What is Gut Health?
Are you in a rut with your gut?
Research: Gut Health Survey 2023
The gut is a very important part of the body, and has a vital role to play when it comes to your overall health and wellbeing. Beyond the basics of digesting food, helping us to absorb the nutrients we need and eliminating waste products (1), the gut is also home to a large part of our immune system (2), supporting it in its job of keeping us healthy.
In recent research from Activia, a survey of 2000 adults showed that Britons have a lot to learn when it comes to the gut, its function, and how to keep it healthy. In fact, whilst 82% agreed that it's important to look after their gut, fewer than a third (32%) stated that they’re confident about how to do just that.
And that’s why, in this article, we’ll be exploring what the gut actually is, what it does, and the steps we can take to keep it in tip top condition.
What is the gut?
If you’re struggling to answer, you’re most certainly not alone. According to the recent research, it seems that we could all stand to know a lot more about the gut and its function within the human body. Only 60% of people surveyed said that they knew which parts of the body the gut referred to, with many wrongly believing that the liver (13%) and gallbladder (20%) were a part of it.
So just what exactly constitutes the gut? Well, also known as the digestive system or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the gut is made up of the (3):
Small and large intestines
Rectum and anus
Whilst other parts of the body such as the liver, tongue and pancreas have a role to play, they’re not a part of the gut itself.
The gut and its primary functions
As well as a lack of knowledge around what the gut actually is, 40% of people surveyed were unable to identify its primary function - digestion. More shockingly, 12% of people said that they simply don’t know what the gut does, or thought that it didn’t have any role in particular within the body.
The gut is responsible for the processing, digestion and absorption of the food we eat, as well as the secretion of fluids (water) and other things such as enzymes, acids and salt. The gut is also responsible for eliminating waste products from the body (1).
What’s clear from the research however, is that we want to know more, with 23% of those asked stating that they’d like to have more, accessible information on the subject. In addition, 25% said they’d like more help when it comes to keeping their gut healthy. As Dr Zoe Williams points out:
"As the research suggests, there’s an awareness that gut health is important, but clearly not enough information is out there to support people in making healthy choices for their gut.”
That’s why, together with Dr Zoe, we’ve created the ‘What the Gut?’ Museum, an educational journey into the gut that’s simple, accessible and fun. Take a look here.
There’s a lot more to know about your gut
Aside from the gut's primary functions outlined above, it also has an impact on so many other aspects of our daily lives and overall health and wellbeing.
Perhaps most importantly, the gut contains around 70% of our immune cells, making it the biggest immunological organ in the human body (2).
This means that your gut supports your immune system to protect you from illness and disease (4). Despite this, almost half of the people surveyed didn’t identify the gut as having a role to play in our immune health.
In addition, the gut is also connected to good brain health(5), which has a number of benefits, including:
Helping to monitor and balance our sleep cycles (6)
Improving mood and reducing the risk of anxiety and depression (7)
Improving memory and cognitive function (5)
That gut feeling
Whilst we may not be as knowledgeable as we should be about the gut, many of those surveyed reported experiencing gut problems within the last 12 months. For example, 17% reported having suffered from constipation, 18% with bloating and 20% with heartburn.
However, less than half (45%), admitted that they haven’t tried to do anything at all to help improve their gut health, with 23% believing that they didn’t require medical advice and assistance.
So why is this the case? It would appear that when it comes to discussing all things gut related, we don’t really like to talk about it, and there’s the possibility that people aren’t seeking the help they need because they feel embarrassed. This is certainly a suggestion supported by the research, as 63% of those surveyed admit that they’d be uncomfortable discussing the subject with their partner.
According to Dr Zoe, we need to start being more open about gut health and increasing our knowledge around it. She says that:
“It’s important to have open discussions about gut health in order to raise awareness and really break the taboo.”
If you’re concerned about your gut health, there are a number of different signs and symptoms to look out for, including (8):
Heartburn and reflux
Ongoing stomach ache
Blood in your stools
Persistent constipation, diarrhoea or trapped wind and bloating
Unusual weight loss
You can learn more about gut health here, but if you’re concerned, or you’ve got questions, it’s always best to speak with your GP for advice.
How to love your gut
Despite the huge impact the gut has on our health and wellbeing, only 56% of those surveyed said that they actively take steps to ensure that their gut is healthy. Of those people who did take steps to improve their gut health, 34% did so by drinking more water, 22% had tried probiotics and 28% increased their intake of fruit and vegetables - all great ways to support the gut.
However, as Dr Zoe says, “there are a lot of things you can be doing to ensure you keep your gut healthy, and a little bit of knowledge goes a long way.”
Making some simple changes to your diet can make a big difference. Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet that contains a variety of different foods. Eating plenty of vegetables and increasing your fibre intake can help with digestion, and help to prevent constipation. Try swapping white rice and bread for wholemeal varieties, and leave the skin on potatoes when cooking.
Some other things you can try include (9):
Eat more slowly and try not to skip meals - this could help to aid the process of digestion
Taking steps to manage your stress levels. Try some gentle exercise, take time out when you need it and speak to your family and friends - or a healthcare professional - for support (10)
Avoid fatty and fried foods - these are much harder for your body to digest (11)
1. Ogobuiro I et al. Physiology, Gastrointestinal. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing, 2022.
2.Takiishi T et al. Intestinal barrier and gut microbiota: Shaping our immune responses throughout life. Tissue Barriers 2017;5(4):e1373208
3. National Cancer Institute. Gastrointestinal tract definition [Online]. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/gastrointestinal-tract [Accessed: January 2023].
4. Wiertsema SP et al. The Interplay between the Gut Microbiome and the Immune System in the Context of Infectious Diseases throughout Life and the Role of Nutrition in Optimizing Treatment Strategies. Nutrients 2021;13(3):886.
5. Galland L. The gut microbiome and the brain. J Med Food 2014;17(12):1261-1272.
6. Li Y et al. The Role of Microbiome in Insomnia, Circadian Disturbance and Depression. Front Psychiatry 2018;9:699.
7. Clapp M et al. Gut microbiotia’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. Clin Pract 2017;7(4):987.
8. NHS. Stomach ache [Online]. 2020. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stomach-ache/ [Accessed: January 2023].
9. NHS. 5 lifestyle tips for a healthy tummy [Online]. 2022. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/digestive-health/five-lifestyle-tips-for-a-healthy-tummy/ [Accessed: January 2023].
10. NHS. Stress [Online]. 2022. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/feelings-symptoms-behaviours/feelings-and-symptoms/stress/ [Accessed: January 2023].
11. NHS. Good foods to help your digestion [Online]. 2022. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/digestive-health/good-foods-to-help-your-digestion/ [Accessed: January 2023].