Understanding Gut Health and Why It's Important
The idea of looking after our gut health has certainly gained popularity over the last few decades.
Here we look at what is gut health, why it’s so important and explore a few ways to easily turn the gastrointestinal system into a healthy micro-biome factory.
What Is Gut Health?
We eat food and it travels down our throat into the stomach where it is digested, the useful nutrients absorbed and the waste excreted.
The word ‘gut’ refers to the gastrointestinal tract. It contains billions of tiny bacteria, fungi and micro-organisms called archaea that help digest food so that it can be absorbed by the body.
When the gut is working well it is full of ‘good’ bacteria which work together to break down food and liquid. When it isn’t, our stomachs are full of ‘bad’ micro-organisms that lead to bloating, stomach issues such as constipation, and a general feeling of poor health.
Why Is Gut Health Important?
Our gut has one big job and that’s to break down the food we eat and use it to provide nutrients to the body. Recent research has found that an unhealthy gut leads to chronic health issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes and even cancer.
Other studies have linked bad gut health to mental health problems such as depression, obesity and heightened cholesterol levels. With many people leading sedentary lifestyles nowadays and regularly consuming highly processed foods, it has become more difficult to maintain good gut health.
Symptoms Associated With Gut Health Issues
Several symptoms may suggest the gut is not functioning as well as it should. These can include:
- Stomach upsets such as feeling bloated, constipation, IBS and diarrhea.
- Weight changes, either loss or piling on the pounds, could also signify you’re gut is not getting the food it needs.
- Fatigue and poor sleep could be a sign that your gut is full of unhealthy bacteria.
- Other issues that could be caused by poor gut health include autoimmune conditions, irritated skin and food intolerances.
Ways to Improve Gut Health
There are several, relatively easy ways to change a poor performing gut into a healthy one but most generally involve changing the quality of the diet.
It might be surprising to learn that stress can make a huge difference to gut health. Constant high-stress levels can change the gut biome making it more acidic and less welcoming to good bacteria. A good night’s sleep is also extremely beneficial to gut health.
Eat the Right Food
Of course, the way to a healthy gut is by making good food choices. There’s a lot that has been written on this subject but the rule of thumb is to eat whole foods and vegetables and avoid overly processed foods.
Ready meals, for example, contain high amounts of sugar and low-grade ingredients that don’t promote good bacteria. People should cook with fresh ingredients and avoid anything that has been ultra processed.
It’s also essential for a healthy gut to vary the type of food that is eaten. Sticking to one or two favorite ingredients doesn’t help nurture and grow the range of good bacteria that is needed.
Include different colored vegetables such as peppers, carrots and healthy greens and reduce processed carbs such as pasta and rice.
Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir contain healthy bacteria and are thought to be good for gut health. Adding a little to the daily meal can make a big difference to the gut biome.
Avoid Processed Sugars
Sugars are a real health issue in the modern world and reducing any kind of processed ingredient, including refined sugar, is essential. Switch to natural sugars found in fruits and avoid processed foods that normally have high amounts of refined sugar.
Vegetarian and vegan diets are excellent at developing good gut health and that might be due to their high fiber content. Plant-based diets have also been shown to reduce bad bacteria such as e-coli.
There are two schools of thought on probiotic supplements. Some say they are useful if there is nothing else, others suggest they don’t work to create a healthy gut. A much better option is to swap to probiotic foods such as complex carbs and fiber. Many fruits and vegetables contain larger amounts of probiotics than your average supplement.
Finally, some recent studies have suggested that regular fasting can have a big impact on gut health. It gives the stomach the chance to rest and repair itself and for good bacteria to flourish. Fasting can also help manage portions better so that individuals don’t overeat.