What is your gut telling you?
Our guts have a big impact on our health & wellbeing and just the slightest change to our diet or lifestyle can lead to unpredictable symptoms such as irregular bowel movements, painful bloating, constipation and more. Symptoms may be linked to specific triggers such as lactose (found in dairy) or artificial sweeteners and therefore easily managed. However, they may also be a result of non-dietary factors such as stress, with many people citing practises such as yoga and meditation to have a profound benefit on their symptom management.
Often, the issues are more complex than this and there may not be a clear picture behind the symptoms. In these situations it’s important to seek guidance from a doctor or appropriate healthcare professional, as further investigation may be necessary to rule out possible conditions such as coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease.
Diet and gut health is a hot topic these days and it’s more than likely you will have heard about gut bacteria and how certain foods can make it healthier, but what does this actually mean and how does it affect us?
The ‘gut’ refers to our digestive system, where we digest and absorb nutrients from food, whilst contributing to essential processes such as immune function and weight regulation. Our guts are home to as many as 100 trillion bacterial cells, and what we ultimately want for better health is more of the good bacteria and less of the bad! A gut populated with lots of good bacteria improves health by regulating our immune systems and strengthening our stomach lining, whilst also helping to reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
So what can we do to improve our gut health?
Well think of your gut and the trillions of bacteria inside of it like a car engine performing various functions, for which it requires a regular supply of fuel. The quality of that fuel will determine how well functions are performed and ultimately how well the engine runs as a whole. Put simply, the quality of what we put into our system (gut) affects how well we function, something to consider next time you’re choosing your lunch!
Food for the gut
As individuals, we are all different in a variety of ways and the same goes for the population of our gut bacteria. This means that our nutritional needs reflect these differences and what works for one person may not work for another. For example some of us tolerate bread with no issues and some of us find that it causes bloating & abdominal discomfort, the same goes for many other foods!
Acknowledging things that do and don’t agree with us whilst consuming a diet rich in whole foods, will ultimately provide us with a practical and enjoyable way of eating for better health. While the concept sounds simple it’s often a lot more challenging and seeking professional support can help you to construct a well-balanced, practical diet that’s tailored to your individual needs.
For those of us who don’t suffer from a diagnosed gastrointestinal condition or persistent symptoms that need managing, there are some broad nutritional principles which when incorporated can improve the quality of both our diet and gut health, these include:
Grow your own
Eat plenty of fibre-rich foods such as fruit, vegetables, beans, pulses, nuts & whole grains. Some forms of dietary fibre contain ‘Prebiotic's’ which are indigestible and therefore get fermented in the colon by our gut bacteria. This process stimulates the healthy bacteria and helps it to grow!
Variety is key
Eat a wide variety of plant-based foods – gut bacteria benefit from a broad selection of different foods. Aiming for ‘five a day’ is a good place to start with this!
Go forth and multiply
Include ‘Probiotics’ in your diet, these are foods containing live cultures which help to populate the healthy bacteria in your gut. These can be found in yoghurt and fermented vegetables like kimchi or sauerkraut.
Evict unhealthy neighbours
Reduce your intake of highly-processed foods. These often contain added ingredients or have gone through processes that have a negative impact on our gut health, by imposing on the population of ‘good’ bacteria and increasing the population of ‘bad’ bacteria.
Activity and exercise is known to benefit an array of other health outcomes, it has also been shown to have a positive impact on the diversity of our gut bacteria.
IBS and other possible causes
Often people who suffer from abdominal bloating and discomfort are led to believe that they have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), however more often than not this has been self-diagnosed or given without the necessary medical investigations to rule out other possible conditions.
IBS can be difficult to manage, but some people do find sufficient relief from less complex first-line advice, which targets the main symptoms and suggests more straightforward practical strategies. For example, those who suffer from constipation may benefit from increasing their intake of water and soluble fibre, which is found in foods such as oats, pulses and linseeds. In contrast, those who suffer from bloating and cramps often benefit from a reduction of hard to digest foods like broccoli, onion and artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol.
As I mentioned earlier, gut symptoms can be unpredictable, persistent and hard to understand. Many people struggle with identifying the root causes of their symptoms and subsequently fail with numerous dietary interventions.
If you feel that you need for further support to help manage symptoms or to simply tailor and improve your diet for better health, then it is always advised to seek this guidance from a qualified professional such as a registered Dietitian or accredited nutritionist.