Are fermented foods worth the hype?
Best foods for a happy gut - and why you need them now
Our guts are amazing. Most of us don't spend much time thinking about this important organ yet good gut function is crucial for maintaining optimum health. Recent years have seen an abundance of research into the gut microbiome (the trillions of micro-organisms that live in our gut) and the impact they have on physical and possibly even mental health. So how can we keep our digestive systems happy and healthy?
"Our digestive system is the only way we can access the nutrients needed by every cell in our bodies," explains Sophie Medlin, Consultant Dietitian at CityDietitians. "We need to keep our gut functioning as well as possible to access nutrition for the food we need. Also because of close links between gut and brain, when the gut isn't functioning well it can affect how we feel."
If you want to help get your gut in tip-top shape, the first place to look to is diet. What we eat can have a big impact on digestive function and ultimately how we feel.
Get gut fit with fibre
When we want to improve our gut function, the first port of call should be fibre: "Fibre is like a personal trainer for the gut. It helps to exercise the gut muscles and keep things running smoothly," says Kaitlin Colucci, specialist dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. "Fibre-rich food such as beans, pulses, lentils, nuts and seeds help to feed the trillions of gut bacteria living in our large intestine. The microbiota break down fibre through fermentation, producing things like fatty acids that help heart and kidney health. The roughage left over forms the bulk of our stool."
A good dose of fibre (30 g a day) is essential for ensuring our digestive tract has what it needs to function well. "The best way to ensure you get enough fibre is to eat as many 'plants' as possible," advises Medlin. "This doesn't mean cutting out meat, but ensuring we have plenty of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, nuts and seeds in our diet." There are lots of small, easy changes you can make to your diet to up your fibre intake.
When to be wary about fibre
There are two main types of fibre - soluble and insoluble. You may find - especially if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) - that foods high in insoluble fibre make bloating and wind worse. This can be a particular issue if you have diarrhoea as a symptom of your IBS. If so, try increasing your soluble fibre intake rather than insoluble.
Alternatively, explore how you could increase the fibre in your diet with low-FODMAPS foods. However, do be aware that a low-FODMAPS diet can be quite restrictive, and if you're planning to reduce or cut out large numbers of foods from your diet, you should do so under the supervision of a dietitian.
All about the bacteria
We've all heard of the friendly bacteria that live in our gut, but it would be easy to assume buying a special bacteria-rich drink should be all we need to maintain healthy digestion. In reality, a varied diet should include both probiotic foods - which help to repopulate the live bacteria in our gut - and prebiotics, which help to feed these bacteria.
Taking on probiotics doesn't necessarily mean purchasing specialist drinks. There are many foods which have probiotic qualities and can help increase the range of good bacteria in the gut.
For example, kefir is a fermented milk drink, with a similar taste to yoghurt, which is packed with vitamins and minerals. It can improve digestion and reduce inflammation in the body. "Try making a smoothie with fruit and kefir to help aid digestion," suggests Medlin.
Live yoghurt can also help to increase friendly bacteria. "All live yoghurts will have these bacteria, so you don't necessarily have to buy one of the branded versions," says Colucci. "The only advice is to avoid sugary ones - check the label as some of these yoghurts can contain corn syrup or glucose syrup that has been linked to insulin resistance and diabetes."
Probiotics can also be found in a range of non-diary sources, such as pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi (fermented cabbage products), tempeh (a fermented soy-based food) and artichokes. "Artichokes are highly fermentable," says Colucci. "The more of these types of food we eat the better for our gut. You can buy tinned or jarred artichokes - usually in oil - and they keep for ages. Add them to salad, put them on a pizza or use in a sandwich."
Whereas probiotics help to improve the diversity of gut bacteria, prebiotic foods feed the bacteria and help them to thrive. Most plant-based foods have prebiotic qualities - so eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds is a great way to maintain a healthy digestive tract.
When it comes to consuming plants in our diet, variety is also important. In a study, "those who ate more than 30 different 'plant points' per week had more diverse gut microbiome than those who ate fewer than ten," says Colucci.
