8 tips to optimise your Gut Health
Interest and research in gut health is increasingly popular and continues to jump from strength to strength in terms of its validity with which it links to our overall health. From the balance required to alleviate the risk of chronic disease to the ability to improve our mental well-being. Read on to discover 8 tips to optimise your gut health!
1. Increase intake of both prebiotics and probiotics to enhance the gut microbiome
The gut microbiome is a collection of bacteria, fungi and viruses that reside in our gut. There is now an established link between the balance of bacteria in our gut and our susceptibility to both chronic diseases and our mental health. For example, studies have shown a decrease in Bacteriodetes and an increase in Firmicutes in those with obesity and therefore those who are likely to develop chronic diseases. (Murphy, 2015) Furthermore, studies which examine dietary interventions on the gut microbiome during teenage years, have shown a link between a healthy diet and long-term positive mental health (Kadosh, 2021). Therefore, there is a wide variety of reasons why one should increase their intake of pro and prebiotics (see definitions below).
Sources of probiotics include (Beneficial bacteria in our gut that can also be found in food);
- unpasturised/raw kimchi (not heat treated)
- yoghurt with active/live cultures
- unpasturised/raw cheese e.g. Gouda, Edam, Greyere
- supplements e.g. Symprove, Bio-Kult, Alforex
Sources of prebiotics include (Nutrients found in food which feed the bacteria in our gut) ;
2. Increase intake of dietary fibre
Dietary fibre is food which bypasses digestion in the stomach and is fermented in the colon – by-products of this process have been linked with health benefits, for example, butyrate has links with a reduction in colon cancer risk (Gheorghe, Adelina, et al, 2022). Some forms of dietary fibre are prebiotics, but not all of them! Like prebiotics, dietary fibre helps our gut microbiome thrive but also encourages overall bowel health. It is recommended that we aim for 30g of fibre per day – however on average in the UK we eat only 18g fibre/ day (Roberts, C. et al, 2018). Those who have adequate dietary fibre tend to have healthier bowels. Fibre is also satiating and is therefore sometimes helpful as a complementary tool to weight loss.
Tips to add more fibre into your diet;
- Opt for wholegrain alternatives e.g. brown seeded bread, brown rice, wholewheat pasta
- Beans, beans and more beans! – there are many varieties of beans which we are able to buy these days – they are also cost-effective and can be added to any saucy dishes such as pasta and curries. Examples include – pinto beans, chickpeas, kidney beans and butter beans.
- Keep skin on the fruit and veggies – opt for fruits such as grapes and apples, and keep the skin on when cooking with potatoes, butternut squash, aubergine and peppers.
Top Tip – roast veggies for added flavour and crunchy skin!
3. Manage stress levels
We are all familiar with knots in our stomach than come alongside worry or perhaps the sensation of butterflies when nervous – these sensations support the hypothesis of the gut being our second brain. The gut does in fact contain a branch of our nervous system known as the enteric nervous system. This system is crucial in the management of stress and is involved in producing cortisol, known as the stress hormone (Foster, 2017). Stress can also have physical implications on the gut such as pain, discomfort or increased bowel movements.
Typical ways to manage stress include the following;
- Increasing physical activity – find something you genuinely like doing, from yoga to walking to rock climbing or boxing (see below for more)
- Ensure adequate work-life balance – perhaps combine the above and see a friend for a walk rather than a sedentary coffee?
- Ensure adequate sleep – try avoiding caffeine after 12pm, creating a night-time routine, and avoiding artificial light exposure late into the evenings
4. Increase activity levels
Increasing activity levels, for the majority of us, is a priority for improved health across the board. With sedentary jobs and the convenience of food delivery, even basic movement has been reduced. Increased activity levels enhance the levels of good bacteria in the gut due to increased blood flow and oxygen levels within the gut. Reducing stress by increasing physical activity can also aid IBS management. (Monda, 2017)
In order to increase your physical activity, find something you are going to come back to repeatedly – therefore, something that you enjoy but also that provides accountability. Here are some prompts to get you thinking about the method, or how you might go about increasing your physical activity;
- Why not try Park Run – a 5k event that happens every day on Saturday around the world – you can walk or run it! It also often involves a coffee afterwards, adding a social and potential accountability element.
- Perhaps take your next meeting as a walking meeting – studies show that we are far more focused and creative after walking for just 5 minutes! (Oppezzo, 2014)
- If you are new to the gym, start with classes and go with a friend so you can keep each other accountable
- Think back to when you were a child – what movement did you enjoy?
5. Reduce intake of processed foods, sugar and alcohol
By consuming processed foods which are high in fat and sugar, you can disrupt the balance of the bacteria in the gut – encouraging the development of those ‘bad’ species.
Tips to reduce intake of high-fat, high sugar and ultra-processed foods;
- Try and embrace home cooking! You can also save money and time by cooking in bulk – dishes which are great for this include curries, pasta-based dishes, soups, and pies.
