For background info, please refer to Gut Health, Part 1: Why we should focus on the health of our gut this January and NOT our weight, and Gut Health, Part 2: Probiotics and Prebiotics. The suggestions below are not intended to replace any medical or nutritional opinion.
Think of your gut as a garden that can only thrive when the soil is healthy. Healthy soil requires healthy foods and nutrients” – Lee Holmes
To nourish our guts, we first need to remove any potentially inflammatory factors (this could be some foods), improve digestion, heal any gut permeability (often called leaky gut), optimise absorption of nutrients, and balance the gastrointestinal microbiota.
…or not! I do always encourage that you work with a qualified professional if you have specific gut health issues. It can be complex and rather overwhelming to figure it all out by yourself. Here, I have laid out 3 steps of practical information to help you get started and I suggest that you take it slowly, choosing one thing at a time to incorporate. Get comfortable with the concept, integrate it into your daily life and make it a new habit. Allow it to become effortless. Only then move on to the next one. There is always greater benefit from making a few changes that last a lifetime, than making all of them at once.
Step 1: Remove factors that may be damaging your gut health.
- If you have a specific food allergy or intolerance, this may need to be eliminated for a while, to allow your gut the time to heal. It’s best to speak to a Registered Nutritionist or Nutritional Therapist to advise you on this if necessary (head over to my FAQs page for info). Please be wary of any online company that supposedly offers at-home tests to find if you have any allergies or intolerances – these are not proven to be effective, and may result in you restricting your diet unnecessarily.
- Cut down or eliminate as much heavily processed and/or junk food as possible from your diet, especially processed meats and high-sugar foods. What’s bad for your whole body health is inevitably bad for your gut health too.
- Reduce Omega-6 fatty acid intake. Although these are technically essential (we need to eat a small amount to stay healthy), the average Western diet contains far too much. They are found mainly in vegetable oils – so ditch any sunflower, soybean or other ‘vegetable’ oils you may have in the kitchen, along with margarines, and minimise your consumption of fried foods. Embrace olive oil instead.
- Stress is a big factor in overall gut health. Our brain and our gastrointestinal tract are connected – even our microbiota can influence or be influenced by our digestive system. Although we all feel stress, and a bit of it can actually be beneficial to us, too much is definitely unhelpful. Consider ways that you could target excessive stress in your life.
- Be mindful of antibiotics. Of course, antibiotics can be life-saving and essential medications, so I am certainly not suggesting going against medical advice here. But if you do have the choice, or your doctor is even advising against antibiotics (patient.info/health/why-wasnt-i-prescribed-antibiotics), I would err on the side of caution, and avoid taking them unnecessarily wherever possible. Not only will this help cut down antibiotic resistance (an international concern – nhs.uk/video/Pages/what-is-antibiotic-resistance), but antibiotics can also have a dramatic effect on the gut microbiota, and restoration of this important ecosystem varies a lot between people (Dethlefsen and Relman, 2010).
- Also, try to be mindful about how and when you take over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as Ibuprofen. This is because they may increase the permeability of the gut wall (and are also linked to the development of stomach ulcers and irritation if not taken carefully). This also happens when taking NSAIDS before exercise (which is often why they are taken in the first place) (Bjarnason et al., 1986) (Lambert et al., 2007). For more information on painkillers in general, take a look at this article: patient.info/health/painkillers. NB: if you have been prescribed NSAIDS (especially Aspirin) you should always continue to take them as your doctor recommends.
Step 2: Replace factors that may be lacking or limited
- Start with the basics. Your digestion needs time to work properly (so sit down to eat, and try to give yourself at least 10 minutes). Chew your food well and give your digestion a break between meals (I suggest at least 5 hours). These simple factors can do an awful lot of good without changing a single thing in your diet.
- Replace your cooking and dressing oils with olive oil, coconut oil or butter. Other healthy fats, such as avocados and nuts & seeds, are also very gut friendly.
- If you are not eating wild, oily fish regularly, you may want to consider adding a high quality Omega-3 fish oil supplement into your daily routine.
- A fibre-rich diet is associated with an increased diversity of the gut microbiota (and, in general, the greater the diversity the better), as well as helping to reduce constipation and other bowel-related problems. It can even help to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke (Wald, 2013) (Gobson and Shepher, 2010) (De Filippo et al., 2010). Plus, fibre is super filling and very low in available calories, so great for those who are watching their weight. Aim for at least 18g/day, which you can get from lots of fresh vegetables, beans and pulses, and unrefined, whole-grain carbohdyrates (oats, millet, quinoa, amaranth etc.)
- Try to get plenty of relaxation and good quality sleep. Easier said than done, I know, but this is so important for gut health nonetheless.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Your body maintains a finely tuned fluid balance by absorbing more water from your gut if you are getting a little dehydrated. This hardens the contents of your bowels, and is a common cause of slow gut transit time and constipation. Good hydration enables good elimination! For gut health, it is suggested that you aim for around 30-25ml fluids per kg of body weight per day (although this will vary according to the temperature and amount of exercise you are doing too). Good old water is the best way to do this.
