A Beginner’s Guide to Gut Health: Part 1

Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, who was referred to as the “Father of Medicine”, stated that “All disease begins in the gut“. Although the accuracy of this statement and simplification of human disease has been questioned, he sure was onto something with the sentiment behind this.

The importance of good gut health and a diverse gut microbiome is gaining more and more attention. It is both highly searched and heavily researched.

If you can’t tell your pre from your probiotics or you’re a little lost in the land of gut health, we’re on hand to give you the low down. We’ve compiled a whole host of commonly asked questions into a 3-Part Beginner’s Guide to Gut Health.

In part 1, we will be breaking down areas of gut health including what it is, why it is important and how to spot the signs of an unhealthy gut. In part 2, we will be discussing the link between gut health and lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress. The final part, part 3, will delve into practical tops to support your gut health.

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s dive in.

What is gut health?

‘Gut’ is another word for the gastrointestinal or digestive tract, which starts at your mouth and ends at your rectum.

‘Gut health’ refers to the overall health of your digestive tract. It is a term that’s come to prominence over the last couple of decades as more research has been done into what constitutes a healthy gut and how the well-being of your gut affects your health overall.

The gut is very complex, and there are various scientific opinions on what the definition of ‘gut health’ should be. However, in general parlance, gut health is used to refer to the balance of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. This is also known as your gut microbiome.

Why is gut health important? 

Gut health is a rapidly growing field of research; aside from impacting your physical health, your gut bacteria can also have an impact on your mental health. The intricate mechanisms of this are not yet fully understood, but through something named the ‘gut-brain axis’, our microbiomes communicate with our central nervous system through the enteric nervous system (also known as the ‘second brain’) that covers our gastrointestinal tract. This seems to work two ways – from the gut to the brain, and then the brain back down to the gut.

With this, it is believed that our mental state can alter our gut health; if there is stress in the brain, this can transpire to stress in the gut as well, so keeping your gut happy and your mind stress-free is optimal for both your mental and physical health!

What is the gut-brain connection, and how does it work?

The gut microbiome seems to communicate with our central nervous system through the “second brain”, or enteric nervous system that covers our GI tract. This is called the gut-brain axis and there seems to be a two-way traffic between them.

The relationship between the two appears to be both dynamic and complex and research in this area is constantly developing.

There are a number of key components of the gut-brain connection:

  1. Vagus Nerve: The vagus nerve is a key figure in this concept. It is a long cranial nerve that extends from the brainstem to various organs, including the gut. It carries signals in both directions, allowing the gut and brain to communicate.
  1. Neurotransmitters: The gut produces and releases neurotransmitters – for example, serotonin and dopamine. These are also found in the brain. They play a crucial role in regulating mood and emotions.
  1. Hormones: The gut produces hormones that can influence appetite, metabolism, and stress responses. For example, ghrelin stimulates hunger, while leptin signals satiety. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, can also impact gut function.

Microbiota: The vast community of microorganisms known as the gut microbiota produces bioactive compounds and metabolites. These metabolites can influence brain function and behaviour.

Can diet affect gut health?

Yes! Diet plays a huge part in influencing gut health. The types of foods you eat can impact the composition and function of the microbial community in your gut, known as the gut microbiota. A balanced and diverse diet that includes a variety of nutrients is generally beneficial for gut health.

What are the signs of an unhealthy gut?

An unhappy gut can manifest itself in a number of ways. Some common signs include bloating, stomach pain,  gas, constipation, diarrhoea and food intolerances.

How do I know if I have a food intolerance that’s affecting my gut?

Intolerances relate to your digestive system. If you have a food intolerance, you usually get symptoms a few hours after eating the food or ingredient you’re intolerant to. They can be painful but are rarely severe and never fatal.

Common symptoms of a food intolerance that’s affecting your gut include gas, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, or constipation.

They are normally diagnosed by running food elimination diets, whereby an individual excludes food items one by one and keeps a record of what they’ve eaten and how they feel after eating it, looking for any patterns of symptoms with particular foods. Note you should only try an elimination diet under the supervision of a health professional.

What is fibre?

Dietary fibre can be found in plant-based foods and is a term for a certain type of carbohydrate that cannot be digested in the small intestine, and therefore passes relatively unchanged into the large intestine (unlike sugars and starch).

Our bodies require both soluble and insoluble fibre, and most plant-based foods provide a combination of both.”

Fibre is often split up in two categories:

  1. Soluble fibre: dissolves in water and becomes a gel-like substance in the body.
  2. Insoluble fibre: doesn’t dissolve in water and retains its form in the body.

You can source fibre from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas), nuts and seeds.

What is the role of fibre in gut health?

When it comes to gut health, fibre plays a number of different roles in gut health, including:

  1. Prebiotic Effect: Fibre acts as a prebiotic, providing a food source for the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut. These bacteria ferment fibre, producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) as byproducts. SCFAs have been associated with various health benefits, including supporting the health of the intestinal lining.
  2. Microbiota Diversity: Consuming varied types of fibre-rich foods supports a diverse microbial community in the gut. A diverse microbiota is generally associated with better gut health, as different types of bacteria play various roles in maintaining a balanced and functional digestive system.
  3. Intestinal Motility: Fibre helps regulate the movement of material through the digestive tract. This can aid in preventing both constipation and diarrhoea by promoting optimal bowel regularity.
  4. Regular Bowel Movements: Insoluble fibre, found in foods like whole grains and vegetables, adds bulk to stool and helps prevent constipation by promoting regular bowel movements. Soluble fibre, found in foods like oats and legumes, absorbs water and can contribute to softer, more easily passed stools.

What are prebiotics, and how do they support gut health?

Prebiotics are a type of fibre that cannot be properly digested by the body. Instead, they are passed into the gut, where they feed the ‘healthy’ gut bacteria, and help them grow strong to benefit our overall ecosystem.

While they can be made artificially as a supplement, they are typically found in plant foods. These include artichokes, asparagus, bananas, berries, tomatoes, and many other plants including green vegetables and whole-grain cereals.

What are probiotics, and how do they benefit gut health?

Probiotics are live bio cultures that are consumed through fermented food or drink. Think products like kefir, kimchi or kombucha) or via supplements. Bio cultures can be more colloquially referred to as ‘good’ bacteria, as they do not cause disease or illness and aid in keeping you healthy, rather than making you ill. 

When consumed, they compete with any potentially harmful bacteria in the gut for space and food, reducing the amount of harmful bacteria that reside there. 

Probiotics have been suggested to help maintain a healthy community of microorganisms by increasing the levels of good bacteria and reducing the ability of harmful bacteria to survive. They can also have the potential to help your body return to a healthy condition after being disturbed (by illness and/or antibiotics) and produce substances that have a desirable effect or influence your body’s immune response.

We’ll leave it there for Part 1. You might need some time to you some time to digest all of that information…before heading over to Part 2.

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Published by Georgia Chilton

In her teenage years, a love of food and rowing led Georgia into this field as she wanted to know how to optimise performance through nutrition. With a BSc in Nutrition and an MSc in Sports and Exercise Nutrition, she has the skill set to help you track towards your goals and maximise your potential.

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