We get a 'plant point' for each different plant-based food we eat over the course of a week. This includes whole grains, nuts and seeds, as well as any vegetables and fruit we may consume. Even herbs and spices get ¼ of a point in your plant points count-up.
Aiming to eat 30 different 'plant points' over the course of a week may seem a high bar, but simply varying your diet and choosing different fruits and vegetables should go a long way towards providing the variety needed to help your good bacteria thrive.
One excellent 'plant point' food is the humble oat which is a great source of prebiotics, and also has plenty of fibre. "Oats are high in soluble fibre which in the gut absorbs water which helps to create a bulky, soft poo that is easy to pass," says Colucci. "Oats also have additional benefits such as helping to reduce blood cholesterol. It doesn't matter if you consume them raw or cooked, but ideally avoid consuming them as part of a sugary cereal."
And for extra benefit, try sprinkling a few chia seeds on to your daily bowl. "Porridge sprinkled with chia seeds is an excellent way to aid digestion and help to support a healthy microbiome," says Medlin.
Other great prebiotic foods include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, apples and wheat bran.
A digestive boost
As well as keeping those bacteria thriving, if you're suffering from particular symptoms such as bloating or constipation, it might be worth trying some of the following natural solutions.
As well as helping rack up those plant points, kiwi fruit may help to keep your digestive system regular. "A recent clinical trial showed that kiwi can help to manage constipation. During the trial, people who ate two kiwis a day found symptoms of constipation were relieved," says Colucci. So if you're looking to give your digestive system a boost, try adding a couple of these to your daily diet.
Ginger can be useful for digestion - and can be consumed in a number of different ways. "You can use it in curry, or even in biscuits," says Colucci. "It's good for alleviating nausea, which you may experience if you suffer from constipation or bloating.”
Peppermint oil, which can be purchased at chemists or health food shops can be really useful for relieving periods of poor digestion. "Peppermint oil is antispasmodic and can relax gut muscles," says Colucci. "This can help to alleviate abdominal cramping, bloating and flatulence. Try taking peppermint capsules before meals to help with these symptoms.
"Although peppermint oil can be taken long-term. I usually recommend a period of four weeks," adds Colucci. Other dietary changes may mean cramping and bloating can be relieved without this additional supplement.
As well as consuming the right foods, it's important to look at our liquid intake too. "Fluid really helps the dietary fibre to work, in supporting gut motility and the rate it moves through," says Colucci. "Without sufficient fluid, fibre has nothing to absorb, and it can cause stools to become dry and hard. Ideally we should be taking in 1-1.5 litres a day - this can include up to three cups of ordinary tea/coffee (more than this can mean excess caffeine which may have a diuretic effect), herbal tea, decaffeinated drinks, diluted fruit drinks and water."
Slow it down
Finally, to improve digestion further, it may be time to look at the way we eat our food. "Digestion starts in the mouth," says Colucci. "It's really important to chew your food effectively and take your time when you're eating. When you eat too fast it creates a lot of work for your gut, and you swallow a lot of air as well."
Rather than counting the number of chews and taking the pleasure out of eating entirely, Colucci recommends a simple exercise. "Try putting knife and fork down between each mouthful and chewing, swallowing before picking up again."
Alternatively timing overall mealtime can be effective. "Without thinking too long, time how long it takes to eat a meal, then the next time we eat that meal try to add an extra minute on to that mealtime. Ideally consuming our main meal should take a minimum of 15 minutes."
When to see the doctor
Changes to your bowel habits or digestion may occur if you change your diet . However, if we experience regular bloating, indigestion, excess flatulence, constipation, or diarrhoea, it's important to talk to a GP or pharmacist to rule out digestive disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease or irritable bowel syndrome.
A change in your bowel habit associated with unintentional weight loss, loss of appetite, blood or black, tarry stools should be checked out even more urgently.
Consuming enough fibre and feeding our gut biome, eating well and ensuring variety could do wonders for our digestion. And a happy digestive system is the bedrock of a healthy, happy body.