Did you know the gut is known as the ‘second brain’? Our handy guide will give you the tips & tricks you need to help support it & improve digestion
A great way to help support our ‘second brain’? Following a gut-friendly diet. This helps keep the bacteria in our gut balanced and thriving, helping to improve digestion and support overall health. And, as the gut’s home to some 100 million neurons (which is why you might sometimes hear the gut referred to as the second brain), it also has the potential to influence our brain and mood.
When it comes to helping keep our gut healthy and happy, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach because everyone’s needs are different. However, there are some common watchouts to have on our radars that can be a useful starting point.
To provide the lowdown on these handy digestive dos and don’ts, we enlisted the help of Boots nutritionist, Vicky Pennington. Here, she reveals what we can do to help make our diet and lifestyle gut health-friendlier.
6 ways to support gut health & improve digestion
1. Find ways to reduce everyday stress
Have you ever felt your stomach churn, or described a feeling of butterflies in your tummy when you feel stressed or uneasy? It turns out that feeling tense can knock our digestive system off balance due to the connection between the gut and brain. “This two-way communication is known as the ‘gut-brain axis’ and emerging research links our gut microbiota to mental health,” Vicky tells us.
Symptoms of an unhealthy gut can include tummy pain, constipation, indigestion, diarrhoea and heartburn, but the signs can vary from person to person and you may feel a symptom more strongly than someone else. For instance, you may find yourself feeling sick, whereas someone else might be more prone to heartburn.
When it comes to managing everyday stress and looking after your gut health, it can be a bit of trial and error. “If you find that your level of stress is impacting your health, it’s important to discuss with your doctor to find lifestyle strategies, such as exercise and relaxation that work for you,” says Vicky. It’s also worth visiting your GP initially to rule out any other underlying causes. Once these have been ruled out and it’s thought everyday stress might be impacting your gut, you could try going for walks, booking in for a massage or downloading a guided meditation app for a few moments of calm and relaxation.
If everyday stress means you’ve gone off food or feel a bit bloated, then try your best not to worry about it, because it could make symptoms worse. Instead, try to eat small, regular meals and nibble on healthy snacks to help keep your energy levels up without overloading your body.
When you’re feeling stressed, it’s important to try to be kind to your body. So, instead of reaching for crisps, chocolate and coffee, which could feel like a quick fix, try to choose fruit, veg and nuts.
Alcohol, fizzy drinks and caffeine may increase anxiety levels if you’re already feeling tense, so go for decaf options or herbal teas instead. And remember to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Are you a smoker and noticing heartburn and acid reflux? You guessed it – cigarettes could be fuelling the problem. If you’re trying to stop smoking, then take a look at some nicotine replacement therapy*, such as gums, lozenges and patches, consider the Boots Stop Smoking Treatment service** or try Boots Online Doctor Stop Smoking Treatment service.
Regular exercise can also help keep your gut in tip-top shape, because physical activity ups the blood flow to all of your muscles, including your gut. The NHS recommends we aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activities a week, spread evenly over four to five days, and incorporate strength activities that work all the major muscle groups on at least two days a week. Consider this your cue to try that gym class or on-demand workout you’ve always wanted to do.
2. Tweak how you eat
We’re not just talking about what you put in your body – how you eat it is key, too. It’s important to take time over your food. We may sound like we’re stating the obvious here, but chewing your food properly, no matter how much of a rush you’re in, is a small change that can make a huge difference.
You could also consider:
• Not overeating – reduce your portion size or instead of eating three big meals a day, swap to eating four or five smaller ones.
• Eating regularly and trying not to skip meals – yes, that includes breakfast and lunch, we know how easy it can be to skip one.
• Avoiding big meals before bed – larger meals before sleep may cause heartburn and disrupt your zzzs.
• Sitting up straight and eating slowly – after a long day, it can be tempting to have dinner in front of the TV, but eating at the table with no distractions (au revoir mobile phone) and sitting up straight can help your gut do its job of digesting your food properly.
3. Get enough fibre
If you’re not eating enough fibre, know that you’re not alone. Recent research shows that in the UK, the average fibre intake for adults is 18g a day, 60% of what it should be (the current recommendation for adults is 30g of fibre a day). As fibre is really important in helping with digestive health and preventing constipation, we could all do with upping our daily fill of it.
“What we eat and drink can impact the diversity of bacteria in the gut (also known as our gut microbiota) and this, in turn, may impact our health and wellbeing,” explains Vicky. “But there’s no such thing as an ideal gut microbiota or an ideal diet. Focusing on fibre is a good place to start though, because it helps support a diverse gut microbiota.”
A useful watchout: try to take it easy when adding fibre into your diet, because a sudden increase can cause wind and bloating. Instead, make the transition gradually and drink plenty of water. The recommended dietary intake of fibre for an adult is 30g a day and can be found in:
• Wholemeal bread
• Brown rice
• Fruits and vegetables
• Pulses (lentils, peas)
• Potatoes with skins
• Wholegrain cereals
4. Drink enough water
Fibre acts like a sponge, absorbing water as it passes through, so being well hydrated can help your digestion and keep things moving.
If you’re not great at consistently sipping, then try having a glass of water with every meal or keep a big reusable water bottle in your line of sight with a couple of ice cubes dropped in to make rehydrating easier. Still finding yourself parched? You could also download a water reminder app, which can give you a little nudge to drink some water.
For more tips and tricks, check out our guide to 5 practical tips to help you drink more water.
Drinks that have caffeine in them like tea, coffee and fizzy drinks are best kept to a minimum, because they may contribute to symptoms like heartburn in some cases.
5. Cut down on fat
Ever find yourself craving rich, fatty foods, like chips, pies, cheese or pizza? These things, as well as creamy sauces, crisps, chocolate, cake and biscuits, and fatty meats like burgers and sausages, can cause problems for your digestion and may aggravate indigestion, discomfort and heartburn. But, never fear, because there are some simple swaps you can make to help keep symptoms to a minimum:
● Grill food instead of frying it.
● Limit takeaways.
● Eat vegetables or nuts instead of crisps, and fruit instead of biscuits and cakes.
● Eat small amounts of lean meat and chicken without the skin.
Thinking about cutting down on your meat consumption? It could have gut health benefits. “Red meat can be a part of a healthy diet and it’s a good source of nutrients, but we don’t need to eat it every day,” says Vicky. “Try eating smaller portions, opt for meat alternatives and try having meat-free days.”
6. Track your triggers
If you’re not sure which foods are causing your stomach discomfort, Vicky recommends keeping a diary to note your food intake and how you’re feeling. “Avoid or limit any food and drinks that you know upset your digestion, for example caffeine, spicy foods and alcohol,” she says. “We’re all different, so keeping a food and symptom diary can be really useful in identifying your trigger foods.”
It’s not just spicy or rich foods that can cause problems – other things that may aggravate our gut include:
• Acidic foods, such as tomatoes and citrus fruits
• Fizzy drinks
• Dairy – if you're unable to digest the lactose in it
If you make any changes to your diet or lifestyle, make sure to give your digestive system time to adjust. If your discomfort persists after following general lifestyle and dietary advice, speak to your doctor who may be able to refer you to a healthcare professional with expertise in dietary management, such as a dietitian, who can ensure your diet is nutritionally adequate while following dietary intervention.
For more expert tips, check out our Boots Live Well Panel talk with Dr Megan Rossi.