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A Beginner’s Guide to Gut Health

Our gut health significantly influences our wellbeing, yet this is a connection we often underestimate.

The human gut houses a vast community of microorganisms known as the microbiota, and these have a pivotal role in the production of neurotransmitters.

The emerging research in the field of gut-brain interactions shows the interconnectedness of our bodily systems and highlights the importance of maintaining a healthy gut microbiome for overall wellbeing.

Keep reading to delve deeper into the intricacies of gut health.


Understanding the Role of Your 'Second Brain'

Referring to our gut as our 'second brain' isn't just fanciful language – it's based on solid science. This is down to the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is a complex structure in our gastrointestinal tract which boasts over 100 million neurons.

The main job of the ENS is to regulate digestion, but its influence doesn’t stop there.

The ENS acts as a crucial interface where the gut and brain can influence each other. It doesn't just maintain the smooth functioning of digestion but also plays a role in regulating mood.

This bidirectional connection between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis (GBA), is a well-established and fascinating area of research.

It highlights how changes in the gut can influence our emotional states and vice versa. The precise mechanisms involved are complex and continue to be a subject of scientific investigation, but there's a clear and recognized connection between gut health and mental wellbeing.


Signs of Poor Gut Health

Poor gut health can manifest in various ways, and the signs can vary from person to person. However, there are several common signs that may indicate compromised gut health:

  • Digestive issues. Chronic constipation, diarrhea, frequent bloating and gas, burping, abdominal discomfort or pain, or unexplained changes in bowel habits.
  • Nutritional deficiencies. Deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, often due to impaired nutrient absorption in the gut.
  • Food sensitivities. Development of new food sensitivities or allergies or difficulty digesting certain foods.
  • Frequent infections. Recurrent or persistent infections (particularly in the gastrointestinal tract), frequent colds or respiratory infections.
  • Fatigue and sleep disturbances. Unexplained fatigue, poor sleep quality, insomnia, or disrupted sleep patterns.
  • Poor mental wellbeing. Anxiety, low mood, mood swings and irritability.
  • Skin conditions like acne, eczema, psoriasis, or unexplained skin rashes or redness.
  • Joint pain and inflammation. Joint pain and inflammation that may be related to chronic inflammation from gut issues.
  • Chronic bad breath. Persistent bad breath that is not alleviated by good oral hygiene practices

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Gut Health

IBS is a gastrointestinal disorder that is closely connected to gut health. IBS is characterized by a collection of symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, changes in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation, or both), and discomfort.

There's evidence to suggest that individuals with mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, are more likely to experience IBS.

While the exact cause of IBS is not fully understood, several factors related to gut health are thought to play a role:

  • Gut-brain axis (GBA). The GBA is a bidirectional communication network between the gut and the central nervous system, as outlined previously. Dysregulation in this axis can lead to alterations in gut function and may contribute to IBS symptoms.
  • Gut microbiota imbalance. Research suggests that an imbalance in the gut microbiota, known as dysbiosis, can contribute to IBS. Changes in the composition and diversity of gut bacteria may affect gut motility, sensitivity, and immune function, all of which are factors in IBS symptoms.
  • Visceral hypersensitivity. People with IBS may experience visceral hypersensitivity, which means their gut is more sensitive to stimuli like gas, stool, or stretching. This heightened sensitivity can lead to pain and discomfort.
  • Immune system. An abnormal immune response in the gut can lead to low-grade inflammation, which may play a role in IBS.
  • Diet and food sensitivities. Certain foods, such as high-FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) foods, can trigger IBS symptoms.
  • Psychological factors. Stress, anxiety, and other emotional factors can exacerbate IBS symptoms. The gut-brain connection can lead to changes in gut motility and sensitivity in response to stress.

IBS is a complex condition, and the exact cause and contributing factors can vary among individuals.

Measures to improve gut health can often be beneficial for managing the symptoms of IBS. Since IBS is closely related to gut health and the balance of the gut microbiota, strategies aimed at promoting a healthier gut environment can help alleviate IBS symptoms.


Poor Diet: A Key Cause of Poor Gut Health

A poor diet is undeniably one of the principal culprits behind the widespread issue of poor gut health.

Diets high in processed foods, saturated fats, and added sugars often lack the essential nutrients that support a healthy gut microbiota.

In such diets, the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut can be disrupted, and the diversity of microbial species diminished. This imbalance can have far-reaching consequences, leading to digestive problems, inflammation, and a compromised gut lining.

Beyond the digestive realm, poor gut health linked to dietary choices can impact overall wellbeing, potentially contributing to various health issues, including obesity and metabolic disorders.

For optimal gut health, consume a variety of whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats to ensure you get a broad range of nutrients. Cut back on processed foods, saturated fats, and added sugars.


Improving Gut Health Through Probiotics

Along with improving your diet, probiotics may contribute to overall gut health by promoting regular bowel movements, reducing gas and bloating, and improving nutrient absorption.

Probiotics are live microorganisms, typically beneficial bacteria or yeasts, that, when ingested in adequate amounts, can provide health benefits to the host. They're often referred to as "good" or "friendly" bacteria because they can help maintain a balanced and healthy microbial environment in the gut and other parts of the body.

Probiotic use has increased significantly in recent years due to a growing interest in digestive health and the potential benefits of these live microorganisms for various aspects of wellbeing.

