Team MOJO asked no-nonsense dietitians, The Biting Truth for a genuine guide to good gut health!
Your gastrointestinal tract, or digestive system, is necessary for the consumption and digestion of food and the production of waste, making it one of the most vital organs in the human body.
Recently, research has found that your digestive system is much more intricate than originally thought and is involved in nearly every aspect of health: mood, metabolism, immunity, disease risk – making it the cornerstone of health and wellbeing. If you’ve ever experienced reflux, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, bloating or nausea, you will understand the impact that gut health can play in your day-to-day life.
The gut microbiome, refers to the trillions of microorganisms that live inside your gut – mostly in the large intestine. There are roughly 100 trillion bacteria in the digestive system alone. It may seem like a tall order to change them, but the good news is that research has shown that within two to four days of eating well, your gut microbiome can improve.
Here are 10 steps you can take to improve your gut health:
1. Include fermented foods in your diet regularly
Fermentation is a process that involves the breakdown of sugars by bacteria and yeast. This not only helps to preserve foods and boost its nutritional value, but can give your body a dose of beneficial bacteria (aka probiotics) – which are live microorganisms crucial to good digestion.
While the science has not yet concluded exactly how much fermented foods you should eat for optimal gut health, we generally recommend aiming to eat a source of fermented foods or drinks every single day if possible. Whether that’s enjoying some yoghurt for breakfast, sipping on a kombucha at lunch or adding a tablespoon of sauerkraut to your salad.
Here are some fermented foods you might like to add to your diet for good gut health:
2. Increase the variety of plant foods in your diet
Plants are high in fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, which makes them essential when it comes to gut health. A high fibre diet is associated with an increase in the growth of beneficial bacteria, which optimises gut functioning. This is because fibre acts as a source of food for beneficial bacteria living in your gut.
Different species of beneficial bacteria have their own unique dietary preferences – preferring different types of fibre (e.g. some species might prefer the fibre from oats, while others might thrive off the fibre found in asparagus). As different plants contain different amounts and types of fibre, it’s important to consume a range of plant foods to ensure your beneficial gut bacteria are kept happy and nourished!
Don’t forget to leave the skins on your fruits and vegetables, where possible as these are excellent sources of fibre.
3. Drink more water
It may not come as a surprise but staying hydrated is essential for optimal digestion and overall health. Fibre, particularly prebiotic fibres, are important for gut health, however in order for this type of fibre to do its job, adequate water is required.
A lack of water can slow down your digestive system significantly and result in harder stools that are more difficult to pass. Aim to consume around 2L of water each day for optimal hydration and gut health benefits.
If you struggle to drink enough water here are some tips to stay hydrated:
- Carry a water bottle with you at all times (you’ll be looking after the planet too!)
- Have a glass of water before and after each meal
- Add some sliced fruit, like lemon and orange, to a bottle in the fridge to enhance the taste
- Try a tea infusion bag that’s designed for cold water
4. Reduce highly processed foods
The main issue here is that if you’re eating a diet that is too high in processed foods, you’re probably not getting enough fibre.
A diet low in fibre and high in added sugars can encourage the wrong types of gut bacteria to grow. This can throw out your ‘gut ecosystem’. Think of your good gut bacteria as the trees and flowers in our ecosystem and the bad gut bacteria as the weeds. If you create an environment that allows the weeds to grow, it will overgrow the trees and flowers. This results in what we call “dysbiosis”, or microbial imbalance, which has been associated with auto-immune diseases, obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiometabolic diseases.
5. Chew slowly
Digestion begins in the mouth and the chewing process starts to break your food down, mixing it with the enzymes in your saliva. During this time, your stomach begins to secrete more acid and your intestines prepare for peristalsis (wave motion that pushes food along). If you rush this, your food may enter your stomach before it’s ready, leading to indigestion.
When you eat quickly, the meal’s gone before you know it and more than likely you’ll grab seconds or thirds and end up overeating. By slowing down, and chewing properly, you allow your natural satiety signals to kick in, which tell you that you’re full. This prevents overeating and has also been associated with better digestion and greater satisfaction with our meals.
Tips to chew slowly:
- Make meal time meal time! Remove distractions like TV, mobile phones or computer screens.
- Eat with friends or family and enjoy their company! Catching up and connecting with people gives us time to slow down and speak between bites.
