You can diet, exercise and meditate as much as you like, but if your gut isn’t happy, you’re going to find it hard to get the results you so desire. More and more studies are pointing to the crucial role our gut plays in everything from weight loss and mood to skin health. It plays house to our microbiota, essentially a community of millions of important bacteria that affect our immune and digestive systems. Interestingly, a 2013 study found that lean people have 70 percent more gut bacteria, and thus a more diverse microbiota than overweight people. Scientists now know that our gut is responsible for around 90 percent of our body’s serotonin production—that all-important happy hormone. So keeping our guts happy is imperative for not just weight loss, but our mood too.
And there is the link between gut health and skin problems like acne and eczema. “The proven strains of good bacteria include lactobacillus and bifidobacterium species. Both have been shown to promote gut immunity (therefore reducing the severity of skin allergy conditions such as eczema), reduce skin inflammation (a leading cause of prematurely ageing skin) and boost cellular antioxidant capacity,” explains Carla Oates, founder of The Beauty Chef.
To find out more about how to diet for your gut, we called on nutritional therapist Henrietta Norton to reveal how you can identify if your gut health is out of whack and how to fix it. Norton reveals the foods and supplements that will strengthen your gut and help your healthy bacteria flourish. Keep scrolling for Norton's happy-gut diet tips.
“The gut is the engine room.”
For a long time it was widely believed that our brain was the most intelligent and imperative part of our body. But now researchers are acknowledging that our guts are pretty important too, even dubbing the gut the “second brain.” “It is the primary site for many of the neurotransmitters and hormones including serotonin and GABA, the feel-good and ‘anti-anxiety’ brain chemicals,” adds Norton.
“The gut is the engine room,” she says. “It plays a huge part in so many important aspects of your health, such as the strength of your immune system, over 70 percent of your immune system is actually located in gut tissue and can affect our sensitivity to vitamin D too; our ability to manufacture energy, good bacteria produce B vitamins, our key ‘energy’ vitamins; hormone balance and even our mental health.”
Unhappy Gut = Unhappy Body and Mind
Since the gut has such a huge bearing on so many areas of our being, if it’s out of balance we can suffer from numerous different symptoms. “Obvious signs [of gut problems are changes] in transit time (such as constipation or diarrhoea), excess bloating, wind and food intolerances, but also issues such as auto-immune conditions, poor skin, PMS, depression, ‘brain fog' and poor energy can be all signs,” says Norton.
And it’s unfortunately a viscious cycle, “Changes to the intestinal environment can also dictate the foods we choose!” says Norton. “Dysbiosis, a fancy way of saying too much unwanted bacteria and not enough good bacteria in the gut, can increase cravings for sugary foods, for example.”
Ensuring there is the right balance of bacteria in the gut is imperative to looking and feeling your best. “Good bacteria in the gut can change how ‘adaptable’ we are to stress in our environment, whether that’s stress from a clash with your work colleagues or stress from pollutants in the air,” explains Norton.
“Melatonin, needed for healthy sleep/wake cycle, is also affected by the balance of gut bacteria. It is thought that it is produced by the pineal gland (located in the brain), but interestingly 400 times more of it is created in the intestinal tract from the amino acid, l-tryptophan. Melatonin and serotonin levels are also linked with IBS.”
Diet for Your Gut
Sure, you can restrict your calorie intake and you’ll lose weight, but you won’t necessarily look and feel your best. The key to successful and effective weight loss is to think about a gut diet. Factoring in foods that your good gut bacteria can feed off and, in turn, flourish.
“We know that certain bacteria are metabolically active and can determine how the fuel from food is stored or used, impacting on weight. Poor digestion in general can affect how efficient we are at processing and extracting nutrients from our food. And some of these nutrients will have a direct impact on how efficient the body metabolises food.”
To lose weight you need to put yourself in a calorie deficit, this means you’re consuming fewer calories than you burn for energy, which leads to weight loss. But not all calories are born equal. Chowing down on gut-friendly foods will do more for you than say, switching to low-fat, artificially sweetened diet foods.
Here Henrietta Norton has listed out the ‘gut diet’ foods you should be factoring into your nutrition intake on the daily:
- Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil—this contains oleic acid, an anti-fungal agent.
- Raw garlic—the allicin in raw garlic is also a potent anti-fungal.
- Apple cider vinegar—ACV is fermented, and fermented foods help boost good gut bacteria. Try one capful in warm water or use in dressings, as per lemon.
- Green tea—loose leaf green tea (maximum 3 cups per day) has anti-microbial properties.
- Anti-inflammatory herbs such as rosemary and thyme.
- Broth and lean proteins—fish, chicken, turkey, lamb and fresh broths, made from any of these meats, supply amino acids and minerals to support the gut lining and therefore its ability to separate “friend from foe,” as well as produce immune-supporting chemicals.
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“Be wary of ‘health’ foods such as smoothies or consuming too much fermented food. If polysaccharides from fruits and vegetables used in juices or smoothies are not being broken down effectively, this provides the perfect fuel for unwanted bacteria or yeast, such as the candida species or klebsiella. If ‘dysbiosis’ is already existing, this could worsen symptoms.
“Fermented foods may sound great in principle, but if you have an existing bacterial imbalance (so not enough variety in your beneficial bacteria and a high amount of ‘bad’ commensal bacteria or pathogenic bacteria) then too many fermented products could perpetuate the problem. You need to start slowly.”
Supplement Your Gut
A few carefully selected supplements can really help ensure your gut is functioning optimally. Norton recommends the following:
Probiotics—in the form of supplements or food can be helpful in re-inoculating the gut. Probiotic powders are versatile and argued by some experts to be more effectively utilised by the body in a free powder than liquid form. As more is understood about the complexity of the human microbiome, we are also recognising that strains of beneficial flora work best in synergy. Look for complexes with multiple strains such as those containing lactobacillus, bifidobacterium and streptococcus strains. I use the Wild Nutrition MultiStrain Biotic (£35) in clinic.
Slippery elm—is categorised as a ‘mucilage’ and has been found in research to affect the reflux stimulation of nerve endings in the gastrointestinal tract leading to increased mucus secretion. In simple terms, it means this will help to protect the gut wall.
Glutamine—is the most abundant amino acid found in the mucosa (the lining of the gut), and supplementing with this can be especially helpful at restoring healthy gut permeability. It is easy and safe to use at good higher doses (around 5–10 grams a day).
Ashwaghandha—this helps with increased motility, the rhythmic flow of the colon during exposure to stressful situations that has been shown to occur in those with IBS. Pay attention to lifestyle choices and consider adaptogenic agents such as ashwagandha, it’s my favourite adaptogenic herb for supporting stress and hormone stability and one that I use in many of the Wild Nutrition formulas.
Betaine hydrochloride—mimics stomach acid and can be taken short term to re-establish stomach acid production. Stomach acid levels can be low for varying reasons (age, prescription medication, an over-alkalised diet) resulting in poor digestion. Stomach acid also acts as a barrier to harmful bacteria and other microbes, as well as playing a vital role in the utilisation of minerals such as zinc from food. Therefore, those with low stomach acid may have a lower immune tolerance to bacterial and viral infection or experience small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.