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7 science-backed tips for improving your gut health – and none of them are on TikTok

Posted by for Nutrition

Forget the influencers trying to push plans or supplements – gut health is a science in which plenty of research has already been done. They might not promise quick wins, but these tips will help. 

We are totally obsessed with gut health and gut healing these days. In fact, one of my group chats (usually a health and fitness-free zone) has recently started to discuss the benefits of trying a “gut health reset”, much to my alarm. And that’s because they want to feel “better”. Our guts have suddenly become the epicentre of emotional and physical wellbeing (perhaps because we know that 95% of our serotonin is made in the gut).

While focusing on gut health isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is leaving us vulnerable to inaccurate information. TikTok, for example, is full of nonsense gut-healing hacks that do very little in terms of promoting beneficial gut bacteria. In fact, the very term “gut healing” should be an immediate red flag for anyone looking to boost their overall wellbeing.

That’s why Dr Emilia Thompson, registered nutritionist and health coach, has been sharing seven common sense tips for improving and maintaining good gut health. None of them, she says, “involve the words ‘gut healing protocol’”. In an Instagram post, she claims that the people who promote those kinds of healing courses are “charlatans”. Instead, she lists seven scientifically backed lifestyle tweaks we can make to give our guts the best support. 

Manage your stress levels to soothe the gut-brain axis

Have you noticed that you get bloated when you’re busy with work? Or find that your digestion goes haywire during periods of high anxiety or pressure? That’s because stress has a huge impact on our gut health, thanks to the trusty old gut-brain axis. When our brains experience distress, it sends signals down into our stomachs to warn that all isn’t well – and that can lead to gut symptoms. 

The NHS warns that stress can slow down digestion, causing bloating, pain and constipation – or speed it up, causing diarrhoea. It can also make conditions such as IBS worse. 

Stay hydrated by drinking enough water every day

Drinking plenty of water has been shown to have a positive effect on the lining of the intestines as well as the balance of good bacteria in the gut. In fact, some scientists say that water is actually “the forgotten nutrient” when it comes to gut health.

A 2022 study, published in The Journal Of Nutrition, found that there’s a difference in the diversity and density of gut bacteria between those who drink a lot of water and those who don’t consume enough. It found, for example, that regular water drinkers tended to have less of the campylobacter bacteria, which has been linked to gastrointestinal infections. 

Eat 30g of fibre a day and 30 different plants a week

We don’t have to tell you that more plants and fibre equal better gut health. But diversity is important here. Similar to how your muscles need to be surprised by different kinds of movement if they’re to get stronger over time, your gut bacteria wants to be fed an array of different foods every week. 

Dr Tim Spector from the British Gut Project has been instrumental in pushing the 30-a-week agenda. His researchers gathered microbiome samples from 10,000 people and ran a DNA analysis to identify strains of microbes found in the gut. They found that those eating 30 different types of plants a week had optimum gut health and reduced symptoms of dysbiosis, a dysfunction in gut microbiome. 

Exercise regularly… but not *too* much

The general NHS guidelines advise us to do 150 minutes of moderate movement every week. And while there are a whole list of benefits associated with exercising daily, one that you might not be as familiar with is better gut health. In fact, a 2021 study confirmed that moderate exercise can promote positive changes in our gut microbiota composition

“Exercise is known to help with gut issues, such as improving constipation in the short term,” Evelyn Toner, sports nutritionist at the Gut Health Clinic, previously told Stylist. It’s worth noting, however, that doing a lot of exercise (such as marathon training) can have the reverse effect: “Endurance exercise has been shown to lead to gut discomfort – reducing blood flow to the area,” Toner says. “Prolonged exercise may result in an increase in gut permeability and the occurrence of exercise-induced gut symptoms such as bloating, discomfort, nausea and diarrhoea.” 

So as ever, the dose makes the poison.

Woman in hoodie jogging
Exercise has been proven to aid gut health, but too much can have the opposite effect.

Eat slower and chew every mouthful of food

You don’t necessarily have to eat in a rush to experience heartburn or poor digestion. Simply not chewing your food enough and being distracted by other things going on during meal times can mean swallowing lumps of grub and air – both of which can cause gut symptoms. If you can, get away from your desk at lunchtime and set aside at least 30 minutes to enjoy every morsel of food (and if you do have to eat at your laptop, at least don’t attempt to work and eat at the same time).

Moderate your caffeine and alcohol intake

OK, so we know that coffee can be really beneficial to gut health. In fact, a 2019 paper found that people who drink up to three cups a day tend to have healthier guts than non-coffee drinkers. But you can have too much of a good thing. Coffee tends to be quite acidic, so drinking a lot of it can impact the lining of the stomach (particularly if you already have digestive issues like IBS or IBD). But we also know that caffeine can aggravate the stomach too, with excessive consumption being linked to upset stomachs. One study found that caffeinated coffee stimulated the colon 23% more than decaf coffee, and 60% more than water

As for alcohol, studies have found that it can cause inflammation in the gut when consumed to excess. However, moderate consumption of red wine may actually be linked to positive gut microbiota composition.

Include some fermented foods and try to follow a Mediterranean-style dietary pattern

A 2021 study by Stanford University found that fermented food might actually be better than fibre for improving gut diversity and reaping the associated health benefits. In the study, researchers randomly allocated people a high-fibre diet or a fermented food diet that included foods such as kefir, kimchi and probiotic yoghurts. 

While both groups saw improvements to their microbiome, only the fermented food group increased the diversity of the strains of bacteria that lived in their gut. So, that’s an invitation to start your day with a bowl of live yoghurt, add kimchi to your lunchtime toastie or have a side of pickles with your dinner.

Meanwhile, the Mediterranean diet is thought to be one of the most nutritious ways of eating, thanks to the fact that it covers all the main food groups and includes loads of anti-inflammatories and antioxidants. Think about it: you’ve got a plate stacked with fresh fruit and veg, dashed with olive oil that is full of healthy monounsaturated fats, accompanied with fibre-rich almonds, antioxidant packed seeds, potassium-filled avocados and oily fish (such as grilled sardines, salmon and anchovies) that are chock full of omega-3s. 

It’s not just the fibre content of the Med diet that’s beneficial to gut health; a 2017 study also flagged that omega-3 “can be considered (to be a) prebiotic”.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.