Ultimate Gut Health Guide: Signs, myths and how to improve your microbiome

Woman's Hands On Stomach

Are you noticing signs of poor gut health? Or maybe you’re not sure how to spot the potential symptoms of having issues with the trillions of bacteria that play a major role in your overall health.

The web is full of information about your gut health, and it can be overwhelming to figure out what's legit and what's not.  But don't worry, we’ve got you covered.

Let's dive into the world of healthy gut bacteria and discover some handy tips to boost your gut health, all here in our handy Smart Protein guide.

What is gut health and gut microbiome?

In simple terms, gut health refers to the overall health of your digestive tract.

Your gut is like the superstar of your gastrointestinal system, complete with your stomach, intestines, and colon; its mission is to digest and absorb all those fantastic nutrients from the food you eat, while politely excreting the waste.

Gut health means different things to different folks. Researchers, medical professionals, and the community all have their own ideas, but here at Smart Protein, we're all about that healthy gut microbiome and keeping those pesky digestive symptoms in check.

Now imagine this if you will; your large intestine is living it up with around 200 different species of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Together, they form your gut microbiome, a tag team ready to break down food and convert it into all those wonderful nutrients your body craves.

Some bacteria in your gut can contribute to certain diseases, while others are major-league beneficial and necessary for your health. The variety of bacteria in your gut is like a VIP badge indicating the health of your microbiome, so it's a good idea to keep it diverse and thriving.

The health of your gut impacts not only your physical well-being but also your mental health. It's a remarkable connection that should never be overlooked.

The foods you eat have a big say in the type of bacteria chilling in your digestive tract. So, making mindful choices can have both short-term and long-term effects on your gut microbiome environment.

Why is my gut microbiome important?

The microbiome (1), consisting of trillions of microorganisms, is responsible for aiding digestion and nutrient absorption, regulating bile and vitamin levels, and supporting the immune system.

The health of your gut acts as the foundation for your overall well-being, and researchers continue to explore the importance of the gut microbiome to bodily function and overall health.

Gut microbiome illustration
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An imbalanced gut microbiome has been linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes, IBS, and carcinoma. Research (2) has also suggested links between the gut microbiome, mental health, including depression, obesity, and cholesterol levels.

While we may not have all the answers about the gut microbiome, we do know that prioritising gut health has a profound effect on overall health, and taking steps towards improving your gut health is never a bad idea.

How does the gut microbiome affect my health?

The fascinating intricacy of the human gut microbiota and its immense significance to our overall health has become an increasingly researched topic in the medical community.

Numerous studies (3) conducted over the past few decades have unearthed intriguing connections between gut health and various aspects of our well-being, including:

  • The immune system
  • Mental health
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cancer

It has been observed that a higher level of diversity in gut bacteria may be linked to improved health. Though research continues to unfold, it is becoming evident that the health of your gut plays a pivotal role in multiple areas of your overall well-being.

What are the signs of poor gut health?

There are several key indicators of poor gut health, and these symptoms can manifest in various ways. 

Smart Tip: If you have any concerns, it's important to reach out to your GP for a proper diagnosis and personalised advice.

Keep an eye out for the following symptoms, as they may indicate poor gut health:

Upset stomach

An unhealthy gut can often manifest in various stomach disturbances, including:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Heartburn

When your gut is balanced and functioning optimally, it can process food more efficiently and eliminate waste effectively, which may result in fewer of these uncomfortable symptoms.

Sleep disturbances and chronic fatigue

Research (4) suggests that an imbalance in gut bacteria could potentially contribute to fragmented sleep and insufficient sleep duration, ultimately leading to chronic fatigue.

Although the precise cause of this association is yet to be fully understood, it seems to be linked to factors such as inflammation, metabolic function, and mental health.

Incorporating gut-friendly practices, such as maintaining a healthy diet, managing stress levels, and considering the use of probiotics, may offer potential benefits for both gut health and sleep quality.

High sugar diet

Consuming a diet that is largely composed of processed foods and added sugars can significantly reduce the amount of "healthy" bacteria and overall diversity in your gut microbiome.

Woman eating a high sugar doughnut
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Imbalances can increase inflammation throughout the body, which may, in turn, elevate your risk of developing several diseases, including cancer.

To maintain a robust and flourishing gut microbiome, it is essential to prioritise a balanced diet that is rich in whole, unprocessed foods and a variety of fibre-rich vegetables and fruits.

Food intolerances

Food intolerances occur when the body struggles to digest specific types of food. It is important to differentiate food intolerances from food allergies, as the latter involves an immune system response to particular foods.

Research (5) suggests that food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance, may stem from an imbalance or poor quality of gut bacteria. This can make it challenging for the body to properly digest these trigger foods, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
SmartTip: If you suspect that you have a food intolerance, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis. They can provide guidance on managing your symptoms and creating a suitable dietary plan.

Unintentional weight changes 

Experiencing unexplained weight gain or weight loss without any changes in diet or exercise patterns could potentially indicate an unhealthy gut. An imbalance in gut bacteria can disrupt the body's ability to absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar levels, and store fat efficiently.

Weight loss may be attributed to malabsorption, which can occur as a result of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. In this condition, excess bacteria in the small intestine interrupt the normal absorption of nutrients, leading to weight loss.

Illustration Showing Food In Digestive System
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Conversely, weight gain may be linked to insulin resistance or heightened inflammation, both of which can be influenced by an imbalanced gut. Insulin resistance can hinder the body's ability to regulate blood sugar effectively, potentially leading to weight gain.

Increased inflammation, another consequence of an imbalanced gut, can also contribute to weight gain.

Autoimmune disorders

Extensive research (6) has established a strong connection between the gut and the immune system. An unhealthy gut can contribute to systemic inflammation and disrupt the optimal functioning of the immune system.

When the gut is compromised, it can trigger an increase in inflammation throughout the whole body, which can have far-reaching effects on immune function.

This imbalance in the immune system can potentially lead to the development of autoimmune diseases, where the body mistakenly targets and attacks its own healthy cells and tissues instead of defending against harmful invaders.

How to Improve Gut Health Naturally

Achieving good gut health is indeed possible through various lifestyle and diet changes.

Incorporating dietary fibre into our meals can have a positive impact on gut health. Fibre helps regulate bowel movements, reduces the risk of bowel cancer, and serves as nourishment for the beneficial bacteria in our gut.

Including whole foods in our diet, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, can help prevent the growth of harmful bacteria associated with diseases and inflammation.

In addition to dietary adjustments, certain lifestyle factors play a role in maintaining a healthy gut. Regular physical activity, adequate sleep, and effective stress reduction techniques are beneficial for gut health.

These are our top tips for protecting the health of your gut microbiome:

Diet

The health of your gut acts as the foundation for your overall well-being, and researchers continue to explore the importance of the gut microbiome to bodily function and overall health.

An imbalanced gut microbiome has been linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes, IBS, and carcinoma, and there are also links between the gut microbiome, mental health, including depression, obesity, and cholesterol levels.

Let's take a look at the types of foods that are important for establishing a gut-healthy diet.

Eat fermented foods

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that reside in the gut and can be obtained from fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and yoghurt.

Including these naturally probiotic-rich foods in your diet can introduce helpful bacteria to your gut.

Jars Of Fermented Food For Gut Health
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Among the most prevalent types of beneficial bacteria are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, each with its own unique strains. These probiotics play a crucial role in promoting a balanced gut microbiome and safeguarding against chronic diseases.

Not only do probiotics contribute to gut health, but they also offer additional benefits. They can be helpful in managing diarrhoea, boost the immune system, and support the well-being of your heart and skin.

Some common probiotic foods you can try are:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Yogurt

Avoid processed foods

While it is difficult to find foods completely devoid of processing, opting for minimally processed foods is ideal.

These foods retain their nutritional value and generally lack added sugars, excessive sodium, unhealthy fats, and additives like emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners—all of which can potentially have negative effects on gut health.

By focusing on whole, unprocessed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, you can provide your body with essential nutrients while avoiding potentially harmful substances.

Additionally, opting for organic and locally-sourced foods can further limit exposure to pesticides and chemicals that may disrupt gut health.

Consume high-fibre foods

Scientific studies have shown that consuming foods high in fibre can have a positive effect on our gut health. Here are some examples of fibre-rich foods that can support a healthy gut:

Legumes, such as black beans and chickpeas, are excellent sources of fibre and can help promote a diverse and thriving gut microbiome.

Whole grains, like oats and quinoa, contain high amounts of fibre and can contribute to improved digestive health.

Vegetables, including broccoli and asparagus, are not only packed with essential nutrients but also provide a good amount of dietary fibre, supporting overall gut health.

Nuts like almonds and pistachios are not only delicious but also rich in fibre, making them a nutritious addition to a gut-friendly diet.

Fruits, such as apples and peaches, are natural sources of fibre and can assist in maintaining regularity and a healthy gut.

SmartTip: Incorporating these high-fibre and gut friendly foods into your diet can help nourish your gut and enhance overall well-being. Remember to introduce changes gradually and include a variety of fibre sources for optimal results.

Prioritise prebiotics

To cultivate a healthy balance of probiotic bacteria in the gut, it is essential to provide them with prebiotics, which serve as food sources to fuel their growth and multiplication.

However, don't let the scientific jargon intimidate you. Most prebiotics are naturally found in everyday foods like fruits and vegetables, so you won't find them listed as complex names on food labels.

Variety of Prebiotic Foods For Gut Health
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By consuming a variety of whole, unprocessed foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, you can provide the essential nutrients needed to promote the growth of probiotic bacteria in the gut.

Here are some more specific examples of prebiotics:

  • Leeks
  • Jerusalem Artichokes
  • Beans and Legumes
  • Raspberries
  • Garlic
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Pears
  • Watermelon

Eat foods rich in polyphenols 

Polyphenols, which are plant compounds, have been shown to have potential positive effects on our gut microbiome.

To increase your polyphenol intake, consider including the following foods in your diet:

  • Herbs and spices, such as rosemary, turmeric, and cinnamon, are excellent sources of polyphenols.
  • Colourful fruits and vegetables like berries, cherries, broccoli, and kale are not only packed with essential nutrients but also rich in polyphenols.
  • Nuts and seeds, including almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds, are great options for boosting polyphenol intake.
  • Green and black tea, which are derived from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, are known to contain high levels of polyphenols.
  • Coffee, when consumed in moderation, can also contribute to polyphenol intake.
  • Cocoa and dark chocolate with a high cocoa content are rich in polyphenols and can be enjoyed as a part of a balanced diet.

Incorporating these polyphenol-rich foods into your meal plans may help support a diverse gut microbiome and overall well-being.

Lifestyle factors

While consuming active cultures is beneficial, improving gut health goes beyond simply eating Greek yoghurt. Factors such as exercise, sleep, mindfulness, meditation, and other lifestyle habits also play a significant role in shaping gut health.

Here are some examples of how healthy lifestyle habits can influence the population and equilibrium of the gut microbiome:

Reduce and manage stress levels

Experiencing chronic high levels of stress can take a toll on your entire body, including your gut health. Implementing stress-reducing activities into your routine can help mitigate the negative impacts. Here are a few effective approaches:

Meditating: Allocating some time each day to practise mindful meditation can help calm the mind and reduce stress levels.

Walking: Engaging in regular exercise, such as walking, not only benefits your physical health but also enhances your mental well-being, which in turn positively impacts gut health.

Getting a massage: Treat yourself to a massage to relax muscles, release tension, and promote relaxation.

Spending time with loved ones: Nurturing your relationships and enjoying quality time with friends and family can provide emotional support and alleviate stress.

Diffusing essential oils: Certain essential oils, like lavender or chamomile, have calming properties and can help create a soothing environment.

Limiting alcohol consumption: Excessive alcohol intake can worsen stress levels, so it is advisable to consume alcohol in moderation or avoid it altogether.

Laughing: Laughter is indeed a fantastic stress reliever. Watch a comedy show, spend time with funny friends, or engage in activities that bring joy and laughter into your life.

Practising yoga: This ancient practice combines physical movement, mindfulness, and deep breathing to reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Spending time with a pet: Interacting with animals and enjoying their companionship can significantly reduce stress levels and improve overall well-being.

Eat slowly and mindfully

One of the simplest yet crucial ways to support healthy digestion and maintain good gut health is by adopting mindful eating habits.

It may sound straightforward, but in our fast-paced lives, many of us find ourselves consuming food on the go or hastily devouring meals while multitasking, such as watching TV.

