Almost every aspect of your health has a gut connection. From mood and mind, to skin health and hormone balance, cardiovascular health or immunity; when something is out of sync in your body, there is often a connection to the delicate microbial balance of your gastrointestinal tract.
When it comes to digestive health, most of us don’t take much notice of what is going on down there unless something goes wrong, and our belly tells us about it. From gas and wind, constipation to diarrhoea, our GI tract sends us messages every now and then to pay attention and give it some love.
As a Nutritional Therapist, I talk a lot about poo, as it gives me plenty of clues to the internal workings and overall health of a person. So what is normal? Look away now if you are eating your lunch!
A poo a day is healthy. Up to 3 a day is fine. Your poops should be well formed - easy to pass, not too squishy or loose and not too hard or dry and usually a medium brown colour (although that can vary, depending on what you eat).
Look after your gut microbiome, and the friendly little bugs that live there will help look after your health. Here are a few ideas to help support a healthy balance of probiotic bacteria and build a happy little community of good bacteria:
Eat as many different plant foods as you can squeeze into your diet. Diversity in your diet supports diversity of your gut bacteria, and that is a very good thing. The American Gut Project looked at stool samples from over 10,000 people around the world and found that those who ate at least 30 different plant based foods each week had the most diverse mix of gut microbes.
Set yourself a challenge of 30 a week. Fruit, vegetables, pulses, seeds, nuts and wholegrains all count. Keep a food diary and get munching.
Include soluble fibre in your diet to help soften your stools and keep regular. Often when people need a little extra help to get things moving, they add bran to their diet in the form of wheat. In my experience, this often has the opposite effect, leaving you more bunged up than when you started. Soluble fibre from oats, flaxseed, root vegetables and fruit tends to be more gentle and helps to improve the motility of the gut.
So swap your breakfast to porridge, overnight oats or a low sugar granola and a spoonful of flaxseed, try a few days replacing your bread and pasta with oatcakes, sweet potato, chickpea pasta or rice and see if it makes a difference.
Eat some prebiotic foods. These are foods that contain non-digestible fibre that feeds your friendly bacteria. This fibre finds its way deep down into your digestive tract in an undigested form, and then it can be fermented by your gut bacteria. They then produce a whole range of byproducts like short chain fatty acids that have amazing benefits far beyond digestive health. Some of the best prebiotic foods in our diets include slightly under-ripe bananas, chicory, raw garlic, onions and asparagus.
The more colourful the plant foods in your diet, the better. Plant antioxidants called polyphenols are key to microbial health. Polyphenols are found in fruit, veg, herbs, spices, tea, dark chocolate, good quality olive oil, cacao and green tea and help the healthy bugs thrive and survive. Our friendly bacteria tend to thrive on the same types of food that we thrive on. They love a Mediterranean style diet, packed with herbs and spices, colourful fruit and veg and good quality olive oil.
Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, live yoghurt and kefir are having their moment of glory. Any chef worth their salt is getting onto the fermented food craze, and social media accounts are packed with posts about the amazing benefits of cultured and probiotic food. The deal is that these foods provide your body with a healthy dollop of probiotics like lactobacillus acidophils and bifidobactera that helps keep your gut happy.
Drink water. Increasing the fibre in your diet is great, but you’ll need enough water to help it have the desired effect. Aim for a couple of litres of water a day. This can be in the form of water or herbal teas.
Stay off the sugary stuff, white and refined carbs, fried foods and highly processed junk food. They upset the delicate balance in your microbiome.
Move your body. Exercise helps improve muscle tone, and not just your triceps and biceps. It seems that the more active and strong we are, the more toned our digestive tract is too, and that helps bowel motility and regularity.
Jane McClenaghan, author and founder of Vital Nutrition is passionate about the powerful health effects of good food. She founded her business, Vital Nutrition, in 2001 and has helped thousands of people make easy, manageable changes to their diets for the good of their health.
Jane takes a down-to-earth, realistic approach to health and nutrition, and her philosophy on health and wellbeing is one of balance - simple, effective changes that can fit into anyone’s lifestyle.
Jane specialises in helping workplaces support their employees to eat well, has an online membership for women who want to get their spark back, and is the author of 'The Vital Nutrition Cookbook' and 'Vital Nutrition - eat your way to optimum health, happiness and energy'. She is the resident nutritionist on U105 with Carolyn Stewart and writes a weekly nutrition column for The Irish News.