Gut health is key to overall health. This makes perfect sense as the gut, aka our gastrointestinal tract, is the organ system in charge of digesting the food we eat.
The mouth, oesophagus, stomach and intestines work together to extract the energy and nutrients our body needs to thrive from it and then our rectum and anus get rid of any leftover waste.1
However, our busy modern lives can sometimes compromise our gut health, which isn’t hard to do as our gut is incredibly complex.
Not many of us can say we’ve never had tummy troubles. Whether it’s a gluten intolerance, indigestion or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), an unhappy gut can make anyone miserable.
Looking for some advice? Here’s our guide on everything you need to maintain a happy and healthy gut.
In this article, you’ll find out
- The importance of a healthy gut
- How improving gut health can improve overall health
- The gut-brain link
- 3 signs of a healthy gut
- 5 signs of an unhealthy gut
- The gut-inflammation connection
- 4 foods for a healthy gut
- How to improve your gut health
- Unbalanced gut or condition?
Why is gut health important?
The term ‘gut health’ generally refers to the balance of healthy ‘live bacteria and harmful ‘bad’ bacteria.
We have over 100 trillion live bacteria, aka our microbiome, living in our gut which help our bodies with a number of tasks.
This microbiome actually accounts for 90% of the cells in our body.2
However, if our gut’s healthy natural bacteria balance gets toppled, we can start to experience some problems.
How can a healthy gut improve overall health?
A healthy gut with the right balance of bacteria may help your body in the following ways:
- Immunity: maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut can help to support your immune system. In the same way as taking too many antibiotics – and disturbing the balance, can weaken the immune system3
- Heart health: evidence suggests that probiotic supplements can help control total cholesterol levels in the blood4
- Digestive issues: a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut has been seen to help with bowel disorders like lactose intolerance and antibiotic-induced diarrhoea5
- Sleep and fatigue: our gut microbiome may affect the quality of our sleep. This is because our gut is responsible for producing most of our serotonin – a hormone that affects sleep6
Immunity guide: Supporting your immune system
This article will answer all the important questions around immunity, including our top tips to support the immune system and boost your health.
Immunity guide: Supporting your immune system
Your gut is your ‘second brain’
Our ‘gut brain’ contains millions of nerve cells and helps control digestion, sensing the food we’ve eaten and responding to it, adjusting digestive secretions, absorbing nutrients and telling our brain what’s going on.
Our brain and our gut are closely connected in order to allow digestion to happen under the right circumstances.
This is why eating a meal when we’re stressed can cause symptoms like bloating, as our body is focused on fight or flight, rather than digesting our food.
Experiencing an emotional upset while eating can also trigger digestive problems.
Your ‘gut brain’ remembers the upset and can develop symptoms around the contents of that meal – after receiving bad news in a fish restaurant, you might then react to fish, for example.
Is your gut healthy?
Gut health is a tricky one to determine.
There is never simply a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, as there isn’t a single measure used to assess the health of our gut.
However, there are some signs that you can look out for that may give you an indication either way.
3 signs of a healthy gut
Read on to find out 3 signs of a healthy gut...
Healthy bowel movements
We are talking about your digestive system here, so it only makes sense that our stools can be a great indicator for gut health.
Smooth ‘sausage-like’ stools are ideal, not hard, lumpy or really squishy ones.
And while they’re not going to smell like roses… if you smell something really foul in the bathroom, this could be a sign that something is up.7
You’re not bloated often
If you find that you feel comfortable after most meals and that you don’t often experience bloating, it may be that your gut is happy and healthy.
Having said this, passing wind between 10-20 is still normal, but if it’s a lot more for you, you may want to invest in your gut health.8
You can poo without pain
A key indicator of a healthy gut is also that you can visit the bathroom without experiencing any pain – or having to work too hard to push it out!9
5 signs of an unhealthy gut
Read on to find out more about the 5 signs of an unhealthy gut...
Constipation or irregular stools
If your bowel movements are hard and difficult to pass, this is classed as constipation and a sign that your gut isn’t as healthy as it could be.
This is the same for loose and watery stools aka diarrhoea. Make sure you are drinking enough water, consuming enough fibre in your diet and exercising regularly.10
Constipation is a common digestive condition that affects people of all ages. Everyone’s bowel habits are different but you’re likely to be experiencing constipation if:
- you’ve been to the loo three times or less this week
- your stools feel larger than usual and difficult to push out
- your stools are hard, dry or lumpy11
Some people also experience stomachache or a feeling of fullness or bloating.12
Still not sure if your number twos look how they should? Check out our beautiful stool chart for further guidance.
