What is gut health & why is it so important?
Looking after our digestion by having a gut friendly diet is a great way to help your body and mind feel great. Doing so can help keep the bacteria in our gut balanced and thriving, which should help to keep us healthy. The gut can also potentially influence our brain and our mood through the 100 million neurons found there, which is why our gut is sometimes known as the second brain. So the foods we eat need to feed the bacteria there. We’re all different so there isn’t one diet that fits all but some things are common to us all. Let’s have a look at some tips for helping to keep our gut healthy and happy.
Lifestyle & gut health
Have you ever felt your stomach churn when you feel stressed or uneasy? Feeling tense can knock your digestive system a bit off balance and cause symptoms such as tummy pain, constipation, indigestion, diarrhoea and heartburn, but symptoms vary from person to person. So, someone may feel nauseous, while someone else could pop to the loo more frequently or lose their appetite.
So how can you help to manage daily stresses and look after your tummy health? If you’re feeling a little tense then take the time to relax properly with a calming app, yoga, a long walk or even treating yourself to a massage.
If daily stresses mean you’ve gone off food or feel a bit bloated then try not to worry about it, as this might make things worse. Eat small regular meals and nibble on healthy snacks to help keep your energy levels up and not overload your body. It’s important to be kind to your body when you’re feeling stressed, so reach for the fruit, veg and nuts rather than crisps, chocolate and coffee! Fizzy drinks and caffeine can increase anxiety levels if you’re already feeling stressed, so try de-caff options or herbal tea instead. Remember to keep your fluid intake up be drinking plenty of water.
If you’re a smoker then stopping can help prevent acid reflux and heartburn. Regular exercise can also help keep your gut in tip top shape, as physical activity increases blood flow to all of your muscles – including your gut! It’s recommended that adults should get at least 150 minutes of regular exercise a week, so why not try that gym class you’ve always wanted to do?
Am I eating right?
We’re not just talking about what you put in your body, but how you do it! It’s important not to rush your food and to make sure you chew it properly – no matter how much of a rush you are in. Other top tips include:
• Don’t overeat – reduce your portion size or try eating four to five smaller meals a day, rather than three big ones
• Eat regularly and try not to skip meals
• Avoid big meals before bed – larger meals before sleep may cause heartburn and also disrupt your zzz’s
• Sit up straight and eat slowly – eat at the dinner table with no distractions (bye bye mobile phone!) and remember to sit up straight, as this helps your gut to do its job of digesting your food properly
Get enough fibre
Most people tend to eat less fibre than they should, but fibre is really important as it can help with digestive health and help prevent constipation. Including enough fibre and a variety of sources in your diet can help nourish and balance the bacteria in your gut. Try not to add loads of fibre to your diet all at once though, as this sudden increase can cause wind and bloating. Make the transition gradually and drink plenty of fluids. The recommended dietary intake of fibre for an adult is 30g a day and can be found in:
• Wholemeal bread
• Brown rice
• Fruit and veg
• Pulses (lentils, peas)
• Potatoes with skins
• Wholegrain cereals
Drink plenty of fluids
Fibre acts like a sponge absorbing water as it passes through, so being well hydrated can help your digestion, and keep things moving. Try having a glass of water with every meal or get a reusable water bottle to take everywhere with you and keep it in your line of sight– you could even download a water reminder app if you forget to drink throughout the day. You should try and avoid or limit the drinks with caffeine in as beverages such as tea, coffee and fizzy drinks can cause digestive symptoms such as heartburn in some cases.
Cut down on fat
Rich and fatty foods including chips, fast foods, pies, batter, cheese, pizza, creamy sauces, snacks such as crisps, chocolate, cake and biscuits, spreads and cooking oils, and fatty meats such as burgers and sausages can challenge your digestion and may cause symptoms such as indigestion and discomfort. Instead of frying food try grilling it, limit takeaways, eat small amounts of lean meat, chicken without the skin and eating vegetables or nuts instead of crisps, and fruit instead of biscuits and cakes.
Be wary of your gut symptom triggers
If you’re not sure which foods are causing your stomach discomfort, try keeping a food and symptom diary for a month and look back on what the triggers are. You can then try to avoid that food altogether in the future or keep it to a minimum, but make sure you replace it with something else to keep your diet balanced and healthy. It’s not just spicy or flavourful foods that can cause problems; other foods can also upset digestion in some people such as:
• Spicy foods
• Sugar-free gum and mints (sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol)
• Beans and pulses
• Cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, onion, garlic, leeks
• Fizzy drinks
• Dairy - if you're unable to digest the lactose in it
Make sure to give your digestive system time to adjust to any changes. If your discomfort persists after following general lifestyle and dietary advice, speak to your doctor who may be able to refer you to a healthcare professional with expertise in dietary management who can ensure your diet is nutritionally adequate whilst following dietary intervention e.g. a dietician.