Think you know everything there is to know about gut health? Here are four things that might surprise you about your digestive system, courtesy of TV’s Dr Zoe Williams.
Gut health has been high on everyone’s radar for a while now, and there’s certainly lots of information out there, so it’s easy to think there’s nothing new to learn. But the gut is the largest endocrine organ in the body, and research conducted by Activia revealed a serious lack of understanding when it comes to what the gut’s role is, how it functions and how we can look after it. It found that although 82% of adults agree it’s important to look after this part of the body, nearly half (47%) didn’t know where to start when it comes to their gut health.
So, we asked NHS GP, gut expert and TV doctor Dr Zoe Williams for her top four things that people don’t know about gut health – but should.
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THE GUT ISN’T JUST AN ORGAN, IT’S A WHOLE SYSTEM
“So many of us just don’t know where to start when thinking about gut health,” Dr Williams tells Stylist. “Many people think of the gut as simply the intestines when, in fact, it’s a shortened term for the gastrointestinal tract, comprising the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, large and small intestines, rectum and anus. It’s one continuous tube, literally running the whole length of the body.”
If you’re relatively gut-savvy, you’re probably aware of the term microbiome, referring to the trillions of microorganisms living in our large intestine, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. And while a healthy microbiome is key to great gut health, being aware of the scale of the gut (not simply the microbiome) is an important step in appreciating how a holistic approach can benefit overall gut health.
Most people think of the gut as simply the intestines, when in fact, it’s a shortened term for the gastrointestinal tract
THE BODY CAN’T DIGEST FIBRE
“While we know that fibre is crucial for the health of our gut, the body can’t actually digest fibre – it travels straight through to the large intestine, creating bulk and helping the gut to expel waste,” explains Dr Williams. “And while we cannot digest fibre, our gut microbes can. They break down, or ferment, dietary fibre, producing beneficial compounds which are sent all around the body, from our brain and skin to our heart and kidneys.
“When these little organisms are well fed, they multiply, meaning you’ll have more of the good ones in your gut. Good sources of fibre include wholegrains, legumes, fruit and vegetables.”
It’s vital to ensure a regular intake of fibre in the diet, and we should aim for at least 30g each day. Along with benefitting our microbiome, a high-fibre diet has been linked to a lower risk of stroke, heart disease, bowel cancer and type 2 diabetes.
HAVING A PET IS GREAT FOR YOUR GUT
Good news for animal lovers – having a pet can be beneficial for gut health. Yes, you read that right. Pet owners have been shown to have healthier microbiota, and a lower risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. This could be down to being exposed to different types of bacteria in the home, the likelihood that pet owners (and dog owners in particular) are more active or simply that pets are proven to be great for mental health.
“Stress has a huge impact on gut health,” says Dr Williams. “The gut-brain axis is well-known, and the chronic, low-level stress of modern life influences our gut health in so many ways. Owning a pet can reduce our stress levels, and therefore yes, it can benefit our gut health.”
Quick – add this to your list of reasons to get a puppy, now.
IT’S NOT DIFFICULT TO IMPROVE YOUR MICROBIOME
It sounds complicated, but in actual fact, it doesn’t take long to improve your gut health. Unlike most other changes we make for health benefits, such as exercising more or overhauling our diets, improving our gut microbiome isn’t complicated and doesn’t take long to see benefits.
“Diversity is the key here. If you’re aiming to include at least 30 plant species in your diet each week, it may only take a few weeks for there to be a noticeable improvement in your gut health,” advises Dr Williams. “It doesn’t have to be complicated to adjust and improve our microbiota, and your body will thank you. It can also help to support immunity – up to 70% of our immune cells are housed in our gut – improving gut health, and skin health among other benefits.”
And if 30 sounds like a lot, don’t worry – you probably already eat a lot of these without even realising it. Coffee, onions, garlic, bananas, tea and dark chocolate all contain nutrients which help feed and fuel our friendly bacteria, and including fermented foods, such as yoghurt, kimchi or sauerkraut, can also play a role in supporting good gut health.
So, there you have it – eat more plants and get a pet. Your body will thank you for it.