How to improve your gut health
Reviewed by our clinical team
Your gut, also commonly referred to as your intestinal tract or bowel, contains trillions of tiny microbes that play a huge part in your overall health. There are nearly 1000 different species of bacteria in your gut.
The key to good gut health is ensuring that the numbers and varieties of bacteria present is carefully balanced.
In this article we are going to explore what gut health is and why it is important, how you can improve it including which foods to eat and avoid, and how you can check the health of your gut.
What is gut health?
When we refer to gut health, we are talking about the bacteria in your digestive system that create a complex and incredibly important internal ecosystem, known as a microbiome. Gut health relates to the balance of the good and bad bacteria that is present within this microbiome.
Why is gut health important?
70-80% of your immune cells are found in the gut. What's more, the bacteria in your gut are also responsible for producing necessary vitamins and hormones, including serotonin. This means that if the balance of bacteria isn’t as it should be, your immune response, physical health and even your mood can be affected.
An unhealthy gut is thought to make you more susceptible to sickness, give you symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea, discomfort and gas. Dysbiosis (an unbalanced microbiome) may be linked to autoimmune disease, such as thyroid problems, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.
Good gut health is important for keeping bodily systems functioning as they should, supporting your immune system, heart health and good quality of sleep.
Why does the gut microbiome vary in individuals?
Many things can influence a person's gut microbiome. Age, family genes and environment can all play a part, as can what an individual puts into their body including medications, food, and drinks.
What affects your gut health?
There are a range of diet and lifestyle factors that can negatively affect your gut health and cause an imbalance of the bacteria in your digestive system.
Stress can cause stomach problems and change the levels of bacteria in the gut. This is because stress can elevate stress hormones, cause inflammation, and change the way the body functions. In turn, this can cause your gut bacteria to release metabolites, toxins, and neurohormones that can cause changes to the way you eat and affect your mood.
Lack of sleep
A lack of sleep can not only cause stress, leading to the aforementioned symptoms and elevated cortisol levels but it can also impact your food choices and when you choose to eat. When tired you are more likely to eat processed foods that are higher in carbohydrates, sugars and trans fats, all of which can contribute to reduced gut health.
A highly processed diet
Highly processed foods tend to be higher in carbohydrates, refined sugars and trans fats, and include less fibre than fresh produce. Eating processed foods on a daily basis can lead to dysbiosis, which can affect your health and well being.
Antibiotics are used to treat a range of bacterial infections but as they are used to kill bacteria and prevent them from spreading, they can negatively impact your gut health by reducing the variety of bacteria species in your digestive system and altering their metabolism.
Signs you have an unhealthy gut
If you have an imbalance of gut bacteria, and therefore, your gut isn’t functioning optimally, you may experience a range of symptoms including:
- Upset stomach
- Unintentional weight changes
- Skin Irritation
- Autoimmune conditions
- Food intolerances
- Hormone levels
Does gut health affect your hormones?
When your gut isn’t in optimal health, this can affect your hormones. It is thought that dysbiosis might cause oestrogen and serotonin levels to fluctuate, impact how insulin is regulated and prevent vitamin D from being absorbed properly.
Things you can do to improve gut health
Just as there are lifestyle and diet factors that can negatively impact gut health, there are also changes you can make to your everyday life and routine that can benefit your gut health and overall physical and mental wellbeing:
- Lower stress levels
- Get good quality sleep
- Eat slowly
- Stay hydrated
- Include prebiotics and probiotics in your diet
- Change your diet - for example try to follow a Mediterranean diet
Foods to improve your gut health
Highly processed foods may negatively affect your gut health but there is a range of foods that can benefit your gut's microbiome, help introduce good bacteria and reduce the number of bad bacteria too. Specific supplements such as probiotic complexes and prebiotic blends can also be a way to do this.
Probiotic foods (fermented foods)
- Chicory root
- High-fibre foods
Worst foods for your gut health
Many foods have the potential to disrupt your gut health. Many of these are considered unhealthy foods when too prevalent in your diet anyway, but they can also affect the bacteria in your digestive system, leading to unwanted gastrointestinal symptoms and contributing to digestive disorders.
Foods to avoid include:
- Red meat
- Breads, cakes and biscuits made from white sugar and white flour
- Fried foods
How do I check my gut health?
If you are concerned about your gut health, there are ways that you can evaluate how well your digestive system is functioning and the levels of bacteria in your gut.
Firstly, you can pay close attention to how often you have a bowel movement. The normal number of bowel movements that an adult has per day or week can vary, but if you notice yours has changed significantly from what’s normal for you, then it might be worth seeking advice. You can also pay close attention to the colour, size, and shape of your stool. Again, if this changes drastically, you should talk to a GP.
There is also the option to have a gut microbiome test. This isn’t currently available through the NHS but you can pay to have it done privately. The test involves collecting a small stool sample which is then comprehensively analysed before results are provided and personalised guidance is given on ways you can improve your gut health.
These tests can be conducted in a medical setting such as a private clinic but there are also companies that offer at-home testing kits that are sent to you and you simply return once you have collected your sample.
In summary, your gut health is an imperative component of how your body functions, with poor guy health leading to a range of symptoms and contributing to a variety of conditions. Everyone's gut microbiome is unique and can be affected by a range of diet and lifestyle choices. If you want to improve your gut health, you can change the foods you eat, opting for prebiotic, probiotic and fibre-rich foods, and avoiding highly processed products.
You can also learn more about how diet can impact your physical and mental well-being and discover healthier alternatives to unhealthy food and snacks.