When it comes to digestion, gas, bloating, abdominal pain and irregular bowel patterns are all signs that something is a little off with our gut. While the majority of us will experience these symptoms at least once in our lifetime, persistent digestive discomfort means we need to take a closer look at our gut health and what’s causing it to be so unhappy.
What causes digestive issues?
There are a number of factors that can cause our gut to play up, from food sensitivities, chronic stress, antibiotic and anti-inflammatory medications, as well as alcohol and poor sleep too. These can all upset the balance of bacteria in the gut, which plays a large role in the digestion and absorption of nutrients from the food we eat, as well as having an influence on our immune system and the communication between the gut and brain.
A poor diet is one of the most common causes of gut related issues. Too often, Western diets lack nutrient rich, high fibre foods which feed the good bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract. This, in combination with a diet of high sugar and processed convenience foods can lead to an overgrowth of opportunistic bacteria in our system which causes an imbalance in our gut microbiome and leads to issues with our digestive health.
How do gut bacteria affect our nutrition and digestion?
There are around 100 trillion microorganisms in our gut – predominately bacteria, as well as yeasts, fungi, protozoa and viruses – which collectively make up what is commonly known as our gut microbiome. While some may argue that we’re more bacteria than human, one thing’s for certain – our gut microbiome is crucial to our digestion as well as our overall health and wellbeing.
A healthy balance of gut bacteria is needed to help with the digestion and absorption of food, and also to help with the production of certain nutrients in the body. It is estimated that around half of our daily vitamin K needs are produced from gut bacteria alone, as well as being able to produce most water-soluble B vitamins including B1, B2, B5, biotin and folate.
Food intolerances and sensitivities are also thought to be linked to an imbalance of gut bacteria, which can result in difficulty digesting certain foods causing symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhoea and pain or discomfort. It is also thought that gut bacteria are involved in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), with recent research suggesting that dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut bacteria) may contribute towards the development of IBS.
Along with producing a number of nutrients, our gut bacteria have the ability to balance the pH acidity in the gut which helps with the breakdown of food as well as helps to protect against pathogens and support the immune system. A number of short chain fatty acids are also produced by our gut bacteria through the fermentation of undigested carbohydrates in the large intestine.
One of the more widely studied short chain fatty acids is butyrate, which is made when gut bacteria feed on high fibre foods such as oats, apples, onion and garlic. Butyrate has been shown to support digestion, keeps the gut lining strong and helps with inflammation. Interestingly, the production of short chain fatty acids from our microbiome are also thought to strongly influence our gut-brain communication and brain function, as well as influence other areas of our health like sleep and mood.
What is the best diet for digestive and gut health?
Our gut bacteria depend on us to get a diet high in fibre rich prebiotic foods, to help keep them alive and thriving. By eating a wide variety of fibre rich foods, this helps to stimulate and diversify the growth of good probiotic bacteria in our gut to maintain a healthy digestive system. Focus on a wholefood diet, including:
- Fresh fruit and vegetables, keeping the skin on and buying organic where possible
- Wholegrains, including oats, brown rice and quinoa
- A variety of nuts and seeds like almonds, cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds and chia seeds
- Legumes, including black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils
Including fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, yoghurt and miso are also great ways to get in some healthy probiotic bacteria. Sipping on bone broth or using this as a base for soups and stews is also a fantastic source of collagen, gelatin and nutrients to help support the gut lining and digestive processes.
Aim to avoid or limit high sugar foods, processed junk food and alcohol, in excess these foods can stimulate the overgrowth of opportunistic bacteria resulting in unpleasant digestive symptoms and even affect our skin, immune system and mood.
What are other ways to improve gut health and digestion?
Along with a healthy, high fibre diet, there are a number of ways to support better digestion and good gut health. These include:
Reducing stress: Stress, especially long term, can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria in our digestive tract and affect our ability to digest food well. While we can’t always completely eliminate stress from our lives, managing stress through things like exercise, meditation and reducing our workload can help to support a happier gut.
Sleep tight: A lack of sleep has shown to disrupt the gut microbiome as well as affect digestion – but it doesn’t end there. The two-way relationship between the gut and the brain also means that an unhealthy gut impacts the quality of our sleep too, with research suggesting that our gut bacteria influences our internal body clock and sleeping patterns. While it might sound like a vicious cycle, paying attention to your diet and prioritising sleep will have you on the fastest train to dreamland.
Regular exercise: Regular movement not only helps to reduce stress levels, but also helps to keep our bowel motions regular. Research has also shown that exercise can actually change the composition of bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract, increasing microbiome diversity, production of short chain fatty acids, and benefiting digestion as well as mood.
Consider supplementing: Supplementing with probiotics, especially after a course of antibiotics, can help to repopulate gut bacteria and improve digestion. Including nutrients like glutamine (an amino acid which helps to fuel intestinal cells and maintain the intestinal lining) plus adding in soothing herbs into your diet such as slippery elm, chamomile and ginger, can provide digestive comfort, help with regular bowel motions and relieve feelings of bloating, gas and nausea.