In recent years the link between gut health and overall health has become increasingly clear, prompting many Australians to look for ways to improve their gut health. But with so much dietary advice out there, it can be hard to know where to start. In this article, we look at what the scientific research says about gut health and discuss how to improve gut health naturally through simple dietary changes.
Generally speaking, gut health refers to the health of a person’s gastrointestinal system a2 nd also their gut microbiome. The gut microbiome is essentially the community of microorganisms (or microbes) including bacteria, viruses, archaea, fungi, and parasites that reside within the gut.
Each person’s gut microbiome is unique and typically comprises hundreds of types of bacteria. When thinking about how to improve gut health naturally, supporting your body’s gut microbiome to maintain the optimal balance of good and bad bacteria is a key part.
Maintaining good gut health is important for minimising the onset of gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, and bloating. However, researchers are finding increasing evidence of important links between gut health and chronic disease. According to Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre, gut bacteria don’t just play a role in digestion—they also influence your metabolism, body weight, immune function, brain function and mood. A healthy microbiome also plays an important role in minimising inflammation in the body by producing short-chain fatty acids, which are essentially beneficial products of bacterial fermentation within the gut. Inflammation is linked to a range of chronic diseases from cancer and diabetes, to cardiovascular disease and allergies.
While improving gut health isn’t a silver bullet against chronic disease, the evidence is mounting that simple lifestyle changes focused on promoting a good gut microbiome, can significantly improve your overall health.
When the gut microbiome is in a state of imbalance, it is often referred to as ‘dysbiosis’ and may lead to the onset of adverse symptoms and health conditions. The most typical features of dysbiosis include a decrease in diversity of the microbiota (microorganisms) within the gut, a loss of beneficial microbiota, or an overgrowth of harmful microorganisms.
Many factors can contribute to dysbiosis including health status and associated illnesses, genetic background, a Western diet (high sugar, low fibre, excess calories, nutrient-poor), xenobiotics (antibiotics, drugs/medications, food additives), high-stress lifestyles or chronic stress, environment, and hygiene.
Some signs of an unhealthy gut are fairly obvious and include common digestive upsets such as:
However, there can be other less obvious signs of an unhealthy gut, including:
Maintaining a healthy diet is foundational to overall health, and one of the best ways to naturally improve your gut health. Diet has such a profound impact on gut bacteria composition and metabolic function, determining which bacteria thrive and ultimately promote healthy digestive function. Below we discuss how to improve gut health with six simple steps.
A well-known study, commonly referred to as the American Gut Project examined human microbiome specimens of over 10,000 people in America, the United Kingdom and Australia. One of the key observations was that participants who ate more than 30 different plants a week were more likely to have particular types of good gut bacteria than participants who ate only 10 types of plants. This is largely because a plant-rich and diverse diet contains various types of dietary fibres and resistant starches that support a more diverse microbial community. While eating a wide variety of plants has long been recognised as important for preventing nutritional deficiencies, many dietitians and gastroenterologists now recommend eating a wide variety of plants to promote gut health.
When it comes to how to improve gut health, increasing your fibre intake is one of the easiest ways of improving gut health. According to Nutrition Australia, fibre is the indigestible part of plant foods and is key to promoting good gut health. There are two main types of fibre:
The importance of consuming an adequate amount of fibre for promoting regular bowel movements has long been recognised. However, scientists are increasingly recognising the importance of fibre for improving gut health. Fibre is a key source of food for the gut microbiome, fuelling their growth and activity. To improve your gut health, it is recommended to aim to eat at least between 25 and 30 grams of fibre per day. If you haven’t been eating much fibre though, increase your intake slowly to avoid unpleasant side effects.
To help support a healthy gut microbiome, and therefore promote good gut health, try incorporating both prebiotic and probiotic foods into your diet. While most people have heard of probiotics thanks to Yakult and probiotic tablets, far fewer people have a good understanding of prebiotics and the role they play in improving gut health. Here’s the difference:
While you can buy probiotics in tablet form, it’s easy (and cheaper) to consume them by increasing your intake of fermented foods. Just make sure to check the labels on products—not all yoghurts for example will contain live bacteria.
While antibiotics can be highly effective at treating bacterial infections, they can have acute and persistent effects on the gut microbiome. Our gut bacteria population can be negatively altered, due to resident normal bacterial populations being reduced or removed due to antibiotics. These changes to the microbiome can leave us more susceptible to re-infection or infection from opportunistic pathogens, such as Candida, a species of fungus that may lead to the undesirable onset of symptoms such as thrush.
According to an article published in The Scientist, it can take anywhere from several months to a year for the normal composition of your microbiome to be restored after a course of antibiotics. If you do have to take antibiotics, make sure to increase the amount of probiotic foods you’re consuming and talk to your health practitioner about the best probiotic supplements to take.
The majority of foods we eat are processed in some way. For instance, flour is technically a processed food. In many instances, processing is an important technique that helps us to access the nutrients within food. However, we should always aim to eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. Ultra-processed foods are typically high in calories but low in nutrients as they contain high levels of sugar, fat, and salt. They may also include additives, such as sugar alternatives, that can be harmful to gut health. Alarmingly, ultra-processed foods are associated with a range of adverse health outcomes including inflammatory disorders, obesity and neurodegenerative conditions.
According to research, chronic stress is a risk factor for as much as 75-90% of all diseases. To support overall health it’s important to find ways to manage every day stress. However, the link between stress and gut health is also growing, with increasing evidence of a gut-brain axis. Stress can lead to changes in both the types (diversity) and numbers (abundance) of bacteria. These changes can have a knock-on effect via the gut-brain communication system also known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The stress response increases the amount of cortisol in the body and may impact digestion, or cause digestive distress (hello IBS). When we’re stressed, we’re also more likely to crave foods high in sugar, fat and salt that are calorie-dense without being nutrient-rich. The good news is that there are numerous effective natural remedies to reduce stress. Some of these include: