Why gut health is important: how to look after yours

Read on to find out more about our gut microbiome; why it's important, what can harm it and what we can do to optimise it.

Jess Childs
Jess Childs
Friday 4 November 2022
Lady drinking

Our own cells are outnumbered TEN TO ONE by the cells of the microbes that live in our gut. An incredible fact! We are literally over-run.

The microbes which reside in our gut, are collectively known as the microbiome (or gut flora) and its health is a fundamental mediator of our health.

The microbiome helps us to maintain a healthy immune system (70-80% of our immune cells are in our gut), digest food, support detoxification, support mental health via the gut-brain axis and prevent overgrowth of nasty bugs such as yeasts and parasites.

Disruption to this microbiome can lead to anything from IBS, allergies, hormonal issues (due to poor removal of excess hormones), autoimmune conditions (as a result of a ‘leaky’ gut wall), obesity to mental health disorders including poor mood and depression. In fact, obesity, insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, and low-grade peripheral inflammation are more prevalent in patients with low diversity in their gut microbiome compared to patients with a high diversity.

There are many reasons the gut flora may become compromised over time -

Some of these are out of our control, but some we may be able to manage:

  • a poor diet comprising sugar and processed foods
  • antibiotics which wipe out the microbial colonies (good and bad)
  • excessive alcohol
  • living in an ‘over hygienic’ environment - products like dettol kill ALL bacteria - we actually need the good bugs to help us ward off the bad! Read this article by the BBC to find out more.
  • pesticides and chemicals in the environment (you could consider buying organic to off-set this)
  • smoking
  • too much stress and little sle

The good news is - there are lots of daily habits you can undertake to support the microbiome. And don’t fret, if any of the above resonate with you, the microbiome is versatile and changeable, so by adopting some of the healthy behaviours below, we can make a change to the microbiome.

What can I eat to support my gut microbiome?

Lady making sauerkraut

Probiotic foods - good bacteria for the gut

The bacteria in these foods simply take up residence alongside your existing gut bacteria; the more 'good' colonies the better, and the less chance of pathogenic colonies taking over.

Your gut will thank you and its cheaper than taking probiotic supplements - which are definitely a useful tool - but good to rely on food first as a daily intervention.

  • Kefir. Can be dairy or simply water kefir. Available to buy in supermarkets and brands such as Yeo Valley sell kefir and you can get flavoured drinks too by Biotiful (these only contain fruit sugars). You can buy starters called SCOBYs (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeasts) from health shops if you want to make it yourself.
  • Kombucha. This fizzy, often flavoured drink is available in most large supermarkets. It is a fermented tea, which has naturally occurring good bacteria for the gut. These are some good options: Remedy or Lo Bros.
  • Kimchi. Is made from salad and fermented veg - sold in Wagamamas if you want to try initially, or here is one available in Sainsbury's.
  • Sauerkraut. Fermented cabbage basically. Ideally make at home to ensure lots of lovely bacteria are present (here is a recipe) or make sure you buy raw and unpasteurised from a health shop.
  • Miso, olives in brine and sourdough bread can also be beneficial for the gut.

I haven’t added yogurt to the list above as most yogurt is pasteurised. This means the bacteria is killed off (good and bad), so unless it states ‘unpasteurised’ or ‘live’ it’s not going to have much goodness for the gut.

I’m don't recommend Actimel or similar drinks for adding good bacteria to the gut as these are full of sugar, which feeds the bad bacteria. I would swap an actimel for plain kefir yogurt and add berries.

In terms of supplementing with good bacteria / probiotics, there are many on the market and can be beneficial in circumstances when you need some extra help / have had antibiotics. Some brands which offer these products include Symprove and Optibac. Please note - probiotics should not be taken if you are immunocompromised e.g. on meds which suppress your immunity such as cancer treatment.

Prebiotics - food for the good bacteria

These foods contain fibres which the bacteria munch on to survive so make sure you get lots of these in your diet. These are just as important as the probiotic foods, as once we have good bacteria in place, we need to nourish them to keep them strong and dominant in the gut.

  • Bananas, apples, blueberries
  • Lentils
  • Oats
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Onions and garlic
  • Leeks, asparagus,
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Flaxseeds (buy these whole and add them to your cereal ground).

In general, fresh natural foods will support a health microbiome, and processed, sugary foods will not.

Yogurt and berries

What lifestyle changes can I make to support my microbiome?

  • Get out in nature - being surrounded by natural bacteria in nature will have a positive impact on your microbiome, another reason to get out and about this winter!
  • Buy organic if and when you can (prioritise the ‘dirty dozen’ when buying organic fruit and veg), and try not to over sanitise your home - Ecover is a natural, effective cleaning product which doesn’t ‘overkill!’.
  • Reduce stress and get better sleep (check out this article for better sleep tips).
  • Reduce your alcohol intake - have designated ‘nights off’ and try to reduce your intake when you do drink by sipping water in between alcohol or starting to drink later in the evening.