a healthy gut.
So clearly, having a healthy gut is important to supporting our overall health in the long term, but how can we get there?
- Hydration. Staying hydrated is imperative to obtaining a healthy gut, it’s been found to help support the maintenance of a normal barrier function for the intestines. It’s recommended to consume around 2L of water per day, on very hot days or days where you may be engaging in intense exercise you may wish to increase this slightly. Although, excessive overconsumption of water can be dangerous and therefore much like everything, moderation is key. Where possible try to limit drinks which contain added sugars as these can contribute to the growth of the pathogenic bacteria in the gut. It’s best to sip slowly throughout the day to optimise your hydration status.
- Fibre. Fibre is one of the most important components to obtaining a healthy gut. Fibre is an indigestible carbohydrate which ferments in the gut to feed the beneficial bacteria. Fibre also contributes to stool bulk and some types of fibre (such as beta glucans, which can be found in oats) have been associated with a reduction in cholesterol. The government recommends to consume around 30g of fibre per day but currently in the UK we’re only hitting an average of 18g per day. It’s well documented that fibre is such a fundamental component of supporting our long term health. Sources of fibre include: beans, pulses, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.
- Consuming Plant Foods And A Diverse Diet. The bacteria in the gut feed off a variety fibre which is primarily found in plant foods. Each plant provides individual fibres which are important for allowing the commensal bacteria to grow, thrive and survive in the gut. Additionally, plant foods contain a variety of phytochemicals, otherwise known as chemicals found naturally in plants. Phytochemicals are known to be hugely beneficial in modulating the balance between pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria. Often the colours of certain fruits and vegetables can be indicative of the phytochemicals contained within them. For example, orange vegetables such as carrots, butternut squash and sweet potato are all a source of beta-carotene, otherwise known as pre-vitamin A and can be found naturally in plants. Additionally, red fruits and vegetables such as watermelon, tomatoes and grapefruit are all sources of lycopene, a key antioxidant which helps to remove unwanted free radicals in the body. Evidently, as each plant provides different nutrients, consuming a variety of plant foods is essential for optimum long-term health.
- Opting For Wholegrains. Wholegrains are higher in fibre than refined grains and are therefore particularly beneficial for supporting a healthy gut. Wholegrains are also a source of soluble fibre which helps to increase stool bulk and aids digestion. Consequently, this can help to support the removal of waste products from the body and support healthy digestion too.
- Focusing On Fermented Foods. Fermented foods provide the live bacteria which can then grow and thrive in the gut to promote long-term gut health. Incorporating more fermented foods into your diet can be very simple. Introducing yoghurt containing live cultures, fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut and switching your bread to sourdough bread are all really easy ways to increase the consumption of live cultures. Sourdough bread is a particularly brilliant component to the diet as it can be easier to digest than regular bread. This is due to the fact that throughout the fermentation process, much of the gluten is broken down, this means there’s less work for the gut to do. Additionally, the fermentation process also generates prebiotic fibres which are required to feed the commensal (or good) bacteria in the gut. I recommend trying the Bertinet Bakery Seeded Sourdough bread topped with peanut butter and banana for a protein rich, fibre full breakfast to see you through the morning! Just one slice of Bertinet Bakery Seeded Sourdough bread contains 2.6g of fibre which is 8.6% of the daily recommended intake!
- Prioritising Sleep. When we think about the gut we tend to think about what we’re eating, but our lifestyles also play a fundamental role in supporting a healthy gut. There’s strong evidence to link healthy sleep with increased diversity in commensal bacteria. Additionally, good quality sleep has been associated with a reduction in inflammation in gut. Furthermore, it’s well documented that poor sleep can impair appetite hormones. Evidence suggests that off the back of a few nights poor sleep, Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) increases and leptin (the satiety hormone) decreases which causes an increase in the desire for food. Often these foods can be high in sugar to increase energy levels which are depleted as a result of poor sleep. Generally it’s recommended to aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
- Limiting Saturated Fat. High intakes of saturated fats can negatively impact the gut microbiome by increasing the pathogenic bacteria and reducing the good bacteria. It’s recommended not to consume more than 10% of the diet from saturated fat. Foods high in saturated fat include fried foods and ultra-processed foods, do be aware that some vegan fast food can also be high in saturated fats.
- Be Aware Of Your Lifestyle. Common lifestyle habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can also play havoc on your gut microbiome. As a result, it’s recommended to limit smoking and moderate alcohol consumption to no more than 14 units of alcohol per week.
- Limit Stress. This one is easier said than done, although it’s important to be aware that the gut and the brain are connected via the Vagus nerve (a nerve which runs all the way from the brain down to the gut). The Vagus nerve is bi-directional so the brain can communicate with the gut but equally the gut can interact with the brain. Evidence suggests chronic stress can contribute to increasing the pathogenic bacteria in the gut. Mindfulness has been shown to be a powerful tool in the management of IBS which goes to show just how strong the link between the gut and the brain really is!
Evidently, there are multiple factors to supporting a healthy gut, whilst it can seem overwhelming to nail everything at once you’re better off focusing on a few changes and making sure they become part of your routine. Once you’ve mastered the art of a few gut friendly tricks you can then move on to incorporate some of the other suggestions in this article. I recommend by starting with the small things such as switching your toast in the morning to sourdough. Bertinet Bakery’s Seeded Sliced Sourdough is a great option as it provides 2.6g of fibre per slice and the texture is softer making it great for sandwiches.
Finally, if you’re concerned about your gut health please do seek personalised professional advice.
Nutritionist Jenna Hope is registered with the Association for Nutrition. She works closely with individuals, brands, companies and the media to help them implement smarter strategies for Nutrition. With an undeniable passion about making nutrition smarter, clearer and simpler, she provides quick, easy, nutrition advice which you can implement everyday. Jenna has a practical and non-restrictive approach to nutrition and it’s her mission to educate as many people as she can on the smart ways nutrition can change your life.
Please contact Jenna to work with her. Find Jenna online here: