Gut health is one of the hottest wellness topics out there - and for many excellent reasons!
Of course, it’s no surprise that the gut is the powerhouse of digestion in the body, breaking down the food we eat, absorbing nutrients to support all bodily systems, and excreting what’s not needed.
However, there’s much more to it - and the gut plays a major role in many aspects of health.
For instance, it’s no coincidence that there are lots of common expressions linking feelings, emotions and experiences to the gut. Perhaps, you find certain situations “gut-wrenching”, or have that uneasy “gut feeling” prior to making an important decision...and on the contrary, when you’re happy or excited, you may feel “butterflies in your stomach”! Those are more than figures of speech, as what’s going on in our mind can trigger changes in our gut, and vice versa.
Intrigued? Let’s explore the function of the gut, particularly the incredible gut-mind connection that our bodies have, and what simple strategies you can use to promote optimal gut health.
Your gut and your brain - what’s the link?
Safe to say, your gut is much more than a long conveyor belt for undigested food. Instead, it's a complicated, fascinating structure serving many important purposes in the body!
For example, the gut is inhabited by a diverse microbiome - bacteria and other microorganisms that are involved in functions pivotal to your health and wellbeing.
In addition, your gut contains 500 million neurons, directly connected to the nervous system.
These are just a couple of pathways connecting your gut and your brain - a communication network known as the gut-brain axis. Here are just some examples of the gut-brain link majorly affecting how you feel:
- The vagus nerve - one of the biggest ones connecting your brain and gut - is known to play a major role in stress responses. Research suggests that stress may influence this connection, causing unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms.
- Both the gut and the brain produce mood-influencing chemicals called neurotransmitters. For example, a large proportion of the “happiness hormone” serotonin is produced by gut cells and microbiota - which is one of the possible reasons why poor gut health may contribute to mood disorders and even depression.
- Another important role of gut microbes is metabolising bile acids and amino acids to make other brain-affecting chemicals.
As it's a two-way street, not only poor gut health may contribute to stress - but stress, in turn, may also exacerbate gut issues and cause unpleasant symptoms (such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and excess gas - ouch). So, looking after both your gut and mental wellbeing are extremely important to feel your best.
Signs of poor gut health
Some possible signs of your gut needing extra TLC include:
- Upset stomach like those mentioned above (diarrhea, constipation, cramping, bloating and wind)
- Unintentional weight changes due to impaired ability to absorb nutrients
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Mood swings
Important: as these signs and symptoms are not specific to gut health issues only, check with your doctor before drawing any conclusions or making drastic lifestyle changes.
Looking after your gut health
Here are some simple yet super-effective strategies to support optimal gut health:
Revise your diet
Make sure your diet is based on quality plant-based foods, lean proteins and other wholesome options that support general health - including the gut. A diet low in processed sugary and fatty foods, and high in fibre and quality proteins, has been shown to help the gut microbiome thrive. No need to eliminate the “fun” foods entirely, but it definitely pays off to live by the 80/20 rule - 80% whole foods, 20% soul foods.
Staying hydrated has been shown to support the lining of the intestines, as well as help the good bacteria thrive - yet another reason to drink plenty of water every day.
Incorporate prebiotics and probiotics
Prebiotics - foods that promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut - include whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Probiotics, living microorganisms helping populate the gut and diversify the microbiota, can be found in fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and more. You can also get prebiotics and probiotics from supplements, but it’s usually not necessary as your diet can take care of those - in addition, not all supplements are created equal. So, chat with your doctor or pharmacist to determine whether you may benefit from a supplement.
Consider resistant starches
Similarly to fibre, resistant starches pass through your stomach and small intestine undigested, meaning they can reach and nourish the gut microbiota. These are abundant in firm bananas, lentils, peas, potatoes/pasta, and some wholegrain products.
Don't neglect stress management
As mentioned above, chronic stress and lack of sleep are a recipe for a gut disaster - so do your best to stay on top of those! Here are some top tips from us to help you stress less.
The link between your gut and your brain is undeniable - so looking after your gut health is essential for overall health and wellbeing. We hope you found the tips above helpful, and can’t wait for you to experience the amazing benefits of these simple lifestyle changes.