Gut instinct, listen to your gut, gut feeling… Our language is peppered with references to our digestive system and the importance of listening to what it is telling us. But how many of us actually do pay attention to our gut and what it’s trying to say?

It’s World Digestive Health Day so what better time to pause for a few minutes and think about your amazing and often-ignored gut?

Importance of digestive health

In years gone by our gut was considered a simple body system through which food simply travelled from our mouth to our anus, with nutrients being absorbed along the way. Now, however, we realise things are a bit more complex than that.

Researchers have shown that there is a link between our digestive health and our mental health, our mood and our immune system, as well as linking gut health to certain diseases such as autoimmune conditions, endocrine disorders and even cancer.

The gut microbiome

Your digestive system plays a far greater role in your overall health and wellbeing than our predecessors could possibly have imagined. You may have heard the expression “gut microbiome”. This refers to the billions of different microorganisms that live in your intestines.

In fact, the bacteria in a human gut can weigh over 4lb! While some of these are harmful to our health, many are beneficial and scientists have come to realise that we depend on the right balance of gut bacteria to have a healthy body and mind. Having a wide variety of good gut bacteria can improve your immune system, help combat obesity and even reduce symptoms of depression.

Signs of poor gut health

So, how can you spot the difference between a healthy gut and an unhealthy one? Here are some of the signs that might indicate your gut is not as healthy as it could be:

  • Stomach upset – when your gut is out of balance it can have problems processing and eliminating food. You might experience heartburn, diarrhoea, constipation or gas.
  • Sugar cravings – eating too much refined sugar damages your gut and reduces the amount of good bacteria. High levels of sugars such as high-fructose corn syrup have been found to increase inflammation in your body. Inflammation is associated with an increased risk of many serious diseases including cancer.
  • Fluctuating weight – we’re not talking about following a calorie-controlled diet and losing weight, but gaining or losing weight unintentionally without having altered your diet. An unhealthy gut becomes less efficient at absorbing nutrients or regulating blood sugar. Weight loss may be due to overgrowth of small intestinal bacteria whereas weight gain may be caused by insulin resistance or poor absorption of nutrients.
  • Fatigue – this can be due to sleep disturbance caused by an unhappy gut. Scientists also know that serotonin, the hormone that affects mood and sleep is produced in the gut.

Eating for gut health

If you think you may have an unhealthy gut, eating a healthy balanced diet can help to improve your good bacteria and so improve gut health. This includes:

  • Eating plenty of plant-based foods – fruit and vegetables – and avoiding highly processed foods.
  • Eating more fibre.
  • Eating probiotic foods such as live yoghurt that can encourage the growth of gut microbes.
  • Use extra-virgin olive oil which contains high levels of polyphenols which support good bacteria.

If you are concerned about your symptoms or have had them for more than a few weeks talk to a doctor as gastrointestinal symptoms can be linked to a range of serious conditions including Inflammatory Bowel Disease and sometimes bowel cancer.

Working with a specialist that can promptly diagnose and monitor your symptoms, will give you the best chance to get back to feeling your best.