How exactly do you improve gut health? It’s not something we consider on a day-to-day basis, but it’s an important factor to consider for our overall health.
Registered dietitian Dr Megan Rossi, aka The Gut Health Doctor, is the Sunday Times best-selling author of Eat Yourself Healthy and co-founder of Bio&Me, the award-winning food brand with a range of gut-loving, healthy recipes, granola, porridge, and muesli packing in plant-based ingredients. It’s what she calls delicious diversity because diversity is key to nourishing your gut microbes. She founded the brand to bridge the gap between science and food, to help people look after their health from the inside out. It’s food that tastes good and does your gut good too.
We chatted with the world-leading gut health expert, Dr Megan on everything you need to know on how to improve gut health. Here is what she had to say…
What are the 4 top reasons why gut health so important?
Gut health relates to the functioning of your entire digestive tract, that’s the tube that delivers your food from entry (mouth) to exit (poop). This involves digestion and absorption of food, as well as a whole host of other functions that happen without you even knowing.
There are a number of reasons why it’s so important. Firstly, all of us have trillions of microbes (including bacteria) living in the lower part of our gut, called our gut microbiota, or what I like to call our GM. These microbes are incredibly powerful and do so much more than our human cells could alone, we couldn’t survive without them. They produce vitamins, hormones and they can communicate with our brain.
That’s why we now see that when we feed our microbes, they can then impact our mental health, as well as being linked to our heart health, skin health and pretty much every other organ in the body. In fact, good gut health is linked to lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and our metabolism.
Another reason is that 70% of our immune cells live along our digestive tract, so if we want fewer sick days and lower risk of allergies, our gut health is important.
A lot of people say ‘you are what you eat’, but actually, you are what you digest. That’s because even if you have the ‘healthiest’ diet, if you don’t have a good gut lining, you’re not going to extract the nutrients efficiently.
What are the key signs of an unhealthy gut?
There’s no single sign of an unhealthy gut, it can be a collection of factors. One of the signs might include constipation. For some, this might be when it takes a longer time to move the bowels through the large intestine, and for others, it could be that the bowels move at a regular speed but the final push isn’t quite right. Other signs might be diarrhoea or stomach cramps, and it’s also worth checking in on how often you get sick, what medications you’re taking, or whether you’re following a restrictive diet – all of which can be factors in how healthy your gut is.
What are your top diet tips to help nourish the gut?
While no two people have the same GM and there’s no ‘ideal’ one-size-fits-all gut microbiota for everyone, there is an optimal GM just right for you. And it’s not just about what you eat, lifestyle plays a big part. If you look after your GM with plenty of plant-based foods, by practising mindfulness and sleeping well, among other strategies, you’re likely to cultivate your own optimal GM.
Here are my top tips to look after your gut:
1. Eat as much variety of plant-based foods as you can – the more the merrier!
Aim for 30 different types of plant-based foods every week full of gut-loving fibre and prebiotics, including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices. The more variety of plant-based foods in your diet, the more diverse your gut microbes – and this diversity is linked to the health of pretty much every organ in the body, including your skin, heart, and brain. That’s why I’ve created my Bio&Me granolas, mueslis and porridges with between 14 and 16 diverse plant-based foods in each and every bowl to help nourish your gut microbiome as an ideal way to kickstart your day.
2. Say no to restrictive diets, detoxes or cleanses and make friends with carbs.
Looking after your gut health is all about inclusivity and moderation, while overly restrictive diets can not only starve your gut bacteria and put you at risk of nutritional deficiencies, but can also create a damaging relationship with food. Your kidney and your liver – the main detoxing organs – do just fine with your body’s detoxification without expensive juice diets or colon cleanses. Carbs have been unfairly stigmatised too, but they’re not to be feared! Fibre is a type of carbohydrate, which nourishes our gut microbes (it’s their favourite food) and keeps them happy. Wholegrains and legumes (two key sources of carbs) have also been linked with lower bodyweight.
3. Boost your sleep quality and de-stress.
Sleep and stress can have a big impact on our gut health. To help combat stress and rewire the gut-brain axis, just 15 minutes a day of meditation (or using a mindfulness app) has been shown to make a significant difference after 8-12 weeks. Try improving your sleep quality by setting a regular bedtime routine with relaxation exercises, limiting caffeine after 3pm and scheduling ‘worry time’ during your day to write down your thoughts and free up your head space before bed.
Will looking after your gut help improve your mental wellbeing?
Our gut and our brain are in constant, two-way communication, referred to as the gut-brain axis. Our understanding of the connection is still in quite early stages, but in the past few years we’ve come to understand three communication styles our GM tends to use, one of which is the nervous system, via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve essentially acts as a communication highway that connects our brain and our gut (and almost every other organ in between).
The latest evidence suggests that tapping into our gut–brain axis could play a pivotal role in our mental health and, with one in four of us predicted to experience a mental-health event, our gut health really is worth taking into consideration.
Trials have shown not only that our GM is implicated in our mental health, but that by modifying our GM with the simple diet strategies, we can help manage mental health conditions such as depression (alongside medication and therapy, as needed). What’s more, by nourishing our GM, we may even be able to prevent some cases of depression and anxiety.
Are there any exercises you’d recommend for improving gut health?
We all know exercise is good for us – and our gut microbes benefit from it too. Exercise helps to regulate your pooping habits and increase the diversity of your gut microbes, which is linked to better overall health. The best way to improve the gut is with sustained exercise, so move your body regularly, ensuring to get your heart rate up for at least 30 mins most days. Gut-directed yoga has also been found to be equally as effective as diet changes for reducing IBS symptoms.