Skip To Content

    WTF Is Gut Health And Why Is It So Important?

    Get ready for gut health 101.

    Gut health seems to be that one topic which everyone's discussing at the moment – while guzzling kombucha and avoiding dairy.

    Cartoon Network

    But it's a pretty complex subject, so we chatted to to some experts to help us understand what's actually going on in our bodies.

    Dr Ece A. Mutlu is a former member of the American Gastroenterological Association Center for Gut Microbiome Research and Education, and knows everything there is to know about the gut. Dr Michael Mosley authored Clever Guts Diet and is basically a gut wizard. And Liping Zhao is a scientific advisory board member of the American Gastroenterological Association Center for Gut Microbiome Research and Education.

    So let's start with the big picture: What is gut health?

    TLC

    Well, obviously, it's all about what's going on in your gut. But what exactly does a healthy gut mean? First of all, let's note that your gut isn't just your stomach – it's a series of organs which start at your mouth and end at your anus. It digests and processes your food, turning it into energy or waste.

    Your gut contains your microbiome. These are the healthy bacteria may affect nearly everything in your body, and are critical in keeping you healthy and well. Dr Michael Mosley calls it a rainforest: "There are a thousand different species, a hundred trillion different individuals."

    So basically: Having a healthy gut means having healthy microbiome.

    Righto, but why is it so important?

    E!

    According to Dr Mutlu, the microbiome has "the metabolic capacity of a liver", and helps us digest all the important nutrients from food. Our gut communicates with and has a huge impact on our immune system, and also contains a huge collection of nerves, to the point where some have called it a "second brain".

    This rainforest of microbes are in a delicate balance and can affect everything in your body. If you feed your microbes good food, they'll be happy and keep you healthy. If you feed them junk, they'll go a little haywire and have heaps of knock-on effects.

    "So, 'you are what you eat' is very true when you realise your diet is actually also culturing a microbial ecosystem in your gut," says Dr Zhao.

    These microbes produce chemical signals, which travel along a "superhighway" nerve between your gut and your brain.

    Some of these chemicals mimic hunger hormones, so they'll send signals to your brain that you're hungry, even if you're not. There's also interesting research being done which may suggest that they also have an effect on your mood.

    Those crazy cravings you get for sugar and processed food? Yeah, they're not all in your mind.

    Netflix

    "If you feed [your microbiome] lots of fibre, then you get much more of the good bacteria growing and living. If you feed them a beige [simple carbs and no veggies], junk diet, then you seem to get more bad bacteria. And they produce chemical signals which urge you to eat more junk."

    "If you’re a bacteria living down there, and you get sugar, then you’re going to be sending out signals telling your host to eat more sugar."

    This doesn't necessarily mean that you have to eliminate sugar from your diet – just keep in mind what's going on when you do eat it.

    But it's not like diagnosing a headache or a paper cut, so how do I know if I've got something wrong with my gut?

    Universal

    You can probably tell for yourself how your gut health is going. Do you eat a lot of sugar or processed food? Are you tired and hungry and craving sweet things? Or do you eat a super-balanced diet with lots of good fats and colourful veggies and minimal sugar? "There are many signs that you can watch to find out if something is wrong with your gut," says Dr Zhao. "For example, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and bad breath."

    Pay attention to your symptoms. Keep a food diary for a month and you might be able to pinpoint triggering foods.

    This is kind-of overwhelming, there's so much to take in. Can you give me the tl;dr version?

    NBC

    According to Dr Mosley, "the simplest approach to altering your gut bacteria is to change what you eat".

    And unfortunately, you can't expect a quick fix. "It takes several weeks to change the gut microbiota by taking a new diet," says Dr Zhao. "It then may take several months for the old problem to be completely gone."

    What are the no-go-zone foods I should be avoiding?

    Disney

    Processed foods have been linked to inflammatory diseases of the gut, says Dr Mutlu. They're full of chemicals and ingredients that are designed to keep you eating them.

    Sugar can wreak havoc on your gut as well, especially in large quantities. Wherever you can, avoid drinking sugar. "If you have a large glass of orange juice, that contains an awful lot of sugar, and it bypasses a lot of the systems that your body would use to digest a whole orange," says Dr Mosley. "That means the sugar hits your colon, which it's never designed to do. This leads to the growth of fungi and other things that you don’t want at all."

    Fruit is something to avoid too much of, as it has a high sugar content. Stick with berries, apples, and pears. Meanwhile, fruits like melon, bananas, and grapes are major sugar feasts and should be more of a treat. Yeah, a banana is better than a chocolate bar but it's still not ideal. Snack instead on unsalted nuts which will fill you up.

    If you're used to eating packaged snacks, spend 30 minutes at the beginning of the week prepping low-sugar snacks to fill you up. And here's a seven-day low-sugar meal plan which is super easy to follow and will help give you a kick start.

    And what should I eat a lot of?

    FOX

    The super-basic version is to eat heaps of vegetables, and to make sure you're eating veggies of every colour. Each colour contains different vitamins and minerals that contribute to a healthy microbe ecosystem.

    Dr Mutlu cites data which suggests "people who eat a highly varied diet with many different types of plants have a diverse microbiome. So plants seem beneficial in multiple ways to preserve gut health."

    Avoid processed food and a high-sugar diet. Focus instead on whole foods, and make sure you're eating healthy fats (like nuts, salmon, and olive oil).

    You don't have to cut out starchy carbs like pasta, bread, and potatoes – but instead eat a little less of them, and fill your plate with veggies. They'll fill you up just as much, but they'll nourish the good bacteria in your gut.

    There's evidence that the Mediterranean diet is great for your gut. This incorporates a lot of olive oil, oily fish, green veggies, legumes, nuts. It's also heavy on the legumes – chickpeas, kidney beans, and lentils. There are a ton of recipes out there.

    Here are some more tips for nourishing your gut and revamping your diet.

    Can I just have sugar and processed foods in moderation, though?

    FOX

    According to Dr Mosley, when it comes to treats, "moderation" is just a word made up by junk food companies. "You’ll start having one biscuit, in moderation, and that leads to two, three, four biscuits. Because that’s what the foods have been manufactured to do. You’re simply feeding the microbes in your gut and they’ll send out signals to keep eating, so most people are incapable of stopping once they start. I think phrases like ‘eat moderately’ and ‘balanced diet’ are utterly meaningless."

    Every now and then it's ok to eat something you know is bad for you, if you feel like it's good for your soul. But avoid telling yourself that "everything's fine in moderation".

    Please tell me I can still have coffee and booze.

    TBS

    "Large amounts of coffee and alcohol are bad for you," says Dr. Mosley. "But there’s some good evidence that the flavonoids in coffee are pretty good for mood - if you’re having 1-3 cups a day, and not adding sugar or cream."

    Alcohol is fine so long as you're not overdoing it. Stick with red wine or spirits in place of sugary cocktails.

    Should I be taking probiotics?

    Cartoon Network

    "I think the evidence is weak for most of the things you can buy commerically," says Dr. Mosley. "Most of the probiotics you buy are useless. And as everyone's gut is different, what you need to take depends on what your ailment is."

    There is so much info out there if you want to know more. Some doctors might be able to help you, but unfortunately it's not a topic covered in-depth at med school.

    You'd be better off finding a gut specialist, like a gastroenterologist or another professional who can help you design a gut-healing diet specific to your needs. And when reading info online, always remember that everyone is different, so cure-all answers might not work for you!