If you’re suffering from mood swings, repeat bouts of cold and flu or can’t lose weight, it could all be down your gut health and an imbalance in your gut bacteria, brought on by your daily lifestyle habits, says Sharon Walker
There a big buzz around gut health right now and with good reason. Micro-organisms in our gut secrete all sort of chemicals needed for a healthy mind and body. Scientists estimate that we have approximately 100 trillion different bacteria – collectively known as the microbiome or microbiota – in our guts and say that maintaining a healthy balance is essential.
Most of us have heard how antibiotics aren’t great for gut health, since they destroy friendly bacteria along with the bad and that too much sugar sends the bad bacteria into a feeding frenzy, leading to issues like an over-growth of candida, but there are other seemingly innocent daily habits that can have a negative effect on our biome.
there is a strong link between the health of bacteria in our gut and a huge range of health issues
‘When we do the wrong things it can end up depleting the good sources and that lets the bad bacteria thrive’, explains nutritional therapist Jeanette Hyde, author of the Gut Health Makeover, who also runs healthy gut retreats in Menorca. This is important since experts believe there is a strong link between the health of bacteria in our gut and a huge range of health issues from IBS, to anxiety and depression and even migraine and dementia.
Studies show that certain prebiotic foods like fruits and vegetables, fermented foods like sauerkraut, full-fat yogurt and prebiotic supplements like Bimuno can also create a healthier biome and help off-set damaging habits.
But it’s also a good idea to dial down bad gut habits to protect our health – so what are the bad habits to be aware of and what should we do instead?
Your G&T nightcap
Recent research by the British Gut Project shows that spirits are bad for gut health, but it’s not all bad news as it also found that red wine can be beneficial. ‘It’s a mixed pattern,’ says Dr Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, who is leading the project. ‘Spirits are definitely bad, red wine is good and the jury is out on beer’.
Wine’s benefits are down to polyphenols, the top class anti-oxidants which you can also find in artisanal ciders, which feed the microbiome, increasing the diversity of microbes, says Professor Spector. In fact red wine is better for the microbiome than grape juice, which also contains polyphenols, so alcohol plus fruit is good. Just stick to glass rather than a bottle.
Your midnight snack
‘Longer breaks between meals help your microbes,’ says Professor Spector, who suggests skipping breakfast one or two days a week, or opting for a later Sunday brunch, to give your digestive tract a chance to regenerate.
If you only sleep a few hours then get up to raid the fridge it will throw out the natural balance. ‘Different microbes come out at night and tidy up the gut lining,’ says Professor Spector, author of The Diet Myth, Orion, £6.29.
Your non-dairy milk
If you’re cutting out dairy to help tackle bloating and abdominal pain, you might want to check the label on that ‘healthy’ nut milk before you slosh it into your porridge, says Hyde.
‘Emulsifiers are like adding soap to our gut bacteria,’ says Hyde.
As with alcohol, when it comes to gut health, not all nut milks are created equal with many brands of non-dairy milks adding emulsifiers to stop the milks separating. ‘Emulsifiers are like adding soap to our gut bacteria,’ says Hyde. Some studies have shown that emulsifiers are really bad news for the gut microbiome, so it’s worth checking the label.
We’re encouraged to use anti-bacterial mouth wash to tackle bad breath and improve dental health but commercial mouthwashes hurt our oral flora and they’re not even great for teeth, according to some dentists, who say we need a finely tuned balanced mouth microbiome to head off decay. When your oral microbiome is off balance there’s a good chance your gut microbiome will be off balance too because they directly influence one another, says Dr Steve Linn, author of The Dental Diet.
Since in most cases bad breath is caused by an overgrowth of harmful flora in the mouth, cut out smoking and alcohol which both deplete our healthy oral flora and rinse your mouth with salt water, which can prevent the build-up of infectious bacteria; drinking green tea is another great way to temporarily reduce bad breath, according to research.
Your desk job
It’s no surprise that sitting hunched over your desk all day in front of a screen is bad for stress levels and posture, but did you know it could also be a risk for IBS and other gut problems? ‘Some people are sitting at a desk for up to 12 hours a day but you we need to move for the good bacteria to thrive,’ says Hyde. ‘The movement triggers the short chain fatty acids which keeps the gut lining healthy.’
Hyde recommends ‘movement snacking’ getting up from your desk once an hour to spend two or three minutes moving around. If you work at home keep a skipping rope in your desk drawer or break out the jumping jacks on the hour. While for those who work in an office the stairs are a great place for a ‘movement snack’ without your colleagues thinking you’ve gone bonkers.
