Everything you need to know to improve your gut health

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  • Gut health can be confusing – all that talk about intestine flora and fauna. And what is the difference between pro and prebiotics? Here’s the lowdown...

    Your gut is amazing, but it’s also complicated! It contains around 100 million neurons – ‘the same number as in a cat’s brain,’ says TV doctor Michael Mosley, author of The Clever Guts Diet. ‘And it includes a richer diversity of life than in a rainforest.’

    There are 50 trillion (1-2kg) of microbes living in it – the weight of a couple of bags of sugar – made up of more than 1,000 different species, including bacteria, fungi and viruses.

    It’s called your microbiome and its effects are felt way beyond just your gut (large intestine) by way of your 
stomach and toilet habits. Scientists now believe gut health has 
a huge impact throughout your body, including regulating your moods, altering your immunity levels and even dictating how much weight you gain.

    Here’s everything you need to know about gut health and how to improve it…

    Why does your gut health impact your brain?

    Your microbiome takes bits of food your body can’t digest and converts them into hormones and chemicals, which can impact your moods and could help reduce anxiety and depression.

    This relationship between bacteria and our mental health is why scientists sometimes call our gut ‘the second brain’. ‘The brain and gut 
are highly connected,’ says Dr Anthony Hobson from the Functional Gut Clinic. ‘Signals from the gut go to the brain, and vice versa.’

    Research from the APC Microbiome Ireland at University College Cork found low levels of gut microbes raised the risk 
of anxiety and depression, while higher amounts lowered it.

    Is your gut health making you fat?

    Gut health and weight gain

    Credit: Getty

    It could be. Because the balance of your microbiome helps regulate your weight, according to Dr Mosley: ‘It decides 
how much energy to take from each meal, which 
foods you crave, as well as controlling hunger pangs 
and blood-sugar spikes.’ A study of sets of twins at Washington University 
found that those who were overweight had fewer types of gut bacteria. Scientists think that a broad range of different bacteria has an effect on how dietary fats are absorbed in the intestines and stored as fat in the body. It’s not exactly known yet what makes up the perfect microbiome, but the belief is that the more diverse 
your range of bugs, the better.

    When choosing one of the diets that work fast, it’s important to look out for a good balance of nutrients that won’t affect your gut health.

    Gut health and IBS

    Healthy gut bacteria are vital, particularly when you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

    ‘If you get an imbalance of the types of bacteria, then this can create IBS symptoms,’ says Dr Hobson. ‘Either you produce too much gas or acids in the bowel and that can create tummy upsets and cramps, or the bacteria can escape from the colon and move up into the small bowel.

    ‘This is known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, which can interfere with digestion.’

    Try Silicolgel (£8.29 for 200ml, from chemists 
and supermarkets). It coats the stomach 
and upper gastrointestinal tract with 
a protective lining of silicic acid gel for the relief of reflux, heartburn, flatulence, stomach pain and nausea.

    How does fibre help? your gut health

    Gut health fibre

    Credit: Getty

    Foods high in fibre act as ‘manure’, which help gut bugs to grow. They also add bulk to your poo, making it easier to travel through your bowel (which those on a low fibre diet might have trouble with).

    So for a healthy gut eat plenty of fresh fruit and veg, wholegrains (brown rice and wheat) and pulses (peas, beans, lentils). Fruit and veg are also full of polyphenols, which help microbes thrive. And 
the bacteria that digests fibre produces chemicals 
that benefit gut health.

    Prebiotics and probiotics for gut health: what’s the difference?

    Prebiotics and probiotics are important for digestion – but do you know the difference? It can be confusing but here’s what you need to know.

    ✿ Probiotics: These are live bacteria and yeasts (often called ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria), usually added to foods, such as yogurts, or taken as a food supplement. They are believed to help restore the balance of 
gut bacteria after it has 
been affected by illness or treatment and can help ease the symptoms of IBS.

    ✿ Prebiotics: These are 
a type of dietary fibre, and are found in foods such as leeks, onions and garlic, which feed the ‘friendly’ bacteria in your gut.

    ‘While probiotics are 
the live bacteria themselves, 
the lesser-known prebiotics
 are what feed the good bacteria, helping them 
thrive – like a fertiliser 
for your own gut flora,’ 
says Glenn Gibson, 
Professor of Food Microbiology at the University of Reading.

    They’re not found in 
food in huge amounts, 
so you may want to take 
a prebiotic supplement – try Bimuno Daily (£11.99 for 30 sachets, Boots).

    What about fermented foods?

    These have undergone controlled microbial growth and fermentation, and often contain higher levels of the gut-friendly probiotics and prebiotics.

    Try sauerkraut, miso and cultured milk and yogurt and cut back on red 
and processed meat – there’s evidence that eating too much increases bowel cancer risk. Aim for less than 500g a week (cooked weight).

    5 ways to boost your bacteria and improve your gut health

    1. Limit 

    They kill off crucial gut bugs, some 
of which can take years to return.

    2. Head 

    To increase your exposure to a variety 
of microbes and vitamin D, 
which help gut 
flora flourish.

    3. Control 

    High levels of the stress hormone cortisol restricts your nutrient absorption 
and digestion.

    4. Reduce 
processed food intake

    Artificial sweeteners, flavourings and preservatives can kill off your gut bugs.

    5. Get your 
hands dirty

    A spot of gardening will 
bring you into contact with the trillions of bacteria 
found in the soil.