Step 3: Repair any damage and help to protect your gut for the future
Consider adding in lots of what I call ‘Intestinal fuels’ to your diet. These are specific foods or supplements that can directly help to repair and protect our gut.
- Regular consumption of turmeric, or its active component, curcumin (White and Judkins, 2011). Take a look at my turmeric socca, smoothie, soup and salad dressing recipes for some ideas.
- Probiotic foods: organic fermented dairy products such as bio live plain yoghurt, sour cream, aged cheese or kefir (if you tolerate casein protein and lactose). Alternatively, kimchi, kombucha, miso, natto, sauerkraut (see my recipe here) and tempeh are fermented too. Do make sure that these contain ‘active, live cultures though’ – if they have been pasteurized or heat-treated after fermentation then they will no longer have significant probiotic function.
- Prebiotic foods: these include things like asparagus, under-ripe banana, aubergine, endive, garlic and onions, Jerusalem artichokes (check out this Eat in Season), leeks, pulses (such as beans, peas and lentils) and chicory. Unrefined and ideally organic wholegrains can also have some prebiotic function. See Part 2: Probtiotics and Prebiotics for more information on both of these.
- Plant polyphenols. These are important naturally occurring compounds that are found in a range of plants, fruits and vegetables and have all sorts of beneficial effects for both your gut and your body as a whole (Puupponen-Pimia et al., 2002). Great sources include:
1. Citrus fruits (whole fruits though, not just the juice!). Why not try my Kale and Orange Saladon page 94-95 of Cook. Nourish. Glow. for a great polyphenol boost?
2. Dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, chard, cabbage, kale etc)
3. Green tea
4. Red and purple berries (I often recommend a portion a day for gut health, ideally organic if possible – frozen ones are fine too!)
5. Nuts and seeds, especially linseeds (also known as flax seeds), are gut friendly, although do soak them for a few hours or overnight before eating them for maximum nutrient absorption. Again, I would suggest trying to have a moderate portion every day (assuming you tolerate them well and have no allergies)
6. Cacao – yep, that means chocolate! Either go for raw cacao or organic cocoa powder, or look out for organic chocolate with a cocoa content of >85%. Check out my Eat in Season post about Chocolate for more information.
- Glutamine, an amino acid (the building blocks of protein), has also linked to gut health (particularly well researched in the critically unwell) (De-Souza and Greene, 2005). The good news for the rest of us is that it is found in lots of dietary sources: beef, pork, poultry (especially turkey), raw spinach & parsley, almonds, cabbage and organic milk and yoghurts. So as long as you are getting a varied diet, you should also be getting enough glutamine.
I do hope you’ve found this gut health series informative and helpful. Most importantly, I hope that you feel incentivised to really focus on the health of your gut. Please refer back to the other two articles: Part 1: Why we should focus on the health of our gut this January and NOT our weight & Part 2: Probiotics and Prebiotics in gut health.
If you are worried in any way about the health of your gut, do seek professional advice (head over to my FAQs page for info).
Bjarnason, I., Williams, P., Smethurst, P., Peters, T.J. and Levi, A.J. (1986) ‘Effect of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and prostaglandins on the permeability of the human small intestine’, Gut, 27(11), pp. 1292–1297. doi: 10.1136/gut.27.11.1292.
De Filippo, C., Cavalieri, D., Di Paola, M., Ramazzotti, M., Poullet, J.B. and Massart, S. (2010) ‘Impact of diet in shaping gut microbiota revealed by a comparative study in children from Europe and rural Africa’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(33), pp. 14691–14696. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1005963107.
De-Souza, D.A. and Greene, L.J. (2005) ‘Intestinal permeability and systemic infections in critically ill patients: Effect of glutamine*’, Critical Care Medicine, 33(5), pp. 1125–1135. doi: 10.1097/01.ccm.0000162680.52397.97.
Dethlefsen, L. and Relman, D.A. (2010) ‘Incomplete recovery and individualized responses of the human distal gut microbiota to repeated antibiotic perturbation’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(Supplement_1), pp. 4554–4561. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1000087107.
Gibson, P.R. and Shepherd, S.J. (2010) ‘Evidence-based dietary management of functional gastrointestinal symptoms: The FODMAP approach’, Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 25(2), pp. 252–258.
Lambert, G., Boylan, M., Laventure, J.., Bull, A. and Lanspa, S. (2007) ‘Effect of aspirin and ibuprofen on GI Permeability during exercise’, International Journal of Sports Medicine, 28(9), pp. 722–726. doi: 10.1055/s-2007-964891.
Puupponen-Pimiä, R., Aura, A.., Oksman-Caldentey, K.., Myllärinen, P., Saarela, M., Mattila-Sandholm, T. and Poutanen, K. (2002) ‘Development of functional ingredients for gut health’, Trends in Food Science & Technology, 13(1), pp. 3–11. doi: 10.1016/s0924-2244(02)00020-1.
Wald, A. (2013) Patient information: High-fiber diet (Beyond the Basics. Available at: UpToDate (Accessed: 1 December 2015).