At Refinery29 Australia, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team, but we may earn commission or other compensation from the links on this page.
Internet chatter around gut health is nothing new. It's been debated, celebrated and critiqued for the past few years before becoming more mainstream in the health and wellness community. But with a new generation (on a new social media platform) coming through, gut health — and every tonic and trick surrounding it — has made somewhat of a resurgence lately.
Recent studies have uncovered just how many aspects of our overall health are tied to our gut. Things like skin conditions, digestion, immunity, and mental health are all linked to our gut, so more and more of us are making gut health a priority.
Why is gut health such a big deal?
It’s quite astonishing just how much our gut health can impact every aspect of our lives, from self-esteem to mood, concentration, sleep — and even sex and friendships, explains Dr Trina Kellar, neurogastroenterologist and endoscopist at QLD Pelvic Floor Centre.
"It’s central to our wellbeing. But it’s important not to feel like our gut is either a healthy or unhealthy thing that we just have to live with. In fact, our gut and digestion are incredibly responsive to what’s going on around us and what’s happening to us physically and mentally," she says.
Founder of JSHealth, Jessica Sepel agrees, explaining that our digestive system is like the "second brain of the body", and that the health of our gut has many implications on overall health and body systems.
"For example, we digest the essential nutrients and minerals via our gut through food for health and vitality. So it makes sense then, that if our digestion is compromised, we may not absorb these essential nutrients that help the body function well," says Jess.
Generally speaking, Dr Kellar says that if you don’t have a disease that needs specific treatment, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) or coeliac disease, the many stresses of our daily lives have a huge part to play in our ability to digest our food and be comfortable.
"Digestion problems can then make us more stressed and tired, but the gut is not usually the base problem. These problems are called disorders of the gut-brain interaction. There is an undeniable link between our emotions and our gut symptoms. Our gut is attuned to everything that is going on, and believe it or not, our mind is the control centre. Think of your brain as the great amplifier. When you feel stressed, tired, or overwhelmed, your whole nervous system goes into a high alert mode. Any physical discomfort you were feeling, such as pain or bloating, feels much worse," she says.
Why are we suddenly so obsessed with gut health?
It’s partly driven by science, with the recent explosion of research into the wonderful gut microbiome, and undeniably also partly due to pharmaceutical companies following the microbiome boom, explains Dr Kellar.
"People are also recognising the way our gut health affects many other bodily systems, e.g., mental health and skin health," adds Jess. "We are also getting more and more information on how the microbiome works from scientists these days, which has been the catalyst to take greater notice of the role of the gut."
What exactly affects gut health?
Sepel and Kellar both agree that pretty much anything and everything can have an effect on your gut health. "Sleep changes, stress, exercise (or lack of), our mood, food, medications, and so on. Our gut is very responsive to what is going on in our bodies, but it is also amazingly resilient and adaptable. The microbiome (the billions of healthy organisms that live inside our gut in a balanced ecosystem), nerves, and muscles are constantly growing and adapting to your environment. Bad gut health and damage are rarely permanent. Many people don’t realise this helpful fact," says Kellar.
Jess agrees, adding that the more gut health is studied, the more important we realise it is.
Can poor gut health really impact our moods?
"There is an undeniable link between our emotions and our gut symptoms. Our gut is attuned to everything that is going on, and believe it or not, our mind is the control centre. Think of your brain as the great amplifier. When you feel stressed, tired, or overwhelmed, your whole nervous system goes into a high alert mode. Any physical discomfort you were feeling, such as pain or bloating, feels much worse," explains Dr Kellar.
According to recent studies, we also make serotonin in our gut (our feel good or “happy” hormone), meaning that if this is compromised, we can struggle with anxiety and low mood due to the gut-brain-axis connection.
"It’s an area of increased interest and research," explains Sepel. Another recent review states that, "Dysbiosis and inflammation of the gut have been linked to causing several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression, which are prevalent in society today." This means that in future, it's possible that treatments like probiotics, which have the ability to help restore normal microbial balance, could have a potential role in the treatment and prevention of things like anxiety and depression.
So how do we know when our gut isn’t healthy?
According to Sepel, common symptoms may include things like irregular bowel movements (aka constipation or diarrhoea), bloating and gas after meals, reflux, digestive discomfort, lower immunity, cramping (outside of your period) and skin breakouts.
Kellar recommends that if you are bothered by any gut symptoms that are worrying you or just aren’t going away, then you should see a doctor to find out whether you have a gut health problem.
How can we improve or maintain gut health?
Kellar and Sepel agree that eating a nutritious diet that's rich in diverse whole foods is the first step in improving your gut health. "It’s also simple and doesn’t cost you anything, but unfortunately modern life doesn’t always support this fundamental behaviour," says Kellar. "Try sticking to simple, nutritious fresh food, where possible. As a nation, we know we need to eat less sugar, less fat, and less processed food."
Sepel also recommends reducing your sugar and alcohol intake, as it only feeds the bad bugs in the gut. This helps to provide nutrients and also feeds diverse species of bacteria for a healthy microbiome in the gut.
"If you’re unsure about what to eat, one or two sessions with a dietitian with a special interest in gastroenterology can do wonders. There’s a tendency to start cutting things out of our diet because we think we have food intolerance because of symptoms, but the problem is food anxiety — 'if I eat that I’m going to get sick' — can develop and that doesn’t help our body either," says Kellar. When we cut things out, our microbiome also changes, which can cause more symptoms.
According to Jess, another good thing to work into your diet is amino acids to help strengthen your gut lining. "You can usually boost your intake via adequate quality protein sources (think: legumes, beans, animal protein and fish)", she shares.
If you are interested in taking a probiotic, do your research and opt for one that contains evidence-backed strains of probiotics that work hard to support a healthy digestive system, bowel function and regularity, as well as boost the immune system, like the JSHealth Probiotic+, $59.99.
Both experts agree that getting enough and regular sleeping also gives your body (and gut) much needed time to heal. This along with making time for self-care activities like exercise, seeing friends and maintaining relationships, and other positive life experiences that can dramatically reduce stress when you can. "Cortisol, our stress hormone, can create a sense of threat in our nervous system, which in turn can affect gut health," explains Sepel.
And look, we know drinking 3.7 litres of water a day can sometimes be tricky, but hitting the daily recommended water intake will help flush toxins out of the body and assist with regular bowel movements.
As a simple rule, Dr Kellar says to drink when you are thirsty. "There is no ‘minimum amount’ recommended these days, but if you are busy and find you don’t notice you are thirsty, a simple rule for most people is a minimum of 1 glass of water for each meal and snack of the day, and drink plenty with exercise."