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Gut health: what does it really mean?

Scientists have discovered that the trillions of bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract don’t just process food. These bacteria help our body to maintain its equilibrium and achieve well-being. But what does it mean to have good gut health? What does it feel like and what can we do to improve gut health?

What is the gut microbiome?

The “gut microbiome” refers to the trillions of bacteria and other micro-organisms in our digestive system. Each individual has a unique microbiome, with the diversity and abundance of gut flora within this influencing our general health. Often, a reduced diversity and profusion in gut flora can be seen in people with certain conditions such as IBS. Everything we eat and drink influences our delicate internal gut ecosystem. How we manage stress, exercise, medications we use and even our genetics can have an impact. Some key areas affected by our gut health include:-

  • Immunity – the gut microbiome plays a role in regulating the immune system. Alterations in gut bacteria can lead to autoimmune disorders and raised levels of inflammation.
  • Brain health – the gut microbiome can affect brain function. Gut cells and the microbiome produce neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA which influence mood.
  • Nutrient absorption – the gut microbiome is crucial for the digestion and utilisation of nutrients. Macronutrients and micronutrients, like key B vitamins, are important producers of energy, while they also play a role in regulating metabolism and mood.

How to spot an unhealthy gut

  • Upset stomach – processing food and eliminating waste challenge an unhealthy gut. Symptoms include excessive flatulence, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea.
  • Unintentional weight changes – an unhealthy gut impairs regulation of blood sugar, absorption of nutrients and storage of fat, which may result in unintentional weight changes in some individuals.
  • Skin irritation – some studies suggest that inflammation of the gut may contribute to skin irritation and conditions such as eczema by causing ‘leaking’ of certain proteins.

6 ways to improve your gut health

Here are six ways to get those good bacteria thriving:
  1. Reduce stress levels – stress causes the digestive process to slow or be disrupted. This can lead to maldigestion of foods prompting undesirable bacteria overgrowth.
  2. Limit alcohol intake – alcohol changes the ratio between beneficial bacteria (such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium) and pathogenic bacteria (such as bacillus spp).
  3. Stay physically active – exercise boosts the level of gut microbes producing a substance called butyrate. This has many health benefits, from producing satiety hormones that curb hunger, to promoting gut motility.
  4. Eat insoluble and soluble fibre to promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Insoluble fibre provides bulk to stools. Gut bacteria ferment soluble fibres. Both promote a healthy gut.
  5. Reduce sugar intake – a diet high in processed sugar may increase inflammation, decreasing the amount of beneficial gut bacteria.
  6. Eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables daily – colourful fruit and vegetables provide polyphenols which promote gut health by stimulating abundant probiotic gut microbiota.
It is important to speak to a dietician or nutritionist before making any significant changes to your diet. If you are experiencing little relief from your gut issues, then it is recommended that you speak to your doctor as a specialist diagnosis may be required to treat an underlying condition.