How to look after your gut through your diet

How to look after your gut through your diet

Our gut is vital for so many functions within our body and has a key role in our overall health. Grace Carey-Caton, Nutritionist, Gut Health & Hormone Health Specialist discusses the importance of gut health and what foods we can add into our diets to support our gut health every day. 

What is gut health?

‘Gut Health’ is the talk of the town. We know gut health is important for our overall health, but what exactly does ‘gut health’ mean? Gut health refers to the physical state and function of the whole digestive system including the upper and lower gastrointestinal tract such as the oesophagus, stomach, and the intestines. 

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Having a 'healthy gut' describes multiple positive effects of the function of the digestive system such as digestion of food, absorption of nutrients, the balance of microbes, an effective immune system, the absence of gut disorders and the state of overall wellbeing.

You may also be interested in learning about the causes and symptoms of diverticulitis

Why is gut health important?

As well as being responsible for the digestion and absorption of nutrients, the gut plays a vital role in maintaining the body's overall health and wellbeing.

The immune system

The gut regulates immune function through the intestinal epithelial barrier. Studies show that 70% of your immune health is driven by your gut. The gut helps maintain a balanced gut microbiome and is responsible for absorbing nutrients that support the immune system such as vitamins A, C, and D, and minerals including zinc and selenium. As well as acting as a physical barrier that prevents harmful pathogens from entering your bloodstream, the gut produces antimicrobial peptides that help protect against invading pathogens. Discover the best 8 immunity boosting foods

The brain

The gut and the brain are closely linked through a connection called 'the gut-brain axis', with the gut reporting into the brain via the nerve which is known as the vagus nerve. This is why your gut is often referred to as 'your second brain'. 

The gut is responsible for the proper absorption of nutrients that are crucial for good brain function, whilst microorganisms that live in the gut are responsible for producing serotonin and dopamine, which are essential in regulating mood and cognition. A balanced gut microbiome also helps to regulate the body’s stress response, reducing the risk of stress negatively impacting brain function and mental health.

Gut health and skin

When our gut microbiome is imbalanced, symptoms are likely to present on our skin. Stress, inflammation and digestive issues in the gut can breakdown the protective antimicrobial barrier of the skin and impair its function, which can contribute to breakouts, rashes, acne, and exacerbate conditions including psoriasis and eczema. 

Hormone health

The gut plays a central role in supporting the synthesis and balance of our hormones, including oestrogen, thyroid hormones, serotonin, and melatonin. An imbalance in the gut’s microbiome can cause the reabsorption of certain hormones or encourage their excretion, causing a deficiency or dominance in certain hormones, which can lead to a hormonal imbalance and related health issues. 

As an example of this, research shows that 90% of women experience gut health issues during menopause, including bloating, acid reflux, constipation, excessive wind and gas, and mild or severe IBS. Gut health issues experienced during menopause are the result of fluctuating hormones impacting the balance and health of the gut microbiome. Learn more in 'How menopause affects gut health'.

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How to rebalance and improve your gut health

There are dietary and lifestyle changes that you can make to help promote a balanced gut microbiome, reduce inflammation in the gut, and support your digestive system to improve your gut health.

  • Eating a diverse, high-fibre diet that consists of a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and seeds, can promote the development of good bacteria in the gut. If you're looking for recipe inspiration, read our nutritionists favourite recipes full of healthy foods. 
  • Avoid powder drinks - 'green powders' - and meal replacement shakes that contain additives and sweeteners such as stevia, and which don't provide the essential fibre of normal, unprocessed food.  
  • Eating fermented foods such as yoghurt, kimchi and miso which are good examples of foods that contain probiotics which contribute to gut health.
  • Limit the amount of processed and fast foods that you are consuming to prevent inflammation. 
  • Taking probiotic supplements alongside a healthy diet and lifestyle may also contribute to a healthy gut.

Making sure that you are drinking enough water throughout the day, sticking to a regular sleep schedule, exercising regularly and managing stress by meditating, breathing exercises, or participating in hobbies that you enjoy are some of the lifestyle changes that you can make to help rebalance your gut health. 

Which Foods Support Gut Health?

Now we understand what the term 'Gut Health' means and its importance to our brain, immune and hormone health, it’s time to talk about how we can optimise our digestive system and take care of improving our gut health through our diets.

Probiotics and prebiotic foods

Probiotics are classified as live microorganisms, that when consumed in adequate amounts offer a health benefit. Probiotics can be taken in supplement form and can be found within some fermented foods.

Food tips: add fermented foods to your diet such as natural live yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut and kimchi. Kimchi is one of our recommended foods in 5 foods to improve your mood

Prebiotics are specific plant fibres that stimulate the growth of the bacteria (probiotics) in the gut. Essentially, they feed our microbes and help them to thrive!

Food tips: to increase prebiotics in your diet add in foods such as banana, asparagus, artichoke, apples, onions and garlic. You might enjoy our nutritionists' blog: Best probiotics for IBS.

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Fibre rich foods

Fibre is essential for the health of our gut. It supports the digestive system by keeping bowel movements regular and feeding our gut microbesThere are two types of fibre – soluble fibre and insoluble fibre. Both have a different function on the gut and different benefits, and getting a mix of both is key to getting the most out of this nutrient.