What causes constipation?
Most of us experience occasional bouts of constipation, while for some it’s a more chronic condition. It can be made worse by stress, anxiety or depression, and also certain medications.13
It can be caused by a change in diet, such as not eating enough fibre, for example from fruit and vegetables, or not taking in enough fluids.14
But lack of exercise is another important factor in making you more likely to have temporarily sluggish bowels.15
As well as toilet troubles, issues like abdominal bloating, gas and heartburn can all be signs of an unhealthy gut.
A gut with a balanced microbiome should process food and eliminate waste more smoothly.16
Having trouble sleeping can be affected by how our body’s production of serotonin – which is made predominantly in the gut.
If our gut microbiome is unbalanced, its serotonin production may be compromised, which could affect our sleep.17
Read more: Your comprehensive guide to sleeping better
A growing area of research suggests that an imbalance in gut bacteria could be causing inflammation. What does this mean for your health – and what can you do about it?
Inflammation is a vital part of our immune response – without it, we would not heal. What’s less helpful is chronic, low-level inflammation that can spread throughout the body.
Some experts now believe our gut could be a source of chronic inflammation, but there is a way you can help bring your body back into balance.
Handpicked content: A guide to natural anti-inflammatory sources
There may also be a chance that your blemishes are being caused by poor gut health.
While it might not be true for everyone, a large study review published in the Gut Pathogens journal in 2011 found that people with acne were more susceptible to a permeable gut lining.18
Why is inflammation a problem?
Inflammation is a feature of old age, but it’s also associated with many autoimmune diseases as well as weight gain, insulin resistance, poor energy, sleep and libido, reduced brain function and depression.
Inflammation is identified by inflammatory markers in the blood including interleukin-6 (IL-6) tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) and C-reactive protein (CRP).19
The gut-inflammation connection
The latest research points to a gut bacteria imbalance (dysbiosis) as a possible cause of some chronic inflammation.
Research published in the journal Genome Medicine in 2016 identified that alteration of the gut ecosystem can contribute to inflammation, obesity and metabolic disease.20
A 2015 Chinese study, published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, found gut bacteria play a key role in the development of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) through their regulation of inflammation in the gut – and that addressing this may therefore help control the IBD.21
Yet another study, reported in Microbiology Ecology in 2014, confirmed it is possible to reduce levels of inflammatory markers in the blood by adjusting gut bacteria.
When 93 obese volunteers followed a diet designed to balance their microbiota for 23 weeks, they lost weight and saw improvements in insulin sensitivity, lipid profile, blood pressure – and lowered levels of TNF-α and IL-6.22
4 foods and supplements to help you have a healthy gut
The food you eat can have a significant impact on your gut bacteria diversity.
In general, high intake of animal proteins, saturated fats, sugar and salt can create an environment in which pathogenic bacteria thrives.
On the contrary, eating complex carbohydrates, plant proteins, omega-3, polyphenols and micronutrients is associated with better beneficial bacteria growth and function.
As well as following the above advice, the following foods may help you maintain a healthy gut:
Yogurt is made by fermenting lactic acid in milk with Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilu.
There is evidence that consuming yoghurt with live and active cultures, like probiotic yogurt, can improve digestion for those with a lactose intolerance.23
Probiotics are live microorganisms that interact with your own microbiota, sometimes helping to restore a balance.24
You can also get probiotic drinks that work in the same way.
Prebiotics are non-digestible foods (fibre that passes through the GI tract undigested) that can be beneficial for gut health.
Because we can’t metabolise them like normal foods, our gut bacteria metabolises them into short-chain fatty acids, which help our bodies with a number of tasks.25
Examples of foods high in prebiotics include: bananas, onions, artichokes, garlic, oats, honey and asparagus.
Vitamins and minerals
Micronutrients are important for supporting regulating energy metabolism, immune function and cellular growth, and they can also have a positive effect on your gut.
B vitamins have been seen to be synthesised by fecal microbiota, and vitamin D has been seen to increase the abundance of potential beneficial bacterial strains.
18 of the best foods for gut health
With the help of Holland & Barrett nutritionist, Isabel Tarrant, we delve into the science of digestion and reveal some of the best foods for gut health.
