Have you noticed recently that a lot of people seem to be talking about the importance of good gut health? So why so much fuss – and what actually constitutes the ‘gut’?

The G word refers to our entire digestive system – the stomach, small and large intestines, pancreas, liver, gallbladder and rectum – but when people talk about ‘gut health’ what they are usually referring to is the microbiome. This is the complex, uniquely individual balance of the four main strains of bacteria that reside within our gut, which is, ultimately, our foundation for overall health.

Some gut bacteria, or some in excessive amounts, can cause infection, illness, digestive discomfort, and even an increased risk for cancer. While other bacteria, or the right amounts of them, help us fight disease and stay healthy, in fact, 80% of our immune function resides in our gut walls.

In particular, low levels of lactobacillus bacteria are commonly linked to low immunity. Great natural sources of lactobacillus are live yoghurt and kefir, and raw, unpasteurised milk, or you can get it from non-dairy sources such as sauerkraut, kimchi and coconut kefir. There are countless recipes for these online and they’re supremely cheap and easy to make, or you could try Biona’s tasty kraut, or Purearth Life’s vibrant and zingy kefir waters (both online at Planet Organic).

If you’re not vegetarian and regularly roast a joint or a chicken, boiling up the carcass and bones, for up to 24 hours, until the bones soften and crumble, will give you a rich, deep bone broth, which is full of natural amino acids, which has been shown to heal the gut wall and reduce intestinal inflammation. You can tweak a basic recipe (there’s a great one on hemsleyandhemsley.com) with whatever seasonal herbs and veg you have to hand. 

Then there are the mood-boosting effects of a healthy gut. Around 75% of our happy hormone, serotonin, is also produced within our microbiome. Poor gut health is often related to low mood – see the box below for more about my favourite book on how to fix it with diet. A

We can also feed up our good bacteria with prebiotic-rich foods. To explain: prebiotics are the food that feed your good bacteria – probiotics are the good bacteria themselves. Cooked and cooled potatoes, basmati rice, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory and tiger nuts, are fantastic natural sources of prebiotics.

Then, there is the stress connection. Being in a state of relaxation plays a huge part in how well we digest our food. When we chew well, breathe slowly, and eat mindfully, we are far less likely to suffer digestive discomfort. When we are overly stressed, our stomachs also produce less hydrochloric acid – and we need a lot of it to properly break down our food. The best long-term approach is to tackle your stress levels head on. (A daily antacid is not the answer. Sorry.)

There has been some heartening research into the herb ashwagandha, which dramatically reduces the impact of stress on the body’s immune, digestive and nervous systems. I now take it every day and love the one by Wild Nutrition, £19.50 wildnutrition.com

And, finally, if you feel that your gut bacteria simply are not functioning optimally (and you’ve been struggling with irritable bowl syndrome-type symptoms with little success), you may want to read up on the only NHS-backed probiotic on the market, Symprove symproveyourlife.com

Independent research by University College London (UCL) showed that Symprove can arrive at and survive and thrive in targeted areas of your gut quickly and effectively, and ongoing research is unanimously positive. A 12-week course will help to get gut health back on track – it is costly, but effective.

Eminé Rushton is Wellbeing Director-at-Large at Psychologies magazine, and co-founder of the conscious living blog, The Balance Plan, balanceplan.co.uk

Healthy inside

Nutritional therapist Eve Kalinik (evekalinik.com) recommends polyphenol-rich foods, e.g. green tea, blueberries, cold-pressed olive oil and a glass of good red wine, to boost overall wellbeing. Her fantastically thorough book, Be Good to Your Gut, £20 (Piatkus), includes detailed advice on feeding your inner ecosystem, with inventive and delicious recipes alongside.

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