Why your gut health is everything

Leanne Ward shares her insights and advice on all things gut health.
Oct 26 2021


What is gut health, and why is it so important?

To me, having good gut health means the absence of disease and symptoms with effective digestion, healthy, regular bowel motions, normal transit time and normal absorption of vitamins and nutrients. It can be heavily influenced by our sleep, our immunity, our stress levels and the diversity of plants in our diet.

Gut health is linked to so many things that are vital for true long-term health.

We now know that the gut and brain are the only organs with their own nervous system. These are known as the central nervous system (brain) and the enteric nervous system (gut). We also know that the gut contains more neurotransmitters than the brain! Research has confirmed there is complex physiological communication taking place between the brain and the gut, and this has been named the "gut-brain axis."

These two nervous systems have similar nerve endings and neurotransmitters that provide constant messages and updates about what is happening at each end. Years ago, we thought that the brain controlled everything from the top, but we now know this is simply not the case. Our gut is so powerful!

While the central nervous system sends signals down from our brain, the enteric nervous system acts like its own brain, operating independently to not only manage the digestive and absorptive processes but also to send information to the rest of the body regarding hunger, thirst, fullness and associated emotions based on the environment at the gut and microbiome level.

One of the theories about our gut having its own brain is that it helps you to "feel" your way through life. If you think about all the emotional descriptions attributed to the gut, this makes complete sense. Have you ever had a gut instinct? Ever known something "in your gut," or had "butterflies in your tummy"?

Gut health is predominantly influenced by the things we eat, how much sleep we get and by stress. What we eat affects our gut flora. And this in turn affects our immunity and our ability to make and use neurotransmitters that help improve our mood and wellbeing.

What are the types of foods we should be eating to support our gut health?

The latest research tells us that the single greatest thing we can do for our gut health is aim for a diversity of plants in our diet. More specifically, we want to aim for at least 30 different types of plants a week. A plant-based diet is the key to good gut health.

When we talk about plants, we don't just mean vegetables. We also mean salads, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, and legumes.

We Australians simply don’t eat anywhere near enough vegetables or fibre. Less than 10% of us eat the recommended amounts of vegetables each day (5 or more serves) and a very small amount of us actually reach the recommended fibre intake also (at least 25g a day for women and 30g a day for healthy men).

A side note here — if your goal is to increase your fibre intake, this is wonderful. But please do it slowly over a few weeks and increase your water intake alongside your fibre intake!

Some of my favourite foods for gut health are:

  • Seeds such as chia, flaxseeds, pumpkin, sunflower and hemp seeds

  • Wholegrains such as rolled oats, brown or black rice, lentil-based pasta, quinoa, farro and bulgur

  • Vegetables such as carrots, potato, mushrooms, leeks, garlic, onion, broccoli, mushrooms, mixed salad leaves and capsicums

  • Fruits such as apples, pears, oranges, berries, kiwi fruits, bananas and mangos

  • Legumes such as black beans, kidney beans, edamame and chickpeas

  • Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, pistachios, brazil nuts and hazelnuts

  • Herbs such as mint, parsley, coriander and rosemary

  • Fermented foods such as kefir, tempeh, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha.

Can you tell us a little more about prebiotic fibre? What is this and why is it so good for our gut health?

Prebiotics are certain types of fibres (not all fibres are prebiotic!) that induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms in our gastrointestinal tract. In order to be classified as a prebiotic, the fibre must pass through your digestive tract undigested and then stimulate the growth and/or activity of certain "good" bacteria in your large intestine.

Essentially, prebiotic fibre feeds the good bacteria in our gut (not to be confused with probiotics, however, which are live microorganisms).

The research around prebiotics is still in the early days but there are some really promising studies and proposed benefits so far. Some health benefits that can be attributed to increasing your prebiotic intake in your diet include the modulation of your gut microbiota, some increased mineral absorption, potential protection against colon cancer, improvements with blood glucose and insulin profiles and some benefits for inflammatory conditions.

People who struggle with IBS may find they are sensitive to certain prebiotics (as most are FODMAPs) but should continue to include them in small amounts for gut benefits. Natural prebiotics are found in foods such as chicory root, onion, garlic, cabbage, chickpeas, lentils, beans, dates, figs, white peaches, cashews, pistachio nuts, barley, rye bread/crackers, couscous and oats. Human breast milk also contains natural prebiotics so is really beneficial for babies' gut health.

Adding small amounts of prebiotic fibre to your diet each day can have huge health benefits and also reduce some of the symptoms that those with a sensitive gut may feel.

For example, aim to add just 1-2g of prebiotic fibre to start with and see how you feel. The Fancy Plants Chia Pod is a great starting place as these each contain 1.6g prebiotic fibre per pot and should be well tolerated by most.

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