But, if the term ‘gut health’ refers to our gastrointestinal tract – which includes the excretion of material outside of our body – you might wonder how such an unsexy topic because so popular?
When we refer to the gastrointestinal tract, we’re talking about the nine-metre long system that spans from when food first enters your oesophagus (aka our food pipe) all the way until it comes out the other end.
Given its sheer length, it’s sure to do some pretty cool things. Recently, there’s been a boom in research stressing the need to look after your gut, because keeping it healthy is the key to so many aspects of wellness. Here’s what you need to know.
What does our gastrointestinal system actually do?
We’ve always known the gut to be responsible for breaking down food, extracting the nutrients and processing waste, but it does a whole lot more than just that.
Our gastrointestinal tract contains the enteric nervous system (ENS), also known as our “second brain”, which sits within the wall of the gut and keeps your whole body in check.
The ENS is responsible for the production and regulation of our hormones, namely serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ hormone. Irritation of the gut then interferes with the normal flow of this hormone and this can have a huge impact on your mental health.
Our gut also puts up a great fight against the risk of disease. If any toxins or undesirables make it through our stomach acid, they then come into contact with our immune system and roughly 75 per cent of that lives within the gut. Your gut needs to be thriving and healthy 24/7 for you to avoid illness or fatigue.
So, when you look at it that way, it’s no wonder it plays such a huge part in our energy levels.
Underneath it all, our digestive system is highly reliant on our ‘gut microbiome.’ Our gut microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that live all through the intestinal tract. These microorganisms, mainly comprised of ”good” and “bad” bacteria help break down food your body can’t digest, absorb nutrients into the bloodstream and regulate your immune system.
Why is a healthy gut so important?
If your gut health isn’t too great, your body's ability to perform all these vital functions will be hampered.
Internal inflammation often occurs when your gut microbiome is off balance and your immune system is running on overdrive to help it out. Initial symptoms include the obvious constipation and indigestion, along with things you mightn't necessarily expect like eczema, arthritis and mood imbalances.
Long term, this chronic inflammation then places yourself at a greater risk of conditions such as bowel cancer, diverticular disease and diabetes.
Signs of poor gut health
There are a number of contributing factors which may lead to a poor gut health. The key offenders include: a diet low in fibre and high in processed foods, caffeine and alcohol, inactivity and stress.
Symptoms to look out for include bloating, excessive wind, diarrhoea, fatigue and frequent illness (think colds/flus). Other signs include skin irritation, whether that be dryness, eczema or redness, changes in mood and a rise in anxiety levels.
If you find you are having frequent mood swings, unexplained stress or anxiety, it could be another sign, as these mental functions are all closely linked to our hormone levels.
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How to improve gut health
The first way to give your gut a helping hand is to reassess your diet. Look to lower your intake of processed food, caffeine and alcohol, up the fresh produce and get in some probiotics.
Probiotics are the live microorganisms that live inside your gut and are known as the "good bacteria," they help create the healthy balance of your gut microbiome. Probiotics help to ease digestive symptoms like constipation and diarrhoea, boost the immune system and lowers cortisol levels, a hormone which has been linked to anxiety and depression.
Fermented foods are the strongest source of probiotics, including things like kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha and yoghurt (containing live cultures). It’s important to note that probiotics don’t breed in your gut, so you need to be eating these daily to receive the benefits.
Depending on your individual needs, a probiotic supplement may be beneficial. There are a heap of them out there and they all boast different benefits, some even support improved sex drive! I tend to recommend supplements on a once-off basis, use them to get back on track, but don’t become dependent.
Whether you get your probiotic hit from food or supplements, you’ll need to also include prebiotics to keep them on their A-game. Prebiotics are starchy carbohydrates and fibres which we can’t digest. They remain in the gut and fuel the probiotics. Dietary fibre is a great source of prebiotics, so make sure you're hitting your fruit and veg target and also including legumes and wholegrains.
Other strategies to improve the health of your gut include regular physical activity, staying hydrated and reducing stress levels (I know, easier said than done!). If you think there is some room for improvement, take a look at your diet first and then take it from there, dietary changes alone should start having a positive effect on the gut in roughly 24-48 hours.
If you have further concerns or are considering supplementation, it’s best to have a chat with a health professional for advice.
Rachel Scoular is a Dietitian and Nutritionist. You can learn more about her by visiting her website.