Gut Health

The gut is a hot topic at the moment, and for good reason! Scientists have connected gut health to much more than just how we digest food - from metabolic health, to mental wellbeing, and very topically, our immune system. The driving force behind these connections is our gut microbiota, the trillions of microbes living in our gut which are sometimes referred to as the body’s “second brain”.

Our gut microbiota perform thousands of functions for us on a daily basis, including hormone and vitamin production, making molecules that strengthen the gut barrier, and communicating with other organs like the brain. Although we know so little about what defines a ‘healthy gut’, it is quite clear that the diversity of our gut microbiota is a good marker. Dr Megan Rossi likens this to a thriving garden - “if you have all the same type of plants and a certain disease comes along, it could wipe out your entire garden. In comparison, if you have a diverse range of plants it’s unlikely that one disease has the right array of ‘weapons’ to wipe them all out – some will naturally be resistant. The same goes for your gut microbiota”.  

It's important to recognize that this is SUCH a new area of research. Despite this, there have been a spike in products jumping on the gut health bandwagon, and we should be a little skeptical here. Rather than relying on these supplements or foods that promise to ‘boost’ your gut health, we like to focus on getting the foundations right – albeit a bit less glamorous!

Before jumping into dietary changes, we can’t focus on diet alone when it comes to gut health - regular exercise, quality sleep, and stress management also play leading roles in ensuring we keep our gut bugs happy. The ‘gut-brain axis’ is an exciting focus of research right now, which pivots around the constant stream of community between our gut and brain (you might be familiar with this through the feeling of butterflies in the stomach when you’re nervous).  Not only are diets which target gut health shown to improve mental wellbeing, but disruptions of the gut-brain axis through increased stress or anxiety can play a large role in digestive issues like IBS.  

So what are the key things we can do to support gut health through diet?

  • My main piece of advice to take away is that variety really is the key to optimizing gut health – more diversity in your diet means a more diverse food supply for out gut microbes so that the ‘good bugs’ can flourish. Aim for at least 30 different types and colours of plant-foods each week – I like to make it into a challenge with friends/family!  

  • Ensuring we get enough fibre is equally important – it’s is our microbe’s favourite food! My top tips are choosing wholegrains where possible, choosing a piece of fruit for a snack, adding a roasted nut/seed mix as a salad topper, and trying to centre a meal around legumes once/week.  

  • Adding fermented foods into your diet can be a good way to give your gut an extra boost if you’re getting the basics above right. Fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut/kimchi, miso, yoghurt, and kombucha contain live microbes, which are shown to have a positive impact on the diversity of our gut microbes. Make sure you start slow and steady if these aren’t foods you’re having much of – otherwise you might notice some unpleasant side effects!  

  • Choose as many whole foods as you can, with less room in your diet for processed foods.

It’s important to keep in mind that the concept of ‘gut health’ is so extremely unique. For instance, while prebiotic fibres in foods like onion and garlic might be superstars for gut health, people with IBS are unlikely to tolerate this and our perceptions of foods to support a healthy gut need to adapt to each individual.

By Nicola Gillies

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