There’s a growing body of research suggesting a potential link between probiotics and mental health, but the relationship is complex, and the evidence is still evolving.

It's important to note that the effectiveness of probiotics can vary from person to person, and not all gut issues may respond to probiotic treatment. The specific strains used, the dosage, and the duration of probiotic supplementation are critical factors. Additionally, the underlying cause of gut issues can be diverse, and probiotics may not be a suitable solution for all conditions.

It’s interesting to note that even in dogs and cats, an imbalanced microbiota can also lead to gastrointestinal issues and may affect their overall health.

Certain strains like Lactobacillus acidophilus or Bifidobacterium animalis may be beneficial for our canine friends, and are often found in the best probiotics for dogs.


When considering the use of probiotics for your pet, it's important to consult with a veterinarian to ensure that it's appropriate – not all dogs may benefit from probiotics, and the choice of probiotic strains and dosages should be tailored to your dog's individual needs.

Probiotics vs Prebiotics: What’s the Difference?

Prebiotics and probiotics are related but distinct components that may play a role in promoting gut health. Here's the difference between the two:

Probiotics

  • Probiotics are live microorganisms, typically beneficial bacteria or yeasts, that, when ingested in adequate amounts, confer health benefits to the host. These live organisms are similar to the beneficial microbes naturally found in the human gut.
  • Probiotics work by supplementing the existing gut microbiota with additional beneficial microorganisms. They can help maintain a balanced gut microbiome, promote digestive health, support the immune system, and potentially influence other aspects of health, including mental wellbeing.

Prebiotics

  • Prebiotics are non-digestible food components, typically dietary fibers and certain types of carbohydrates, that serve as a food source for beneficial gut bacteria. These compounds pass through the digestive system without being absorbed and are specifically designed to nourish the good bacteria in the gut.
  • Prebiotics help stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in the gut. They essentially act as "fuel" for these microbes.

Foods to Consume

Prebiotic-Rich Foods

  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Asparagus
  • Chicory root
  • Bananas
  • Whole grains (such as barley, oats, and wheat)
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Apples
  • Flaxseeds
  • Seaweed (such as nori and kelp)

Probiotic-Rich Foods

  • Yoghurt
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Pickles

When considering prebiotic-rich foods, it's important to be aware that some of these items, such as garlic, onions, leeks, and whole grains, are high in FODMAPs and may not be suitable for individuals with IBS. FODMAPs are fermentable carbohydrates that can trigger digestive discomfort and exacerbate IBS symptoms. Dietary sensitivities vary among individuals – to navigate these dietary choices effectively, keeping a food diary can be incredibly helpful.

What About Supplements?

In addition to incorporating probiotic and prebiotic-rich foods into your diet, some people opt for supplements as an alternative or complementary approach to improve gut health.

When assessing supplements, look for the CFU count (Colony Forming Units), which indicates the number of live bacteria in each dose. An effective probiotic should have a CFU count in the billions.

In addition, the product should specify the strains of bacteria they contain. Different strains have different effects on health, so you should choose a product with strains that align with your specific health goals. For example, if you have IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D), which is the predominant subtype of IBS, these strains may be particularly beneficial: Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG), Bifidobacterium infantis, Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium longum, and Streptococcus thermophilus.

In certain cases of IBS, particularly when the symptoms are triggered by specific food intolerances or malabsorption issues, digestive enzyme supplements may also provide relief. These contain enzymes that help break down the various components of food, including carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. They're designed to supplement the body's natural enzyme production and can be used to support digestion.


7 Steps Towards Optimal Gut Health

We’ve outlined how improving your diet and consuming probiotics and prebiotics are potential avenues for improving your gut health.

What else can you do?

  1. Manage your mental wellbeing. Take control of your mental wellbeing through habits such as meditation, yoga, or regular breathing exercises to prevent stress-related digestive issues.
  2. Limit alcohol and caffeine. Limit alcohol and caffeine consumption, as they can irritate the digestive tract and disrupt the gut-brain axis.
  3. Regular movement. Engage in regular exercise to promote healthy digestion and maintain a healthy weight.
  4. Chew food thoroughly. Speedy eater? Slow down! Take your time to chew food properly, as this aids in the initial stages of digestion and can prevent digestive discomfort.
  5. Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water to help prevent constipation and maintain proper digestion.
  6. Improve your sleep quality. Poor sleep habits can affect gut health – sleep disturbances have been linked to alterations in gut microbiota.
  7. Try supplements. Some people find supplements for anxiety and/or low mood to be effective in supporting their mental wellbeing.
  8. Portion control. Be mindful of portion sizes to prevent overeating and support proper digestion.

Summary

Gut health, often referred to as the "second brain," is an integral component of overall wellbeing.

Research suggests that a balanced gut microbiome is crucial for maintaining optimal health, and an imbalanced gut can contribute to a range of physical and mental health issues.

The steps outlined in this article can make a significant difference in cultivating a healthier gut and, in turn, enhancing your overall wellbeing.

What small step could you take to start nurturing your gut health today?


Want to Improve Your Gut by Reducing Stress?

Be sure to check out The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit – it's "like 10 therapy sessions in one."

The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit

 

About Rebecca

Rebecca is the founder of The Wellness Society and author of two fluff-free books, The Framework and Understanding and Healing Trauma.

She's passionate about creating concise and compassionate mental health and wellbeing tools that address the root causes of distress.

Read more about her views on our About page.