- Not ready to completely cook from scratch? Try services such a HelloFresh, Mindful Chef or Gousto, where ingredients and recipes are provided for you conveniently.
- Plan ahead when travelling – take snacks e,g. nut bars, fresh fruit or pack your lunch to avoid picking up cheap, unhealthy convenience foods.
Alcohol consumption can harm the gut in the following ways (Bishehsari, 2017)
- It inhibits the production of the enzymes that help breakdown our food, causing digestive issues such as bloating, gas and loose stools
- Excessive intake can cause the gut to be more ‘leaky’ allowing nutrients to enter your bloodstream and likely poor immune health as a result
- It can cause long term imbalance in the gut microbiome
Therefore, limiting alcohol intake is important for gut health, when indulging in a glass or two think about your food choices pre and post-consumption, and remain hydrated with water throughout consumption.
6. Keep the Coffee!
Coffee has been linked with positive effects on the gut microbiome – that’s a yay from those religious coffee drinkers out there!
Coffee has been shown to increase the diversity of the gut microbiome, potentially due to its soluble fibre and prebiotics qualities (González, 2020). Coffee has also been linked with a reduction in low-grade inflammation throughout the body.
When consuming your coffee do opt for higher quality where possible with minimal to no added sugars, and avoid consuming caffeine after midday to complement your sleep health.
7. Fluids – stay hydrated!
It is widely appreciated that ensuring we are adequately hydrated is important for our gut health. By doing so, we can;
- keep our bowel movements regulated
- prevent constipation
- support digestion in the stomach, alongside the natural enzymes and acid
Why not try Kombucha, which is a fermented tea drink that contains a plethora of microorganisms and therefore acts as a probiotic to support the gut microbiome.
8. Embrace structure & habit when it comes to your meals
Much like the rest of the body, our gut works alongside our circadian rhythms, our 24 hour body clock. Therefore, by adopting a rough pattern around our mealtimes, the gut is better primed to react to food. Having time in between our meals when we are not eating is also beneficial for our metabolism, as it enhances what is known as our metabolic flexibility which in turn supports weight management (Galgani, Jose E et al, 2008).
Embracing mindful eating can be a great tool to really tune into your gut and listen to your body. Mindful eating techniques include honouring your hunger signals, removing labels from food and knowing that all food can have different values whether that is nutrition or joy.
Stay tuned for future blogs to learn more about Mindful Eating.
Do you have any tips when it comes to any of the above? We would love to hear from you! Please comment below.
By Grace Arrowsmith, dietetic student. Reviewed by Reema Patel, Registered Dietitian, MSc
Murphy, E. A., Velazquez, K. T., & Herbert, K. M. (2015). Influence of High-Fat-Diet on Gut Microbiota: A Driving Force for Chronic Disease Risk. Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care, 18(5), 515. https://doi.org/10.1097/MCO.0000000000000209
Cohen Kadosh, K., Basso, M., Knytl, P. et al. Psychobiotic interventions for anxiety in young people: a systematic review and meta-analysis, with youth consultation. Transl Psychiatry 11, 352 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-021-01422-7
Foster, J. A., Rinaman, L., & Cryan, J. F. (2017). Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome. Neurobiology of Stress, 7, 124-136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ynstr.2017.03.001
Monda, V., Villano, I., Messina, A., Valenzano, A., Esposito, T., Moscatelli, F., Viggiano, A., Cibelli, G., Chieffi, S., Monda, M., & Messina, G. (2017). Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/3831972
Bishehsari, F., Magno, E., Swanson, G., Desai, V., Voigt, R. M., Forsyth, C. B., & Keshavarzian, A. (2017). Alcohol and Gut-Derived Inflammation. Alcohol Research : Current Reviews, 38(2), 163-171. https://doi.org/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5513683/
González, S., Salazar, N., Ruiz-Saavedra, S., Gómez-Martín, M., de los Reyes-Gavilán, C. G., & Gueimonde, M. (2020). Long-Term Coffee Consumption is Associated with Fecal Microbial Composition in Humans. Nutrients, 12(5). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12051287
Gheorghe, Adelina, et al. “Biochemical and Metabolical Pathways Associated with Microbiota-Derived Butyrate in Colorectal Cancer and Omega-3 Fatty Acids Implications: A Narrative Review.” Nutrients, vol. 14, no. 6, 2022, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14061152.
Roberts, C. et al. (2018) National Diet and Nutrition Survey : Results from Years 7 and 8 (combined) of the Rolling Programme (2014/2015 – 2015/2016), Public Health England.
Oppezzo M., Schwartz DL., (2014) Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), 1142-1152.
Galgani, Jose E et al. “Metabolic flexibility and insulin resistance.” American journal of physiology. Endocrinology and metabolism vol. 295,5 (2008): E1009-17. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.90558.2008