Why does our gut matter?
There are three main reasons why we need to think about our gut health.
Firstly, our intestinal tract (bowel) contains trillions of microbes.
These are a hugely important part of our health: they produce different hormones and vitamins, and we couldn’t survive without them.
Secondly, the majority of the cells that make up our immune system are found in our digestive tract.
Having good gut health is linked to fewer sick days and lower risk of allergies and autoimmune conditions.
Finally, even if you put the healthiest food into your body, if you don’t have a healthy intestinal lining to digest it, you won’t get all the benefits of what you are eating.
How do I know if I have a healthy gut?
There is no single way to tell if you have a healthy gut – it’s a collection of factors.
Constipation, diarrhoea or stomach cramps can be signs of an unhealthy gut. But just because you don’t notice any symptoms, it doesn’t mean you have good gut health. Other factors include:
- how often you get sick
- whether you are on a restrictive diet
- what medications you take
What can I do to have a healthier gut?
Diet is one of the biggest influences on our gut health, because our microbes are reliant on what we feed them.
This explains why even identical twins (who will have identical genetics) have different microbes. Things like sleep, stress and exercise can also change the microbes, so it’s important to look at your lifestyle.
What should I eat to help my gut health?
One of the strategies I recommend is to eat 30 different plant foods every week.
Diversity matters, because there are nearly 100 types of fibre and thousands of plant phytochemicals, which are thought to feed different bacteria.
Thirty might sound intimidating, but it includes fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes (such as chickpeas, lentils or kidney beans); nuts and seeds. It could be as simple as adding mixed seeds to whatever you are eating in the morning.
Make small switches, such as buying different colours of peppers instead of a single one, or a pack of mixed vegetables.
Try not to have the same meals every day. Even if you love routine, have different fruit on different days; or if you eat porridge every day, vary the toppings – banana one day, berries another, along with nuts and seeds.
How could my gut health affect my heart?
A lot of research has been carried out in animals, but we need to wait for human studies before we know for sure.
We do know, for example, that polyphenols (a type of antioxidant found in plants) are linked to heart and circulatory health; but 90 per cent of them can’t be digested by human cells.
Instead, we rely on the microbes in our gut to ferment them, so they can be absorbed into the body.
We also know that the Mediterranean diet is good for heart and circulatory health, as well as gut health.
A core element is extra virgin olive oil, which is rich in polyphenols. But we also know that the Mediterranean diet will increase the diversity of our microbes; and it’s this diversity that is linked to a lower risk of chronic conditions, including heart and circulatory diseases.
We also know that microbes love fibre, and that eating more fibre is linked to a lower risk of heart and circulatory diseases.
How long does it take for diet to make a difference?
Microbes in the gut can begin to change within days of changes to your diet, but the long-term benefits can take several years to show.
Remember that if you go back to your old ways, you aren’t going to get much of a benefit – it’s about long-term changes.