Gut health 101: Best ways to support your digestive system

Gut health has become a hot topic, with research showing it impacts everything from digestion to mood. Here’s how to improve your wellbeing from the inside out.

Good gut health refers to a healthy balance of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi and viruses in your gastrointestinal.

These microorganisms are collectively known as the gut microbiome and it is central to our overall health, nutritionist Dr Courtney Thompson explains.

“Your gut is responsible for the functioning of your physical and mental wellbeing, and your immune system,” Dr Thompson says.

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The gut-brain connection

So connected to our general wellness, the gut is sometimes referred to as our “second brain” as it is in constant communication with the brain.

Ever felt so stressed you’ve experienced an urgent need to go to the toilet?

Or started thinking about your favourite food and your mouth has begun to water?

That is your gut and brain talking, and a relatable example of how interconnected the two are, nutritionist Amy Savage says.

“It’s called the gut-brain axis, and it is the communication pathway between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system,” Amy says.

“It can affect gut motility and transit muscle contractions, and that helps the digestive process and the blood flow around the gut.”

Why is gut health important?

A normal, healthy gut microbiome will contain a mix of both “good” and “bad” bacteria and this, along with other microbes, helps us digest food.

It can also support immune, heart and brain health.

But when the ratios of good and bad gut bacteria are out of balance (a condition called gut dysbiosis), it can impact our overall wellbeing, Amy notes.

“Gut dysbiosis can impact immune health, cause inflammation and potentially lead to further disease such as autoimmune disease or irritable bowel syndrome,” she says.

“Ninety per cent of our nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine.
“If we’re not getting the right nutrients to all of our body systems or you are experiencing chronic constipation or diarrhoea, it can start impacting your overall wellbeing.”

An unhealthy gut microbiome has been linked to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as well as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and allergic diseases such as rhinitis.

Signs of poor gut health

Dr Thompson says bloating, stomach pain or cramping, nausea, diarrhea, constipation and flatulence may indicate something is not right with your gut health.

“Some of these are normal symptoms of food consumption, but in excess it may be a sign of poor gut health,” she says.

Dr Thompson says while environment, genetics and antibiotic consumption can impact gut health, it is also influenced by habitual factors such as diet, stress, alcohol, exercise and sleep, which means it is modifiable with changes to your lifestyle.

How does diet impact your gut health?

A happy gut is heavily influenced by what we feed it, Amy says.

“Our gut microbiome needs fuel in order to thrive and maintain a good balance of good bacteria – essentially … a diet that’s rich in plant foods and also diversity,” she explains.

On the flipside, a diet high in processed foods such as pies, pastries and fast foods offers no nutritional benefit to our gut health and can disrupt the gut microbiome.

If you are looking for some inspiration for gut-friendly eating, Amy suggests the Mediterranean diet.

“It promotes variety, a range of meat and fish, but is also really rich in wholefoods,” she says.

What are the best foods to improve gut health?

Probiotic and prebiotic foods are essential for a thriving gut, Amy says.

“Probiotics add good bacteria to our gut, which help promote a healthy gut microbiome,” she explains.

“Prebiotic foods are essentially non-digestible foods that act as a fuel to the microbiome – the microbes will ferment prebiotic foods, and that supports growth of bacteria like lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.”

Probiotic foods: Sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, miso, tempeh, yoghurt, wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, lentils

Prebiotic foods: Onion, garlic, leeks, asparagus, chicory root, artichoke, bananas (typically on the less ripe side), apples, oats, avocados

What is the link between gut health and exercise?

Getting your body moving does more than just boost mood and fitness – it has a positive flow-on for your gut health too, Dr Thompson says.

“Regular physical activity can help to stimulate the muscles of the gut and help move digestive contents through, potentially increasing bowel movement and reducing bloating,” she says.

There is also evidence that exercise can help promote healthy gut bacteria.

How does stress impact your gut health?

Remember the gut-brain axis? Since your gut and brain are in constant communication, when you are stressed, it can upset the delicate balance of your gut bacteria.

“When you feel stressed, your brain releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin,” Dr Thompson says.

“These hormones can either slow down or speed up certain functions in our body – such as increasing or decreasing our bowel movements, causing growth of ‘bad’ bacteria, and encouraging us to make unhealthier food choices and eat foods that don’t support our gut function.”

Gut health and sleep

We all know that the quality of our sleep impacts how good (or grouchy) we feel the next day.

Research shows how well rested you are can have a similar impact on your gut health – a good night’s sleep helps maintain a balanced gut microbiome, while poor sleep can disrupt it.

“Plus, if you’re sleep deprived, you’re more likely to choose highly processed carbohydrate or high-fat foods for an energy hit, and things like that don’t help support your gut health,” Amy says.

How do I check my gut health?

Amy says there is not a single “gold standard” test designed to specifically measure your gut health.

People who are experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort or symptoms of poor gut health are advised to consult their health professional, who may recommend a gut microbiome test to assess what microbes are living in their gut.

This typically involves a stool sample taken at home and returned to a lab for testing, Amy explains.

“It’s okay to have some bad bacteria in there, that’s normal; but for some people, it might show an overgrowth of a particular bacteria,” she says.

“From there, you would work with your practitioner and develop a plan to address it.”

A doctor may also recommend a colonoscopy to examine the inside of your colon and check for abnormalities or signs of disease.

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Written by Claire Burke.