Gut health, or if you want to get fancy - digestive wellness - is a seriously trending nutrition topic and red-hot marketing term. But what does good gut health actually mean and how do you sort the fact from fiction in terms of caring for your hard-working digestive system?
Cockatoo Grove ambassador, dietitian and gut health expert Marnie Nitschke from Fork That Nutrition gives us her 5 do’s and don’ts for supporting your digestive health and wellness.
7 minute read.
What is good gut health, and how do you know if your system is in good shape?
In simple terms, if you have a healthy, vital digestive system, it might feel like:
- Comfortable digestion (no or minimal pain, bloating, nausea).
- Good energy levels and nutrition stores.
- Your poops are regular, reasonably predictable and easy to pass.
Importantly though, digestive health goes well beyond just how our gut feels and functions.
It also means:
- The absence of disease (inflammation, infection, cancer).
- A strong, healthy intestinal wall with a good mucous lining.
- A healthy and diverse gut microbiome. The gut microbiome is the ecosystem of thousands of different microbes that live in our lower digestive system. Dysbiosis is when things are unbalanced, with not enough beneficial bacteria and/or low microbial diversity.
- A strong Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue (GALT). Did you know that approximately 70% of our immune system lives in and around our gut, making it our first defence against infection?
When all these factors are in place, our gut is a virtual powerhouse that keeps us well nourished, produces beneficial antioxidants and neurotransmitters, keeps inflammation levels in check and regulates our immunity and mental health.
5 things NOT to buy into for good gut health:
1. Stool microbiome analysis and ‘leaky gut’ tests.
*Spoiler alert* At this point in time, the most brilliant minds in digestive science can’t give us a blueprint for the perfect gut microbiome. Each of ours is individual, like a fingerprint. Similarly, there is no point in testing our gut ‘leakiness’, because it changes daily depending on lots of different factors. Put your credit card away and give these tests a wide berth. Actually, let’s circle back in 5-10 years and see what the science says.
2. Colonic irrigation.
[big sigh] I know it’s supposed to fix everything from bad breath to weight gain and beyond, but please! No! If you’re chronically constipated and bloated, you need to see a gastroenterologist and a good dietitian. Washing your colon out can really upset the natural balance in there, and has no evidence whatsoever for improving gut health.
3. Restrictive diets (whether it’s keto, paleo, gluten free*, dairy free, or removing ‘deadly nightshades’).
Evidence shows that drastic dietary changes - even short term – can have a negative impact on our gut microbiome. According to the science, the more variety of grains, cereals, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and legumes you’re eating, the better your gut health is likely to be.
*Unless you have coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten intolerance, a gluten free diet is not healthier for your gut.
4. Expensive gut health supplements.
The majority of pills and potions that claim to repair and ‘detoxify’ your gut (including, but not limited to collagen peptide powders, apple cider vinegar, activated charcoal, enzyme supplements and cleanses) are formulated on the premise that they may help, but do not have any evidence to prove that they work (on humans, in real life). Some can even have negative effects.
5. Random off the shelf probiotics.
Yes, it’s true that some strains of probiotics, when delivered in the right formula, can help with gut symptoms. But selecting a probiotic on the advice of a well-intentioned friend, the pharmacist, TV ads or your personal trainer is really not the most savvy way to go about choosing the best probiotic for you.
Okay, enough of the don’ts! If you’re picking up what I’m putting down here, you’ll already have realised that money doesn’t buy gut health, and some of the best digestive health remedies are actually the least spendy.
Top 5 evidence-based recommendations to work toward your best gut health
1. Diversify your diet
Countless studies back up the science behind diversity of whole plant foods in the diet and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. Plant foods provide lots of different types of fibre (including prebiotics) that benefit our intestinal environment.
- Aim for at least 30 different plant foods each week
- Eat more fruits, vegetables and legumes (try including more vegetarian meals).
- Include nuts and seeds daily - in salads, smoothies, baking or trail mix.·
- Eat a variety of grain products like oats, quinoa, grainy breads and crackers, pasta, high fibre breakfast cereals, brown rice, barley and buckwheat.
2. Lean into antioxidant rich foods
Antioxidants are tiny molecules that we either absorb via our gut, or become food for our good gut bacteria, and are able to prevent oxidative damage of our cells. Colour is a really good marker for antioxidant levels in plant foods.
- Eat the rainbow – think deeply coloured hues in berries, kale, broccoli, pumpkin, eggplant, grapes, tomatoes, beetroot, fresh and dried herbs.
- Drink up your tea and coffee (including herbal and regular varieties)
- Use plenty of Extra Virgin Olive Oil in cooking, salads, baking and dipping.
- Quality dark chocolate and red wine are also great sources of antioxidants
3. Include fermented foods in your day to day meals and snacks
The science is clear. Regular inclusion of fermented foods in your diet can help with better digestion and more diverse gut bacteria, so start experimenting!
- Try condiments like kim chi, sauerkraut and natto
- Give tempeh, dosa, natto and kombucha a whirl.
- Regularly include yoghurt and other fermented dairy foods like kefir
4. Go easy on highly processed foods
Ultra-processed, packaged foods with lots of salt and additives aren’t great for our gut environment in large amounts. You don’t need to avoid them completely, but:
- Keep processed meats (eg. ham, salami, bacon, sausages) to a minimum.
- Favour home made cakes, slices, muffins and desserts with whole food ingredients over the mass produced commercial versions.
- Choose healthier take aways and meals out: souvlaki with salad, vegetarian pizza, Vietnamese rice noodle salads, sushi, roast vegetable salads, and baked potato with vegetable toppings
5. Include regular exercise, practice diaphragmatic breathing and get enough sleep.
Studies show that regular physical activity (particularly exercising outdoors) can help improve gut function and even have positive effects on our gut microbiome
- Try yoga, diaphragmatic breathing and meditation, which can all help to calm the gut nervous system, improve digestion and gut symptoms.
- Slow down, eat mindfully and chew you food well, to give your digestive system a helping hand.