- Put your fork down between bites and savour what’s in your mouth. Pay attention to the tastes and textures.
- Have a water bottle or glass of water handy and have a sip every few bites.
- Set aside time to eat – make an appointment with yourself or friends so that at least 20-30 minutes is dedicated to your meal time. Making time for meals removes the stress and need to rush.
6. Limit artificial sweeteners if you can
Artificial sweeteners may help reduce your overall energy intake but they may also be negatively impacting the diversity of your gut microbiome.
While the evidence is mostly coming from animal studies, it suggests that artificial sweeteners probably aren’t the best thing for us (in large amounts). Whether it’s better to have sugar instead of sweeteners depends on a number of things, including your weight and medical history.
7. Limit alcohol
Alcohol irritates the digestive tract and can alter the bacterial balance. Like processed foods, alcohol promotes the growth of harmful bacteria, which can throughout the balance of your intestinal ecosystem. If you consume alcohol, make sure you do so in moderation. That’s maximum 1-2 standards on any day according to the Australian Guidelines.
What does one standard drink look like?
- A middy/ half pint (285mL) of full strength beer (4.8% alc. vol)
- A can (375mL) of mid strength beer (3.5% alc. vol)
- A schooner (425mL) of low strength beer (2.7% alc. vol)
- 100mL of wine (red – 13% alc. vol; white – 11.5% alc. vol)
- 100mL of champagne (12% alc. vol)
- 30mL of spirits (40% alc. vol)
Note: A standard serve of wine in a restaurant or bar is 125mL
If you’re looking for a non-alcoholic alternative, why don’t you try swapping booze for ‘booch?
8. Don’t go low carb
Whilst low carb might be a popular trend on your Instagram feed, carbohydrate is a type of fibre needed for good gut health. Cutting cabrs may see you lose weight in the short term, but most of this will be loss of water weight. This is because carbohydrates are stored in the body attached to water. When you cut out carbohydrates, your stores are depleted and with that so is a lot of water. The biggest consequence, however, is that you can also damage your gut bacteria, which might in the long term have consequences such as an increased risk of colon cancer.
Instead of cutting all carbs, focus on consuming healthy wholegrain carbohydrates – brown rice, quinoa, oats, wholegrain cereals, wholegrain bread, pulse pasta.
9. Get more sleep
While getting more sleep might seem like a no-brainer for overall health, research suggests that getting a good night’s sleep is essential for a healthy gut. Our gut bacteria have their own circadian rhythms (just like other organisms) and inadequate sleep can disrupt this rhythm in the microbiome and negatively influence the diversity and number of bacteria in the gut. Most of us need around 7-8 hours sleep each night and even if you think you can function perfectly fine on less, your gut bugs might think otherwise!
Tips to get more sleep:
- Set yourself a bedtime and stick to it! It may be difficult at the start, but once your body gets used to that time, it will love you for it.
- Avoid screen time in the 30minutes – hour leading up to bed time. This means no scrolling instagram or watching late night TV. This keeps our minds active and makes it difficult to truly switch off.
- Replace the screen time with a book! Reading can calm the mind and help us switch off.
10. Manage Stress
You don’t need us to tell you that stress is not good for us. Prolonged stress can cause major issues for a number of our body’s key players, including our digestive system!
When we’re stressed, our body is set to ‘fight or flight’ mode. This reduces the blood flow to our digestive muscles, favouring other areas like our brain, eyes, ears, arms and legs, which would be important should we need to run from a predator. What does this mean for our digestion? Everything is put on hold! There’s reduced secretion of digestive enzymes, which may lead to indigestion, gastrointestinal inflammation, constipation or diarrhoea.
Tips to manage stress:
- Spend more time outdoors! Research has found, spending time in nature can help relieve stress and anxiety.
- Include exercise you enjoy each day! Exercise reduces the body’s stress hormones and promotes the production of mood boosting endorphins.
- Reduce your screen time! Distraction is not relaxation, opt for reading a book instead.
- Try meditation or yoga – both have a focus on deep breathing which helps calm the mind.
Note: If you have any concerns with your gut health or are experiencing gut irritability, indigestion, diarrhoea or constipation, it’s best to seek advice from your healthcare provider/s (i.e. GP & dietitian)