They say the way to a person's happiness is through their stomach and they weren't lying...
Trust us when we say the gut is far more interesting than it sounds. You’ve probably heard that scientists call it the ‘second brain’ because it has the ability to affect everything from heart health and premature ageing to weight gain and depression. Cue our easy-to-digest guide to gut health and 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 integral 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. ‘It can lead to so much more than bloating and food intolerances.’ Put simply, if our gut isn’t healthy, we aren’t healthy.
I can just tell by looking at somebody’s face how healthy their gut is,’ says nutritionist Vicki 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.’
Gut health and bloating
Most of us don’t even realise what a healthy gut feels like, according to nutritionist Amelia Freer (Brit winner Sam Smith credits 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. ‘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.
Gut health and what not to eat
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.’
Dr Simone Laubscher is the formulator for WelleCo – the supplement brand founded by Elle Macpherson – agrees, ‘these all lead to an acidic lifestyle, which all destroy your good bacteria and feed your bad bacteria. You want a more alkaline diet.’
‘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.
Gut health and your mood
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 largest number of neuro cells, after the brain (Hence the second brain thing.),’ 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.
Dr Laubscher explains that research has shown that poor gut health is also linked to lowered immunity, because 70% of your immune system is actually housed in your gut, so there’s an increase in inflammation, increased disease, obesity, diabetes and even depression. ‘The Gut is often referred to as our second brain for it contains 100 million neurons and even though serotonin is mainly known as a brain neurotransmitter (or your happy hormone), it is estimated that 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is actually made in the digestive tract! Therefore it is essential to have a healthy gut if you want to have a healthy mind and body.’
Gut health and what to eat
Dr Laubscher gets that we’re not all health freaks though, ‘I recommend maintaining an 80/20 balance. Try to eat more organic whole foods that come from nature (with lots of greens of course) and eat clean six days a week, swapping white rice for quinoa, and steak for fish, for instance. Then one day per week you’re free to relax and eat a takeaway (YAY!), drink wine, eat ice cream, or whatever you prefer.’
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso soup and kombucha tea are great for gut health. ‘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.
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.
Top tips for a healthy gut
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) Drink more H2O
We know, you’ve heard it before but water really is the easiest and cheapest resource. Drink a minimum of two litres per day.
3) 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.
4) 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.’
5) 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.
6) Embrace probiotics
Probiotics help restore balance in your gut. ‘Good-quality ones will survive the acidic environment of our stomach,’ explains Freer. Symprove was rated the most effective by UCL’s School of Pharmacy.
7) Drink your greens
Add two teaspoons of WelleCo Super Elixir Greens to water every morning to keep your gut healthy and pH balance on the right track.
8) Stick to one Americano
Reduce coffee to one per day maximum, and that’s only if you drink your two litres of water.
We know this is much easier said than done, but go for a walk at lunch rather than sitting at your desk. Go swimming in the evenings or even take up yoga.
10) Up those zzzzzs
Make sure you get good quality sleep of 6-8 hoursand if you struggle to drop off try a calming tea before bed and invest in a pillow mist, like This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Mist.
We told you there was more to the gut that you realised.
Stick to these handy 10 steps to help with your own gut health.