Healthy Town: Looking after our gut health
For most of us, looking after our gut health is relatively straightforward, but changes in your gut can be a sign that there is something going on which needs to be investigated
Sarah Noone, registered dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation: “Our gut naturally contains trillions of bacteria to keep us healthy, however, sometimes they can be knocked out of balance for different reasons.” Photograph: iStock
Throughout the Pfizer Healthy Town programme, experts will hold talks and workshops around maintaining a healthy body and mind - and that includes the importance of gut health.
We have all seen the adverts promoting products containing good bacteria which will be beneficial to our gut health, but Sarah Noone, registered dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation, says they aren’t always necessary.
“Our gut naturally contains trillions of bacteria to keep us healthy, however, sometimes they can be knocked out of balance for different reasons, which is where probiotics (‘good bacteria’ found in certain foods and supplements) can help,” she says. “They replenish our levels of good bacteria by essentially competing for space with the bad bacteria and moving them out of the gut.
“Though it might appear like an easy solution to good gut health, research shows that for healthy people, probiotics have minimal impact on gut health. That said, there is evidence to support their use in certain instances, for example, if you are taking antibiotics or if you have an illness such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But just keep in mind that they don’t work for everybody. The bottom line for the general healthy population is that there isn’t currently strong research to suggest we need to take probiotics daily.”
Noone says it is also worth keeping in mind that different probiotics do different things, so we need to match the probiotic and dose to the condition or outcome we are looking for.
“A more individualised approach is key, which is why it’s best to get advice from a dietitian or your doctor around the evidence for probiotic use in certain conditions, the type and the dose recommended,” says Noone.
“So although probiotics are considered safe for the general population, those who have a weakened immune system should speak to their GP or dietitian before taking probiotics.”
There is a huge amount of research around gut health and its impact on physical health issues, but more recently scientists have started to look at whether there is a link between gut health and mental health.
Sarah Noone says there are many factors thought to contribute to mental health, some which we can change or at least influence.
“Recently there has been research into whether the microbes in our gut (the gut microbiota) could be a modifiable factor linked to our mental health,” she says. “This has come from research that shows a two-way communication between our gut microbiota and our brain (the-gut-brain-axis). Although interesting it’s still very early days for this research so we will have to wait and see.”
But in the meantime we should think about what we eat, how we eat and how much fluid we take each day. Noone offers some simple tips for a gut makeover which promises to improve both our bodies and minds.
“Almost 80 per cent of us don’t eat enough fibre,” she says. “The right mix of both soluble and insoluble fibre ensures our digestive system and bowels are in good working order, in addition to contributing to healthy cholesterol levels and promoting healthy gut bacteria. The main thing is to get plenty of fibre in a variety of wholegrains, beans, pulses, fruits and vegetables, as this will help you get the benefits of each fibre variety.
“If you are buying ready-made products like bread, pasta or breakfast cereal, check the nutritional information on the back of the pack and try to choose the higher fibre options where possible. Remember - a product needs to contain 6g of fibre per 100g to claim to be high in fibre.
“And if you are increasing the fibre in your diet, you should always increase your intake gradually as going from a little to a lot can cause discomfort. Make sure you are drinking enough liquids - preferably water - as fibre needs fluid to do its job.”
She also says we should aim for approximately eight cups of fluid a day or more if exercising.
“An easy way to know if you are drinking enough is to look at the colour of your urine; it should be a pale yellow,” Noone advises. “You’ll notice your urine is slightly darker when you are dehydrated, which means you need to drink more. So try to carrying a bottle of water with you or get into the habit of drinking a glass of water with every meal or snack to encourage yourself to drink more.
“And drink alcohol and caffeine in moderation as alcohol irritates the digestive tract and higher caffeine intakes have been reported to increase stress hormones which can lead to anxiety-induced gut symptoms in some people.”
For most of us, looking after our gut health is relatively straightforward, but changes in your gut can be a sign that there is something going on in your body which needs to be investigated.
The experienced dietitian says it’s important to know when to seek medical advice.
“Gut symptoms can in some cases be a sign of underlying disease,” she warns. “So look out for signs and if you are experiencing them or have any worries, then you should see your doctor.”
Reasons to seek medical advice include:
- A sudden, persistent change in the pattern of how your bowels work
- Rectal bleeding
- Worsening heartburn, indigestion or stomach pain
- Losing weight unexpectedly
- Family history of coeliac disease, bowel cancer or ovarian cancer
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