18 of the best foods for gut health
Rebalance your gut bacteria
In the future, we may be able to address specific microbial imbalances with targeted 'friendly' bacteria medicines.
Until then, we can try to mitigate chronic inflammation by improving our gut health with diet and lifestyle changes designed to boost the number and diversity of our gut microbes.
This means reducing stress, keeping active and aiming for a balanced, diverse diet based on whole foods.
Eat an abundance of fruit and vegetables in a rainbow of colours.
Fill up on lean protein, healthy fats, a range of wholegrains, legumes and pulses, nuts and seeds. And avoid or limit processed foods, artificial ingredients and refined sugars.
Feed the microbes in your gut with fibre-rich foods such as bananas, asparagus, onions, garlic, leeks, oats.
And replenish the microbes with naturally beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods like natural yoghurt, miso, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, other pickled vegetables, kombucha, and aged cheese.
It can be useful to include natural ingredients in your cooking too.
Look for recipes that use the spice turmeric (active ingredient curcumin), ginger, and oregano.
You may also want to take a broad-spectrum beneficial bacteria supplement, and anti-inflammatory omega-3 essential fatty acids.
How to improve gut health naturally
Read on for our top tips to naturally improve your gut health...
Follow a gut-friendly FODMAP-free diet
FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.
These are groups of carbohydrates that are not absorbed by the gut, so they ferment and bacteria feed on them, causing unpleasant gut behaviour.
Food high in FODMAPs include apples, pears, milk and cabbage.
Try taking friendly bacteria supplements
These have been shown to be beneficial in some people with gut problems and there is some evidence they may also help with mood fluctuations associated with gut issues.
Reduce your fibre intake
Too much fibre can overstimulate the gut, making symptoms even worse. Ask a dietician for advice before cutting out any food groups.
Read more: A nutritionists guide to fibre
Practice gut-focused hypnotherapy
Research shows this can reduce symptoms by at least half in 70 per cent of patients.
It’s thought it may make the gut less sensitive, decrease the strength of contractions and help with the stress and anxiety of having gut problems.
Exercise raises your heart and breathing rate, which in turn stimulates the waves of muscle contractions that move stools through the gut – a process called peristalsis.26,27
This helps the gut operate more efficiently, which means food spends a shorter time in the bowel. In turn, this means less water is absorbed back into the body via the small intestine – keeping the stools soft.28
In a 2014 study published in World Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers asked inactive patients in a psychiatric hospital to exercise for 60 minutes three times a week for three months.
The results found that for the exercising patients, food spent around 30 hours in the bowel, compared to 54 hours for the control group.29
Handpicked content: Seven great ways to exercise without a gym membership
How much exercise do you need for a healthy gut?
The UK government advises 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, like cycling, running or brisk walking, each week for adults.
They also recommend strength-training – for example yoga, dance, gardening or lifting weights – on two or more days a week.
Try to avoid long periods of sitting still, breaking it up with activity.30,31
Handpicked content: Make your walk work harder!
Worried that you have a gut condition?
If you have tried to re-balance your gut yourself but are still struggling with uncomfortable symptoms, there may be something else at play.
IBS and gluten-intolerance are quite common, so if your gut problems keep re-appearing, it may be useful to explore their possibility.
Is it IBS?
IBS is a common digestive condition, with symptoms including abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, and either constipation or diarrhoea, or both. Symptoms vary between sufferers, and your own may vary day-to-day.
It’s not exactly known what causes IBS, but experts say a genetic predisposition coupled with a trigger such as gastroenteritis can set it off.
Stress may also be a trigger, as can hormones; women are more likely than men to suffer from IBS.
Your GP can prescribe antispasmodics, laxatives or anti-diarrhoeas to help manage your symptoms, but many sufferers find their GP can be unsympathetic as IBS is not yet widely recognised as a serious disorder.
Read more: What is IBS?
Could it be a gluten intolerance?
Around 1 in 100 Brits suffer from coeliac disease, with 500,000 still undiagnosed.
Coeliac disease is not just an allergy or intolerance to gluten – found in wheat, rye and barley – it is an autoimmune disease where the body ‘attacks’ the gluten and damages the small intestine in the process.
The final say
Found that helpful? Healing the gut doesn’t have to be difficult.
By eating the right foods, making time for exercise and taking note of your bowel movements, you should be on the right track.
Looking for more information? We’ve got lots more advice and articles on how to look after your gut here.
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The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
Last updated: 10 June 2022