What is Gut Health?
Dr Zoe Williams’s - Top tips to improve your gut health
The gut is an incredibly important part of our body, and it turns out that it’s even more important than we previously realised. The gut refers to our gastrointestinal tract, which is a continuous tube starting at the mouth and ending at the anus. It has many important functions, which go beyond the obvious and it also has important connections with other parts of the body, including our brains and our immune system.
Gut health is something that I see being talked about now more than ever, and there seems to be a real buzz about what we can all do to improve the health of our gut. However, research from Activia reveals a real lack of understanding when it comes to what the gut’s role is, how it functions and how we can best take good care of it. Specifically, the research highlights that whilst 82% of adults agree that the gut is an important part of our body to look after, nearly half (47%) don’t know where to start when it comes to gut health. This is despite many of those polled suffering with symptoms which could indicate gut issues like heartburn (20%), bloating (18%) and constipation (17%).
It’s not surprising to me that there is confusion, because some of the science surrounding the gut is relatively new to scientists and doctors too. We are learning more and more about this fascinating system all of the time, especially when it comes to the way in which our gut health can impact on our mental health and the importance of our gut microbiome – the trillions of microorganisms that live in our intestines. Whilst it can be confusing, the ever increasing understanding of how our gut works is great news, because new science brings new opportunities to improve our health.
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, so here are some of my top tips to give your gut some TLC:
My 5 top tips for maintaining gut health
1. What we eat is incredibly important for gut health
We should all be aiming to consume at least 30g of fibre a day, which means including plenty of wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables in the diet, because fibre is found in plant foods. Fibre is actually the indigestible part of the plant. It helps our gut to function properly, reduces the risk of constipation, and here’s the interesting bit - whilst we as humans cannot digest or take nutrients directly from fibre, when it reaches the large intestine, it provides food and nutrients for the microbes that make up our microbiome. Gut microbes break down the fibre, and this produces different beneficial compounds which are sent all around the body including our brain, skin, heart, kidneys. So if you look after your gut microbes, they will look after you (1).
It’s also important to eat a diverse range of different plants, as different species of microbes have preferences for different types of plant fibres. To have a diverse microbiome we should aim for at least 30 different species of plant each week (2). One way to help achieve this is to buy foods which already have several different plants together. For example, tins of ‘mixed’ beans for the chilli, bags of ‘mixed’ nuts and ‘mixed’ seeds for snacking, and bags of stir-fry veggie mix . In fact, if you were to include just these four products alone in your weekly grocery shop, you’d be over halfway to that target of 30. So, it’s not necessarily difficult, or expensive, it just requires some small purposeful changes.
Fermented foods, such as yoghurts, kombucha and sauerkraut contain live cultures which can also help to strengthen the microbiome, and they taste delicious too.
2. Stay hydrated
Adequate hydration is required for all that fibre to do its job properly, so it’s also important to drink plenty of liquids. Most people require around 2 litres a day, but a good hydration assessment guide for an individual is the colour of the urine. Urine should be clear to a pale yellow. If your urine is dark yellow, orange or brown then you are likely not adequately hydrated.
3. Feel good through exercise
Studies show that regular exercise has positive effects on the gut microbiome (3). Try fitting in more walking, running, cycling or any activity of choice. Movement also hels to regulate our bowel habits. Plus, when we exercise our brain releases a powerful cocktail of feel-good hormones that can make us feel good.
4. Get plenty of rest
Something that is perhaps less obvious is the impact that sleep can have on our gut health. Most adults require between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, but also the quality of sleep is important. If you’re somebody who is not sleeping well then researching sleep hygiene would be a good place to start. Creating a good sleep environment, and establishing a consistent bedtime, wake time and sleep routine can be hugely beneficial when it comes to improving sleep.
Sleep deprivation can impact on our food choices and affect our hunger hormones. This can make us more likely to overeat, and more likely to reach for highly processed foods which contain more sugar, and less nutrients. Poor sleep is also detrimental to our mental health, and our brain and gut are in constant communication with each other. So poor sleep can negatively impact the health of our gut and microbiome.
5. Reduce stress
Stress can directly impact our gut and the levels of bacteria in our gut microbiome. To help reduce stress, try meditation or breathing exercises which can help ease symptoms of gut disorders by stimulating our part of our nervous system that helps us relax and lowers the level of the stress hormone cortisol.
6. Harness the power of positive relationships
Cultivating positive relationships with those around us can help ease stress, with social support bolstering our resilience in stressful situations.
If our guts are healthy then we shouldn’t have too many troubling gut symptoms. For instance, things like constipation, diarrhoea, abdominal discomfort, bloating, heartburn and excessive flatulence. But if you are experiencing those symptoms and they’re not going away or make you feel unwell, it is important to see your GP.
Last medically reviewed on 8th February 2023
Dr Zoe Williams MBBS, DRCOG, MRCGP graduated from medical school in 2007. She has gained experience in many specialist fields within medicine and currently practices as an NHS General Practitioner in London and outside of the surgery is a National Advisor of Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and has served as a clinical advisor to the RCGP. Zoe is one of the resident Doctors on ITV’s This Morning, and has featured as an expert on the BBC’s The One Show, Horizon and Trust Me I’m a Doctor. She specialises in debunking the confusing world of medicine, in a fun and entertaining way.
Zoe founded the charity Fit4Life, which aims to increase the aspirations of young people by providing mentors and co-creating physical activity programmes with them. As one of the countries most valued professionals in lifestyle medicine and physical activity, Zoe’s expertise has seen her working as an advisor to Public Health England, the NHS, the Royal College of GPs as well as some of the UK’s largest brands, including BUPA, Garmin, Estee Lauder, Elastoplast and Tesco.
Zoe has written for numerous publications on health, fitness and diet including Marie Claire, Stylist magazine, Hello magazine and Waitrose magazine. She now also has a column in The Sun.
1: Bik, E. M et al. Microbial biotransformations in the human distal gut. British Journal of Pharmacology, 2018 175: 4404– 4414. https://doi.org/10.1111/bph.14085
2: McDonald, D et al. American Gut: an Open Platform for Citizen Science Microbiome Research. American Society for Microbiology. 2018; 3: (e00031-18).
3: Monda V, Villano I, Messina A, et al. Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017;2017:3831972. doi:10.1155/2017/3831972