Here are some of the most fibre rich foods to include to gain the benefits of a fibre-friendly diet: 

Plant-based proteins

Plant based proteins including beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and seeds are some of the richest sources of dietary fibre. They are a great source of protein too and they make an excellent vegetarian meal base for plant-based diets (and meat eaters too!). 

Plant based proteins can easily be added to curries, soups, stews, or salads.

If you're unsure if you're gaining enough protein in your diet, we recommend completing your Diet Profile (it's free) which shows you the nutrients you're getting in your diet through the foods you eat.

Fruits and vegetables

Eating a diet filled with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is a simple way to bump up your fibre intake. Studies have shown that including 10 different portions of fruits and vegetables a day, rather than the usual 5, is considered optimal to support us against diseases and disorders.

Food tips: eat a rainbow choice of fruit and vegetable colours in order to maximise your nutrient intake!

Flax seeds

Flax seeds are very high in fibre in both forms; insoluble (which provides bulk to the stool) and soluble (which binds with water to keep movements soft). Therefore, they’re a great tool to support constipation.

Food tip: If you suffer with constipation try adding ground flax seeds to your diet daily to support regularity.

Wholegrains

Do you know what the difference is between white grains and wholegrains? White grains (also known as 'simple carbohydrates') are put through a process to remove the bran and germ (the fibre), whereas wholegrains contain all parts of the grain and are left in their natural fibre packed state.  The inner germ of grains also contains important vitamins, minerals, lignans and phytochemicals. 

Food tips: make the switch from white (simple) carbs to the mighty wholegrains such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, wholewheat pasta, rye bread or oats to optimise your fibre intake.

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Omega 3 essential fatty acids

Omega 3 fatty acids are useful in the diet to decrease whole body inflammation but they have also been shown to offer targeted support to the gut. Omega 3 essential fatty acids have the potential for pain and inflammation reduction and support normal levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory marker.

A recent study has also shown that people who frequently eat foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids have more bacterial diversity in the gut microbiome which promotes overall improved digestive health. 

Digestive enzyme aids

When we consume food and liquids our bodies break them down into simpler forms for us to process. Digestive enzymes are necessary for this process as they break down the molecules in proteins, fats and carbohydrates into smaller molecules that can be absorbed. When the body is unable to make enough digestive enzymes the digestive process can become impaired. However, there are some foods that are high in natural digestive enzymes which can support to enhance this process. These include:

Ginger

Ginger contains a digestive enzyme known as zingibain which helps the body to breakdown and digest proteins. It has also been shown to increase overall digestive enzyme production in the body. Ginger supports with gastric emptying (aiding the digestive system to empty faster) so it provides all-round gut health support. 

Food tip: ginger can help to release pressure and tension in the gut.  It can be a great tool for bloating so look to add ginger to your cooking, in your water or make a fresh ginger tea! Try our delicious Vegan Gingerbread Cookies recipe.

Bitter greens

When eaten at the start of a meal, bitter foods can stimulate peristalsis, which is the movement that aids digestion. Bitter foods support gut health by stimulating bile production and bile helps us to break down fats.

Food tips: add a big handful of bitter greens such as rocket, watercress, or radicchio to the start of your meals to aid digestion. 

Curcumin and Turmeric also support digestion. DR.VEGAN® Organic Curcumin & Turmeric (3300mg), with standardised extract of 95% Curcumin (200mg), is a high strength, more potent and more absorbable formula than standard turmeric supplements, helping protect your joints and supporting your digestive function. 

If you have any questions regarding the best foods and dietary tips for gut health, you can contact our nutritionists for free advice, and we welcome any questions you have @drveganco on Facebook and Instagram

Worst foods for gut health

There are some foods that have the potential to disrupt the balance of gut microbiota and promote inflammation that are generally considered to be bad for your gut and overall health. 

Consuming lots of refined sugars, artificial sweeteners and trans fats can negatively impact gut microbiota and promote inflammation. Processed foods tend to contain lots of these refined sugars, unhealthy fats and preservatives and can negatively impact your gut health. Excessive consumption of alcohol can also have the potential to damage the gut lining and impair the ability to absorb important nutrients. Your gut can also find it difficult to digest lots of fried and greasy foods which can contribute to discomfort and inflammation.

Individuals with sensitivities to certain foods should take extra care with what they eat in order to maintain a healthy gut. Foods such as wheat, barley and rye that contain gluten can damage the gut lining of those who have celiac disease and there are similar effects for those who are lactose intolerant and consume dairy products. High-FODMAP foods such as onions, garlic, legumes and certain fruits can also cause digestive issues for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Whilst there are some general rules of what types of foods are the worst for maintaining a healthy gut, it’s important to note that individual reactions can vary and if you suspect that a food is negatively affecting your health then you should consult a healthcare professional.

Summary

In summary, gut health is important for your immune system, brain and hormone health and overall wellbeing. Adopting a healthy lifestyle by regularly exercising, staying hydrated and managing stress whilst eating a balanced diet that avoids processed foods and incorporates fibre can be supported with supplements in order to promote a healthy gut.

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Written by Grace Carey-Caton (mBANT) (rCNHC), a Nutritionist and Gut Health & Hormone Health specialist for DR.VEGAN. Grace offers bespoke programmes to support you to rebalance your hormones and optimise your gut health.

 

Discover our range of vegan vitamins and supplements.

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