Doctors refer to the gut as our ‘second brain’, and your gut health could be the reason you’re suffering from mood swings, low energy levels and weight gain.
The gut is the most active organ in the body and never rests. While it’s processing a meal, the gut is also sending signals to the brain through the 100 million nerve cells it contains. This means that the gut is constantly talking to the brain, and vice versa. Cells lining the gut also produce 95% of the so-called feel-good chemical serotonin. This means our moods can also affect our gut, causing diarrhoea or constipation.
And because of this ‘chatter’, new research suggests that the gut has a bigger influence on our wellbeing and weight than we might have previously realised.
How your gut works
A meal that takes only minutes to eat can take up to two days to digest. Your digestive tract is around 30 feet long and, during the journey from the oesophagus to the colon, the gut extracts every last bit of goodness from your food.
By the time you leave the dining table, your meal is already being broken down by acid in the stomach and churned around like laundry in a washing machne. From here it goes into the small intenstine, where it’s mixed with six litres of digestive, enzymes, water and bile.
By now, that meal has been reduced to a fairly liquid pulp and the nutrients broken down in to tiny molecules. These are small enough to be absorbed through the gut wall and into the bloodstream, where they can be used by the body as needed.
What remains is carried on to the colon, the tumble dryer of the body, which sucks out the water before the waste is expelled. It’s a complex process, and if any one part goes wrong, it can have major implications for your health.
We asked health experts Dr Subramaniam Ramakirshnan (a Consultant Gastorenterologist), Dr Nick Read (a Gastorenterologist and chair of the IBS Network) and Justin and Erica Sonnenburg (leading researchers in microbology and immunology at Stanford University and authors of ‘The Good Gut’ (Penguin Press) to share those everyday habits that help your gut stay healthy…
The pace at which your gut digests food is slow, but we so often rush our meals and snacks. Bolting food means swallowing a lot of air, which causes bloating. Often people think they have a problem with certain foods, when in fact they just eat too fast.
Try chewing each mouthful thoroughly – swallowing large pieces of unchewed food means the stomach has to work harder. Pause between mouthfuls and savour the aroma of foods to get your saliva flowing before you tuck in.
Watch your fat intake
Fatty foods, along with acidic and spicy foods, can trigger heartburn. It’s caused by muscles around the top of the stomach loosening. Normally, they only relax to let food in and then tighten to stop food and acid getting out. However, fatty foods, alcohol and smoking can cause these muscles to loosen, allowing acid to escape up the oesophagus, which is what causes the burning sensation.
Stop with anti-bacterial spray
Our gut is teeming with microbes which keep the gut healthy. Each time we reach for the hand santiser we’re not just killing off the bad microbes, like E-Coli, but also the middle-ranging and good microbes which work hard to boost our immunity and fight off infection.
If everything that we come in to contact with is too clean, our ability to fight infection becomes compromised.
“Current knowledge indicates that most of us could benefit our immune system by increasing our exposure [to germs]”, the Sonnenburgs say.
Eat a little less
One study found that gaining ten pounds increased the symptoms of heartburn by 40 per cent.
Try to stop eating as soon as the edge goes from your hunger. It takes the brain a few minutes to register fullness, so pausing allows time for hunger pangs to subside.
Also, ensure fat makes up no more than 10% of meals. Swap to skimmed or semi-skimmed milk and try dry-frying or grilling rather than using oil.
A sluggish, inactive lifestyle can lead to a sluggish gut. Food and waste moves along the gut thanks to the contraction of muscles in the gut wall (called peristalsis). But a lack of physical activity can slow down the process.
Aim for 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity, 5 or more times a week.
Feed your gut
The bacteria in your gut, which protect you from bugs and help to digest food, need feeding themselves. Choose wholegrains, oats and cereals, which will also ensure you have adequate fibre in your diet.
Adults need on average 18g of fibre per day. A portion of wholewheat pasta contains 9g, but a slice of white bread is only 0.8g versus wholemeal, which is 1.9g.
Try adding gut-friendly fermented foods to your plate too. Miso paste, sauerkraut and natural yoghurt have already started the digestion process, and interact with the microbes, so your gut doesn’t have to work as hard to break them down.
Drink, even when you are not thirsty
Constipation is a big problem in this country. That is partly due to a lack of fibre in our diet, and partly to do with how little fluid many people drink.
Remember, a cup of tea here and there is not enough. Without ample water, waste matter becomes dry and is harder to push through the colon – the last part of the gut.
Drink a glass of water or diluted fruit juice every two to three hours, irrespective of whether you feel thirsty. When you feel thirsty, it means you are already mildly dehydrated.