Scientists call it the ‘second brain’, and it can be responsible for everything from heart health and premature ageing to weight gain and depression. Cue our easy-to-digest guide to inner health and – yes – happiness...
Unless you suffer from IBS, colitis or Crohn’s disease, you probably don’t pay much attention to your gut. Why would you? But the gut, or gastrointestinal tract – a tube that runs from the stomach to the bowel, via the intestines, forming the digestive system – is central to our health.
‘A weakened, damaged gut affects everything from our heart, brain and immune system to our skin and how happy we feel,’ says Dr Vincent Pedre, a New York-based physician and author of new book Happy Gut (16.99, William Morrow). ‘It can lead to so much more than bloating and food intolerances.’ Put simply, if our gut isn’t healthy, we can’t be healthy.
THE BLOATING MYTH
Most of us don’t even realise what a healthy gut feels like, according to nutritionist Amelia Freer (Brit winner Sam Smith recently credited her with his two-stone weight loss). ‘Many people think it’s normal to wake up with a relatively flat stomach then gradually see and feel it expand throughout the day. But it’s not,’ says Freer, author of Eat, Nourish, Glow (£16.99, Harper Thorsons). ‘A healthy gut means no daily bloating, gas, constipation, discomfort or tiredness after eating. You’ll also have better-quality sleep, more energy and fewer mood swings.’
Our body is home to 100 trillion bacteria, and most of them live in the gut, where there’s a constant tug of war between good and bad. The build-up of bad bacteria, caused by toxins in the food we eat, is neutralised by the friendly bacteria to keep our immune system stable.
‘Anything that alters this delicate balance – such as stress, poor diet, hormonal contraceptives and antibiotics – can inhibit digestion,’ explains Freer. ‘And this causes bloating, discomfort, constipation and/or diarrhoea.’ Another culprit is anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen.
A key player is the modern diet. Pedre says ‘We’ve moved too far from eating from the earth. Sugar, refined carbs, processed food and alcohol all overwork the good bacteria that are trying to break down food during digestion. Organic meat, fish, vegetables and eggs, on the other hand, promote a healthy gut.’
‘An unhealthy gut can become “hyper-permeable” or leaky,’ says Pedre. ‘The gut becomes inflamed and mesh-like, so food particles get through to the bloodstream. Your body develops antibodies to fight them, and that’s where food intolerances come from.’
Nutritionists agree that wheat, gluten and lactose (the natural sugars found in milk) are the biggest triggers for food intolerances, but don’t rule out other, more obscure, food groups – even trout and red wine have been found to cause allergies.
‘Your gut is nature’s best nutritionist, because it will react to what it can’t tolerate,’ says Dr Stephen Domenig, medical doctor from The Original FX Mayr Clinic in Austria, where the philosophy is healing to gut to heal the body. He recommends cutting out all processed, sugary foods, as well as chewing thoroughly and avoiding drinking between mouthfuls, as it slows digestion.
For a total gut detox, Grayshott Spa* in Surrey runs a seven-day programme that involves blood analysis, nutritional therapy, abdominal massages and a meal plan to encourage gut repair.
Bacteria don’t just dictate your digestive health, they’re crucial to you mood, too. There’s a reason why you feel butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous or excited – it physically knots up in response to your emotions. ‘The gut contains the second larges number of neuro cells, after the brain,’ says Dr Domineg. ‘So inside your gut there’s a huge entity of bacteria that impacts on the neuro cells to influence moods and emotional well-being.’
Experts are now increasingly looking at the link between the gut and mental health, with a recent study from McMaster University in Canada finding that poor gut health equates to heightened anxiety and depression.
The reason, nutritionist Henrietta Norton** explains, is because ‘the gut houses the enteric nervous system (ENS). This controls the activity of more than 30 neurotransmitters, and produces hormones, including dopamine and serotonin, that are key to controlling our moods.’ In fact, 95 per cent of the body’s production of serotonin – the happiness hormone – takes place in the ENS. In short, you really can eat yourself happier, and it all begins in the gut.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut (a fermented cabbage), miso soup and kombucha tea have emerged as the superfoods of 2015 – thanks largely to their effect on the happiness of your gut. ‘Eating small amounts of fermented foods daily is good for you, because fermentation makes the food easier to break down, and this protects the good bacteria,’ says nutritionist Vicki Edgson, author of new book Gut Gastronomy (£30, Jacqui Small).
The fermentation process involves foods such as cabbage and cucumber being soaked in their own juices (or in salt water) until their sugars and carbs turn into bacteria-boosting lactic acids, making them much more digestible than non-fermented foods.
Fermented foods also contain natural probiotics to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria. Try a shot of apple cider vinegar in warm water every morning. Miranda Kerr swears by this to boost her digestion and clear her skin.
BEAUTY FROM WITHIN
I can just tell by looking at somebody’s face how healthy their gut is,’ says nutritionist Edgson. ‘An unhealthy gut and overloaded digestive system will show in dull, tired-looking eyes, dark circles, eczema, inflamed spots and a puffy face.’
A recent study from the University of Turku in Finland found that eczema sufferers have slightly different gut bacteria to those who don’t have eczema. ‘The gut has a tissue layer that’s similar to that of skin, so if you’re experiencing imbalances in this layer, it will show on the skin’s surface,’ adds nutritionist Norton. ‘Similarly, if you’re not effectively absorbing the nutrients from your food (because of low levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut) you may not be getting enough skin-nourishing vitamins.’
5 QUICK GUT-BOOSTERS
1) Eat more protein
‘The gut is full of serotonin (the happiness hormone) and carbs are the quickest way to feed it,’ says Dr Pedre. ‘But this can result in an energy crash, which is why depressed people often crave carbs. What you need is protein for longer-lasting energy levels.
2) Do the plough
‘This yoga move is like wringing out a wet towel – it removes toxins,’ says Dr Domineg. Lie on your back with your arms by your sides, palms down. Inhale and life your feet off the floor, slowly raising your legs until they go over your head, touching the floor behind you if you can. Hold for ten seconds.
3) Eat mindfully
Chewing thoroughly and slowly breaks food down and stimulates saliva production to aid digestion. ‘Fast, stress-eating is bad for your gut,’ says Edgson. ‘Breathe rhythmically to slow your eating right down.’
4) Up your fibre
A recent study from Stanford University found friendly gut bacteria thrives on dietary fibre, and a lack of it weakens the gut lining. So eat more fruit, veg, grains, nuts and seeds.
5) Embrace probiotics
Probiotics help restore balance in your gut. ‘Good-quality ones will survive the acidic environment of our stomach,’ explains Freer. Symprove (from £21.95, symprove.com) was rated the most effective by UCL’s School of Pharmacy.