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Seven things you can do right now to improve your gut health

The following article was originally published by Jack Rear for the Telegraph Online

Somewhere between the late fourth and early third century BC, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, said: “All disease begins in the gut.” While he wasn’t entirely right, he also wasn’t too far off the mark.

When we talk about gut health we’re talking about the ‘good’ bacteria which live in our guts and help digest food and form the first defence against disease and infection. Good gut health means looking after this bacteria.

Its effect are almost untold. For example, a new study from the Flemish Gut Flora Project has found a link between gut bacteria and depression. Faecalibacterium and Coprococcus were both more common in people who claimed to enjoy a high mental quality of life. Meanwhile, those with depression had lower than average levels of Coprococcus and Dialister. Gut microbes produce the neurotransmitters crucial for good mental health, allowing them to “talk” to the human nervous systems.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Good gut health has also been linked to weightlossgood skin qualityhaving more energy, and lower stress.

“Gut health plays a major role in maintaining our overall wellbeing and key to this is the trillions of bacteria that live in our gut,” explains Glenn Gibson, professor of food microbiology at the University of Reading. “70pc of our immune system is within our gut and 90pc of our serotonin (the happy chemical) is produced in the gut. As you would expect, those which are good bacteria need to outweigh the bad.”

It’s particularly important to look after your gut as you grow older, as older people tend to have less varied types of gut bacteria, while makes their digestive system weaker than a younger person’s.

So what can you do to look after your gut – and the rest of your body as a result?

1. Eat plenty of fibre

The first step to good gut health is to eat plenty of fibre, says Matt Perkins, nutritionist for Kellogg’s Healthy Guts range. This keeps gut cells healthy and ensures the digestive system is able to clear out waste properly.

“A lack of fibre impacts your gut microbiome, meaning you have fewer healthy bacterial strains, compared to someone who is following a plant based high fibre diet,” says Perkins. “An imbalance of good versus bad bacteria in the gut can affect not only your gut health, but also a range of other chronic health conditions, from inflammatory conditions like IBD (Inflammatory Bowel disease), and arthritis to metabolic conditions like obesity and diabetes.”

Foods that are high in fibre include wholegrain pasta and bread, oats, berries, pears, melons, broccoli, carrots, and nuts.

2. Top up your gut bacteria with probiotics

Most of us will have heard of probiotics, beneficial bacteria that live in our guts. It’s really easy to build them into your diet by simply consuming probiotic yoghurts (although these can be quite sugary, in some cases), specially prepared milks, or probiotic supplements like Bio-kult.

Kajsa Ernestam, in-house dietitian for Lifesum, suggests another option: “Miso contains live cultures – often referred to as probiotic food. Have the soup as a snack, or swap your afternoon coffee for miso.”

It pays to be a discerning shopper when it comes to buying probiotic products, says Julie Lamble, nutritional biochemist at Lifeplan: “Choose a probiotic that has multiple strains (including Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria) and take at least 10 billion bacteria daily. Best to take these supplements first thing with a cold drink or cold food.”

Probiotic yoghurt and milk drinks are products with extra good bacteria added to add to the ones already found in your gut

3. Feed those bacteria with prebiotics

Prebiotics work as fertiliser for the probiotics. “These are found naturally in foods like leeks, onions, garlic, chicory, beans and cold potatoes. Therefore try and include some of these foods in your diet every day,” advises Lamble.

However, Gibson notes that while prebiotics can be found in these foods “in order to experience any meaningful health benefits, you would have to eat unrealistically large amounts,” so it may be worth taking a prebiotic supplement like Bimuno.

You should also try to eat products containing polyphenols such as fruit, vegetables, cocoa, red wine and tea. These encourage “the growth of “good” bacteria like Bifidobacterium strains, and inhibiting the growth of “bad” bacteria such as C. difficile” says Jo Travers, dietician for Love Your Gut.

4. Cut down on sugar and rich foods

While plenty of us has a sweet tooth, our gut certainly doesn’t. “Sugar feeds yeasts such as candida albicans. Normally present in the gut without causing any problems, an overgrowth of candida can overwhelm the “friendly” gut flora, resulting in symptoms such as fatigue, skin problems, thrush, fungal nails and digestive distress,” explains Jenny Bodenham, qualified nutritionist at Higher Nature.

5. Treat yourself to a massage

Dr Harald Stossier, Medical Director at the VIVAMAYR clinic which specialises in gut health, suggests you massage your abdomen two hours after eating with the following simple technique:

  1. Start massaging from the middle of your pubic bones (the symphysis) towards your upper central abdomen (the epigastrium) with gentle, tender movements, using the palm of your hand. This massage movement follows a meridian used in acupuncture and helps increase the energy flow in your body.
  2. Now make about 50 small circular strokes in a clockwise motion around you navel. This should feel comfortable and relaxing.
  3. Next widen this cruclar massage to include your ribcage and pelvic bones (again, repeat this about 50 times). This will benefit your large intestines.

6. Manage stress

While it might seem unrelated, stress can have a major impact on your gut health, says Travers, thanks to the production of the hormone cortisol. This can cause dysregulation of the communication pathways between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis.” Long story short, this results in changes to blood flow and secretions in the gut, creating better conditions for bad bacteria while inhibiting the growth of good bacteria.

7. Make sure you drink enough water

There are very few bits of health advice which don’t advocate drinking more water, and gut health is no exception. “Water supports your digestive aid which makes sure minerals and nutrients are being absorbed properly in the body. Start the day with a glass of water to wake up your body and keep a bottle or a measurement so that you can check your water intake,” says Ernestam.

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