Everything you need to know about maintaining a healthy gut

Kijani Living answer the questions you've always wanted to ask about gut health

Woman eating a sandwich

Have you ever wondered whether probiotics are as good for your gut as advertisers claim? Or if you might have a food intolerance?

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All of these are frequently asked questions about our gut health and nutrition. Expert nutritionist Egzona looks at some common questions and gut health myths…

What are the signs of an unhealthy digestive system?

Symptoms most associated with gut disturbances are abdominal pain, changes in bowel movement, indigestion, bloating and heartburn which are usually short term harmless symptoms.

Usually these symptoms should settle down by themselves but please remember to seek help if they don’t go away.

There are five key symptoms which should be seen by a doctor straight away, please book a GP appointment if you notice a sudden change in your bowel movements, bleeding from the bottom, weight loss, difficulty swallowing and worsening heartburn or stomach pain.

Why am I suffering from bloating and gas?

Abdominal bloating and gas are common symptoms which many experience and there are many common causes of bloating such as overeating or eating fast can add to the risk of bloating after a meal. Eating smaller portions and more slowly can reduce any bloating associated with these two factors.

Bloating can also be caused temporary by excessive gas in the digestive system which can be because of swallowed air and bacteria digesting.

There are a few foods which can result in bloating such as beans and lentils, certain fruits and vegetables such as brussels sprouts, cabbage, prunes, sweeteners and wholegrains can result in temporary bloating. Persistent bloating should always be addressed by a general practitioner or medical professional to investigate further.

Probiotic yoghurt in a glass
Unsplash/Alison Marras

What do probiotics actually do?

Probiotics are live bacteria that may have various health benefits. They are usually found in foods such as yoghurt or within food supplements which are often described as good bacteria. Although bacteria is usually thought of as harmful or “germs”, many live microorganisms help the body function properly for example bacteria within the intestines helps digest foods and absorb nutrients.

It is thought that probiotics may help restore the natural balance of bacteria within the gut which has been disrupted by either lifestyle factors or illness. Currently the evidence is quite conflicting and whilst there are possible benefits to show that probiotics may be helpful for individuals who have IBS, a lot more research is required in order to fully understand the possible benefits for all conditions or general health.

How can I increase the amount of good bacteria in my gut?

Firstly it’s essential to eat a diverse range of food as there are hundreds of species of bacteria in the gut and each plays a different role in human health and requires different nutrients to grow. A dietary intake of different types of food can lead to a diverse microbiota as unfortunately current statistics show that the Western diet is not very diverse.

A few studies have shown that the gut microbiota diversity is much greater in people from rural regions of South America and Africa compared to westernised countries.

Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of nutrients for a healthy gut flora as they are high in fibre which cannot be digested in the body. Although fibre can be digested by certain bacteria in the gut and can stimulate their growth.

Good sources of fibre include beans, legumes, chickpeas, lentils, broccoli, artichokes, green peas and wholegrains. It is also important to include plenty of fermented foods such as yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha and tempeh. Water is also essential to hydration so its key to stay hydrated, aim to drink at least 1.5litres -2 litres of water per day.

Freshly baked bread on a market stall
Unsplash/Florencia Viadana

How do I know if I have a food allergy or intolerance?

A food allergy is a reaction from the immune system which can be life threatening and any worrying symptom associated with any food should be diagnosed by a medical professional. This will require an in clinic testing to diagnose any allergies as current statistics show around 1 in every 14 children under the age of three have at least one food allergy so its essential to be correctly tested by a medical professional.

Symptoms associated with a food allergy develop within a very short time after eating the food which can include tingling or itching of the mouth, itchy red rash, swelling of the face, difficulty swallowing and anaphylaxis which is severe and requires immediate medical attention.

Food intolerances, on the other hand, occur when there is a difficulty digesting certain foods and cause a physical reaction to these foods.

There are many associated symptoms with food intolerances but currently there are limited tests for food intolerances and any food intolerances should be diagnosed by a dietitian who can monitor any occurrences through a dietary diary.

Symptoms associated with food intolerances include tummy pain, bloating, gas, bowel changes and skin rashes which usually come on a few hours after eating the food.

Can stress really cause gut problems?

Have you ever had to make a decision based on your “gut instinct” under pressure? Or have you ever felt any butterflies in an anxious situation. Both these are examples of how the brain and gut are connected and in constant communication.

Stress can have an impact in digestion as when the body is stressed, it responds with the “fight or flight response” which releases stress hormone cortisol to make the body more alert and prepare for any threat.

Whilst this is normal and will not cause any digestive issue, chronic stress may affect the gut bacteria but research is limited and there are a few animal model studies, more human studies are required to fully analyse how stress can impact gut health.

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Can gut problems effect my mood?

Mood can be affected by various factors which may include digestion as research shows that the gut is home to trillions of microbes which are key in many daily functions and these microbes also produce neurochemicals which can have an impact on mood.

Although many studies have been conducted these have primarily been animal based, however gut symptoms such as bloating, gas and bowel movements can result in mood changes due to the inconvenience of these symptoms.

What is heartburn?

Heartburn can be described as a burning feeling in the chest which can be caused by stomach acid travelling up towards the throat.

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The main symptoms of heart burn are a burning sensation in the middle of the chest, an unpleasant sour taste in the mouth, bloating and a hoarse voice, all these symptoms may be worse after eating or when lying down.