The growing interest in the human gut is steadily on the rise - and for good reason. While there's much undiscovered about our fascinating world within, one thing is for sure - it's no simple internal plumbing system! To learn more about this fascinating topic, I delve into some simple introductory points on gut health below with Dr Megan Rossi.
Our gut is a cornerstone of good health for numerous reasons. It plays a starring role in the digestion and absorption of nutrients from the foods we eat; it removes waste from the body; and of course houses our famed gut bacteria, who are proving to be great pals to have inhabiting within…more to come soon.
I find this area of nutrition ridiculously intriguing, and can’t wait for research to further unfold and its practical applications to good health.
Someone who is dedicating themselves to the cause is the incredible Dr Megan Rossi, who is an expert in gut health – and I’m so pleased to have interviewed her recently for the blog.
As a brief introduction. Dr Megan is a Registered Dietitian with an award-winning PhD in Gut Health. Megan works as a Research Associate at King’s College London, a Consultant Dietitian across the food industry and media, and leads a gut health clinic on Harley Street in London. She is currently working on an exciting international gut health project – with an announcement to come in the future!
She’s pretty rad! Read on for our Q+A on all things gut health.
To Kick Off…
Our gut is a pretty nifty organ – what is its main purpose? How do bacteria come into play?
Our digestive system, aka the gut, is by far the most fascinating organ in the body! Okay, so I may be a tad bias given this is the focus of my work, but our gut is not only 9 metres long, with a surface area thirty times that of the skin, but it’s home to trillions of microorganisms (including bacteria). In fact, if you were to count all the cells in the human body, we actually contain more bacteria cells than human cells!
Most of these microbes live in our large intestine (also known as the colon) and collectively we as scientists refer to them as our ‘gut microbiota’. This community of microbes is capable of thousands of different functions – they help digest our food, produce certain vitamins and minerals, are crucial for our immune system…the list is extensive. In fact, we probably couldn’t survive without them.
What is the difference between a probiotic and prebiotic? Can you provide some examples of each?
Simply speaking, PRO-biotics are live beneficial bacteria and yeast, and PRE-biotics are food for the beneficial bacteria. When combined together they’re known as SYN-biotics because of their synergistic effects (prebiotics + probiotics = synbiotics).
Both prebiotics and probiotics can be found naturally in a range of foods, including:
– Prebiotics: artichokes, onion, garlic, asparagus and leeks
– Probiotics: some yoghurts (must say live active cultures), kefir (a fermented milk drink), kombucha (a fermented sweet tea), kimchi (fermented cabbage) and natto (fermented bean).
It is also worth noting that some probiotics are dietary fibre, but not all fibres are prebiotics – confusing, I know!
The theory behind prebiotics and probiotics is that if we consume more of them, we can increase the proportion of ‘good’ bugs in our gut, that are associated with health. In saying this, it is important to remember that this research is is in its infancy – there is still so much we don’t understand.
Gut issues and poor digestive health are becoming increasingly common – what are some possible factors that may impact gut health?
Digestive symptoms affect as many as one in three of us. There are many factors that are thought to contribute including eating too fast, our stress levels, high intakes of low-calorie sweeteners, high intakes of caffeine and alcohol.
These triggers can all affect how our gut functions, including how the muscles contract and the speed of gut transit (or how quickly food travels through your gut).
It is very easy to get overwhelmed by the vast amount of conflicting information available on health, particularly online. If someone has a suspected gut issue, what steps would you recommend they pursue?
This is actually one of the reasons why I started on social media – I wanted to help combat the myths and confusion surrounding gut health.
If you have bothersome gut symptoms, the first thing you should do is visit your GP to rule out more serious conditions, such as coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer. This is because gut symptoms can mask these conditions and if left untreated they can have very serious consequences. Once these are ruled out by blood and poop tests, your GP will consider whether you meet the criteria for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This includes having tummy pain at least one day a week for the past three months, as well as some issues with your stools (e.g. too often, too little, too soft, too hard…).
If you have IBS the good news is that diet can help! I recommend you see a dietician to discuss the different dietary options.
We’re all about food on the blog – now that we understand the role prebiotics and probiotics have in diet and gut health, do you have any other recommended dietary tips?
1. Eat a varied diet rich in fibre. This includes plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Tip: gradually increase your fibre intake and ensure you drink enough water at the same time, as fibre needs fluid to work.
2. As discussed above, try fermented foods with probiotics. Some foods naturally contain good bacteria – these come at no extra cost, and taste great e.g. kefir, kimchi, natto
3. Drink alcohol and caffeine in moderation. Alcohol irritates the digestive tract and can alter the bacterial balance in our gut, while caffeine increases stress hormones which can lead to anxiety-induced gut symptoms in some people.
Beyond food what are lifestlye tips that you would recommend to someone looking at maximising and supporting their gut health?
1. Avoid unnecessary medications. Certain types of painkillers and antibiotics can aggravate gut problems and disrupt your gut microbiota.
2. Stop smoking. Cigarette smoking adversely affects gut bacteria.
3. Chew your food well. Digestion starts in the mouth and chewing your food well plays an important part.
4. De-stress and sleep well. There’s a direct link between your brain and gut. Being stressed and tired can profoundly affect your gut health.
5. Exercise regularly. Exercise helps to regulate bowel habits, particularly those prone to constipation. It is also associated with greater microbe diversity.
6. Avoid excessively tight clothes. Placing external pressure on you gut can aggravate symptoms.
7. Known when to seek medical advice. Gut symptoms can mask underlying disease. Alarm features include: unexplained weight loss, anaemia or rectal bleeding; family hisotry of cealic disease, bowel cancer or ovarian cancer; and aged >60 years with changes in bowel habits lasting more than 6 weeks.