How do you know if you have good gut health? It’s a valid question. These days it seems very normal to experience bloating, stomach cramps, trapped wind and a whole host of other gut related symptoms, so although ‘gut health’ is firmly on our radar - are we really doing it right? First off, let’s cover some basics.
When we talk about our gut, what are we actually referring to?
The key areas are the small and the large intestines, or small and large bowel. If you’re experiencing any bloating, constipation or pain then these two areas are likely responsible for that. However, it’s actually really important to consider what’s happening upstream too - because our ‘gut’ is one long interconnected muddle of magic. Did you know that your mouth has a unique colony of bacteria (a microbiome) in the same way that your large bowel does? To have truly good gut health we need to consider the digestive domino effect - dental caries, gum disease, bleeding or tender gums are all signs that your oral microbiome could do with some support as it will be having a knock on effect on what’s happening further down the line.
Back to the intestines then, and here we have the microbiome: a collection of microorganisms that includes bacteria, viruses, yeasts and fungi. They all play a vital role in breaking down the food we eat and liberating and absorbing the nutrients contained in it. Our individual, unique microbiome is so important for our overall health that it is now considered as another organ within itself - there’s still a lot we don’t know about the microbiome as it’s such a new area of research, but from what we do know it’s now understood that our microbiome affects our mood, digestion, the way we age, our brain function and our natural protection from illness.
So it’s the microbiome then, this wonderful collection of bacteria, yeast, protozoa and fungi that makes up our gut. So how do we influence how healthy that is?
How do we improve our gut health?
So we’ve established that the gut, the microbiome, is a living organism - so it needs feeding like every other living thing. Here the phrase: “ you get out what you put in” really comes into its own, because it’s the food we eat that has the most impact on our gut health, and specifically how diverse our diets are.
Let me paint you a picture...you wake up, have your regular breakfast of porridge, granola or eggs (or maybe you favour a smoothie, whatever it may be), and then lunch time rolls around and you have that same sandwich or salad from Pret that you have most days. Then, if you’re lucky, you change it up at supper time and have something slightly different.
What we can see here is what I like to call the Boots Meal Deal effect; the same meals day in and day out. Sure, they might be healthy, but are they diverse enough to feed the trillions of bacteria in your gut? The answer is no!
Research shows that we need at least 30 different plant foods per week to maintain good diversity of our gut bugs, that’s quite a lot, and certainly more than we’re probably getting. The reason for this is that when we consume fibre the fermentation of it by our gut bacteria produces Short Chain Fatty Acids, or SCFAs for short. These are things like butyrate, acetate and propionate, and they’ve been extensively studied as being immensely beneficial for our health. For example, propionate has been shown to set off a chain of reactions that improves our blood sugar control!
When we consume the same foods day in day out, even if they’re healthy, we’re not actually feeding our gut bacteria well enough and we can lose beneficial strains of bacteria which then negatively impacts our health. One of the main ways this affects us is in our immune response and our resiliency. A diverse microbiome functions better than one with less diversity of strains because if one microbe is unable to fulfil its role then, cleverly, another can step in. This doesn't function as smoothly when we have less microbes to choose from.
How to up your diet diversity
One thing I like to think about is eating the rainbow every day, this is also a great game to play with kids too to encourage them to get more in! The rules are simple: at least one thing from every colour of the rainbow across the course of the day, then, the next day swap the vegetable or fruit. So for example, if you eat blackberries (currently in season) on monday as your purple, then on Tuesday can you eat red cabbage, on Wednesday can you eat aubergine and so on…
You might like to think about where you’re doing your food shopping too. Supermarkets force us into eating a certain variety of fruit and vegetables when in fact there are so many more varieties out there. If you're lucky enough to be able to grow your own, then you'll be well versed in all the heritage varieties available. If you don't have access to a garden, then growing herbs and sprouting are both good options, or a weekly trip to your local farmer's markets or good greengrocers for more interesting options.
Let me know how you get on, here’s to good gut health!