Every day, scientists are discovering more about the gut, which could in turn provide a key to understanding more about our bodies.
In fact, it could unlock new treatments for conditions ranging from diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease, to migraines and depression.
So, how do we know if we’ve got a healthy gut? What are the signs and symptoms of a happy or unhappy gut?
We’ve spoken to a leading dietitian specialising in gut health to unpack the most common signs of an unhealthy gut. And more importantly, we’ve provided three easy steps you can take to create a happier and healthier gut.
5 signs of an unhappy gut
1. Bloating and discomfort
Bloating is one of the most common signs that something might not be right in the gut, according to Nicole Dynan, ‘The Gut Health Dietitian’ and owner of The Good Nutrition Company.
Along with bloating, people can experience other symptoms like diarrhea and constipation, heartburn, reflux, nausea or pain, all of which Nicole says can be linked to gut health. Even bad breath can be a sign of a gut imbalance.
“Sometimes, people can’t even pinpoint exactly what’s wrong – it’s just a feeling of general discomfort,” she adds.
2. Sugar cravings
If you can’t get through the afternoon without reaching for a sweet treat, this too could be sign of an imbalance between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in your gut.
“Eating too much sugar or processed carbohydrates can cause ‘bad’ bacteria to overgrow in your gut, which then causes you to crave even more sugar,” Nicole explains.
3. Foggy head, headache and migraine
The gut can also be responsible for that foggy headed feeling, plus headaches and migraines. Nicole says these conditions are often caused by food intolerances which can come about as a result of gut problems.
4. Poor mood and sleep
The gut can also have a big impact on your mood. In fact, scientists have begun to study the link between gut health and depression.
Gut problems can cause problems which Nicole says include disrupted sleep, poor moods and even anger.
5. Skin conditions
“When it comes to the gut, it’s often a case of what’s happening on the inside being reflected on the outside,” Nicole says. This means common skin conditions such as eczema and rashes can often link back to gut health.
The same can also be true for respiratory conditions and hay fever, she adds.
How to boost gut health
If you’ve ticked off a few things on the symptoms list, the good news is there’s a lot you can do to put things right. Here are Nicole’s top three tips to a happier and healthier gut.
1. Eat a gut health diet
“The best thing you can do to improve gut health is to include lots of plant-based foods in your diet,” Nicole says.
The longest living-cultures in the world have all eaten diets high in plants, including vegetables, legumes and fruits, as well as whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, says Nicole.
They also have fermented foods, such as yoghurt, kimchi (Korean fermented vegetables), Sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) and Kefir (fermented milk).
She also recommends eating a small amount of meat. Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend just 455g of red meat a week, while fish should be eaten twice a week.
Fibre is crucial for gut health too. We should aim to eat 25 – 30g of fibre a day, but the average Australian does not get enough.
“To get enough fibre, swap white bread and rice for brown or wholemeal, and make sure to have two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables every day,” Nicole suggests. “Try adding more fibre to your meals – for example, next time you make spaghetti bolognaise, add some lentils.”
“Eat slowly and make sure you chew properly so you don’t get overly full or have problems digesting your food,” she says.
2. Increase prebiotics
Chances are you’ve heard about probiotics, but Nicole says the real key to improving gut health lies with prebiotics. These foods, which are mainly soluble fibres and resistant starches, act as fuel for good bacteria in the large intestine and include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
Resistant starches are particularly high in prebiotics – they include cooked, cooled and reheated potatoes, pasta and rice (like potato salad and sushi rice), legumes, uncooked oats and a special grain developed by the CSIRO called BarleyMax.
3. Exercise, sleep and drink lots of water
As well as diet, Nicole says it’s important to make sure you stay active, as that also has a beneficial effect on the gut. Getting enough sleep is also important, along with drinking adequate amounts of water.
Need some help or want to learn more?
“If, at any point you feel that something isn’t quite right, then talk to your doctor or seek the help of a dietitian,” Nicole says. They can assist with everything from diagnosing food intolerances to helping you get more plants into your diet.
It’s possible to see a dietitian without a referral, and you can check your health insurance extras cover to see how to use these benefits to provide additional guidance and support.