‘movement triggers the short chain fatty acids which keeps the gut lining healthy.’
‘I work with people who’ve suffered from IBS for years and tried all sorts of remedies, but after a couple of weeks just going up and down the stairs, they feel so much better and are more mentally alert too,’ says Hyde.
You might think it’s a quick way to freshen breath or even stave of hunger pangs, but your gum habit could be playing havoc with your digestive juices, leading to an over-production of stomach acid, says Healthista’s nutritional director Rick Hay.
‘When you chew it sends a signal to the stomach to expect food and the digestive juices get going, but then there’s nothing to digest. It’s like turning on a tap but there’s nothing to switch it off, which has a negative effect on our gut bacteria,’ says Hay. Chewing gum can also lead to swallowing excess air which can add to bloating and IBS symptoms.
It hardly seems like the biggest health crime, but juicing isn’t great for gut health says Hyde. The problem here is we’re removing nearly all the fibre, which is precisely the thing we need for good bacteria to thrive. ‘You take all these fruit and veg and drill them all down and you’re left with a big bucket of fibrous stuff which you chuck it in the bin,’ says Hyde, ‘but that’s the most beneficial bit.’ For a more gut-friendly option try eating whole fruits and vegetables, or opt for a smoothie instead.
Checking social media in bed
According to research by Travelodge, 70% of us send a Tweet last thing at night, while 20% of us scroll through of our news feeds in bed for up to 16 minutes and this is affecting our sleep patterns, with most of us only clocking up 6 hours 21 minutes a night, 1 hour 39 minutes short of the recommended eight hours.
Not great for our powers of concentration but possibly not ideal for gut health either as research shows a good night’s sleep benefits our gut bacteria. ‘We know that people who sleep badly can end up with gut dysbiosis or imbalance in the gut and so it follows that by looking after our sleep we could improve our gut bacteria and vice versa,’ says Hay.
Eating the same things every day
Porridge for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch, salmon and boiled potatoes for supper, sounds good to us, but even the healthiest foods aren’t great for your gut if eat the same things day in and day out. ‘We’re all creatures of habit but eating the same things every day it’s not great for gut health,’ says Hyde. ‘It’s important to have variety in your diet because different families of bacteria thrive and grow on different foods.’
Hyde suggests aiming for 30 different foods every week. A lot when you consider most of us only eat 15 or less. But it’s easier than you think. ‘When you go to Pret to pick up your oat porridge and take the seed mix to sprinkle on top one day and then take the raspberry puree the next,’ says Hyde.
Rather than eating the same soup or salad every day, keep rotating and aim for a kaleidoscope of colour. ‘I’ve seen people become really competitive. They manage to get up to 60 different foods a day and send me pictures of their fridges looking all colourful and gorgeous,’ says Hyde.
Your daily diet soda
We get it. You’re trying to cut sugar any which way you can but that diet cola habit has got to stop. ‘I’ve seen people drinking diet drinks all day long but it can be really bad for gut health and symptoms like IBS,’ says Hyde. The issue here is artificial sweeteners. ‘Animal studies show they completely disrupt the good gut bacteria, which can lead an imbalance known as dysbiosis,’ explains Hyde. ‘I’ve seen real improvements in clients’ digestive symptoms like IBS and weight issues from cutting out diet drinks.’
Too much diet soda could even make you feel anxious says Hyde. Why? It’s all down to the gut brain connection. A diverse gut biome links to higher blood tryptophan and trytophan turns into serotonin, the brain chemical we need to be happy.
The solution? Ditch that diet soda and drink water instead. Water comes with an added bonus as it will help lubricate your gut to keep everything moving; if water feels too boring try a herbal tea for healthy flavour hit.
So, how can you improve your gut health?
If you’re guilty of any of any of the above gut health crimes, or you’re suffering from health issues like IBS, which have been linked to an imbalance in gut flora, it might be time rebalance your gut. The first thing you can do, as you’ve seen above, is to vary your diet, increasing fibrous foods like fruit, vegetables and pulses, also known as prebiotics. The most important prebiotic is the soluble fibre inulin that’s found in garlic, onions, asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes and leeks.
However, if you don’t relish the thought of eating two large raw onions a day – the amount you’d need to get a decent daily dose of prebiotics – you could take a daily prebiotic supplement like Bimuno. It contains insoluble prebiotic fibre, which will help your friendly gut bacteria thrive. One single serving of Bimuno Daily is equivalent to 15 raw bananas, 2.2 onions, 25.7 cloves of raw garlic, 103 spears of raw asparagus, 9.3 tablespoons of raw chicory or a third of a bag of wholewheat flour.