Man Eating And Looking At Cellphone
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Choosing to eat mindfully and consistently can make a significant difference in nurturing your gut health. Here are some tips to follow:

Take your time: Slow down and savour each bite. Eating slowly allows your body to properly digest and absorb the nutrients from your food.

Moderate portion sizes: Practice portion control by being mindful of the amount of food you consume. Pay attention to your body's hunger and fullness cues.

Stick to regular meal times: Establish a routine by eating meals at consistent times throughout the day. This helps regulate digestion and supports optimal gut functioning.

Minimise distractions: Avoid eating in front of screens or engaging in other distractions while eating. Instead, focus on the food in front of you to appreciate flavours and promote mindful eating.

Limit your alcohol intake

Excessive alcohol consumption can have detrimental effects on your gut microbiome. Repeated alcohol use has been linked to gastritis, causing inflammation of the gut, which can result in heartburn, chronic discomfort, ulcers, and bacterial infections.

Moreover, drinking in excess is associated with intestinal inflammation, indicating an unhealthy gut. Research indicates that this inflammation disrupts the balance and functionality of the microbiota.

To support a healthy gut microbiome, it is advisable to moderate alcohol intake and consume it in moderation, if at all.

Exercise regularly

Physical activity is not only beneficial for various aspects of our health but also for our gut microbiome. Both animal and human studies have demonstrated that exercise promotes an increase in the diversity of healthy bacteria in the gut.

Numerous studies have emphasised the combined effects of exercise and diet on gut health. However, a 2019 review (7) specifically highlighted that exercise has the potential to independently influence the composition and functionality of gut bacteria, regardless of diet.

The researchers observed that longer workouts and high-intensity aerobic training had the most significant impact on increasing gut bacteria diversity and promoting overall well-being. 

Myths about gut health

As we learn more about gut health, there is a greater interest in figuring out how to take better care of our gut.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of misinformation about gut health, giving rise to inaccurate beliefs or myths.  

Myth: The only factor that affects gut health is what you eat.

Fact: While diet does play a significant role in gut health, other factors such as stress, sleep, and physical activity can also have a profound impact on your gut health. Adopting a well-rounded approach that encompasses multiple lifestyle factors is the best way to nurture and maintain a healthy and thriving gut ecosystem.

Myth: A gluten-free diet is necessary for optimal gut health.

Fact: Unless you have coeliac disease, removing gluten from your diet is not essential. Gluten-containing whole grains provide essential nutrients and fibre that promote a healthy gut.

Myth: All bacteria in the gut are harmful.

Fact: The gut contains trillions of bacteria, both beneficial and potentially harmful. Many beneficial bacteria support digestion and overall gut health. Therefore, it is more important to maintain a favourable balance of bacteria rather than eliminating all bacteria.

Myth: Detoxes and cleanses are excellent for promoting gut health.

Fact: Several detox diets and cleanses that claim to "reset" the gut are not scientifically backed. The human body has a natural detoxification process, and extreme dietary restrictions can disrupt the gut microbiome, ultimately leading to nutrient deficiencies.

Myth: Antibiotics don't harm the gut microbiome.

Fact: Antibiotics have the potential to disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut, ultimately resulting in digestive issues. It is recommended to use antibiotics judiciously and consider supplementing with probiotics during and after antibiotic treatment to replace the lost beneficial bacteria.

A healthy gut is the result of a holistic approach that encompasses multiple lifestyle factors, including diet, stress management, sleep quality, and physical activity.

SmartTip: Incorporating whole grains, maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria, avoiding extreme dietary restrictions, and using antibiotics cautiously are key steps towards nurturing and sustaining a healthy gut.

Guard your gut the Smart way

Smarten up your health, start happier habits and help your body make the most of the good stuff from food with Gut Daily.

We’ve combined digestive enzymes and vitamin D to feed the microorganisms that live in your gut and help keep your tummy in tip-top condition, so you can keep your lifestyle balanced and your digestion doing the most.

Sources

Smart Protein is committed to sourcing only the best and scientifically-backed research in our articles.

1. Ncbi:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3983973/

2. Ncbi:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4425030/

3. Ncbi:

https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6682904/

4. Pubmed:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32668369/

5. BMJ:

https://gut.bmj.com/content/71/1/215

6. Taylor & Francis Online:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17474124.2018.1517044

7. Pubmed:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28357027/

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