Knowing you need to improve your lifestyle for health reasons is one thing; achieving those changes is another story, and can be overwhelming — and frustrating — with the constant messages about, frankly, unrealistic habits you have to adopt.
But good gut health (ie a healthy balance of bacteria and other microorganisms) doesn’t have to be hard work or involve sacrificing things you love, either.
It really is about small, simple strategies that are realistic for you to fit into your lifestyle.
The following ten micro-habits can make a meaningful difference to your gut microbes, no extra effort required. They’ve been tried and tested by thousands of my clients. Why not try to focus on one each week for the next ten weeks.
1. Buy a new TYPE OF fruit and vegetable each week
It sounds simple, but mixing up your shopping list and adding in plant-based foods you’ve never tried, or rarely eat, is one of the best ways to increase the diversity of your gut microbes — and the ‘skills’ they offer you in terms of vitamin production, supporting your metabolism, training your immune system. . . I could go on.
Basically, each plant has a unique mix of chemicals (or phytochemicals) that nourishes the microbes in your gut.
And don’t just stick to the fresh produce aisle — try new spices, unfamiliar types of canned beans (such as black beans, see recipe, right), nuts, even jars of roasted peppers or artichokes.
Knowing you need to improve your lifestyle for health reasons is one thing; achieving those changes is another story, and can be overwhelming — and frustrating — with the constant messages about, frankly, unrealistic habits you have to adopt
2. Chew 10 to 20 times for each mouthful
It’s the kind of thing your mum might have said but it really is important to chew properly — research shows your body will then absorb more of the nutrients from your food.
In a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009, people absorbed around 15 per cent more nutrients when they chewed almonds 40 times per mouthful than when they chewed just ten times.
Chewing more also helps relieve bloating because the food will be better absorbed before it reaches the large intestine, where anything that’s undigested is fermented by the bacteria, producing excess gas.
3. Have a morning cup of tea or coffee
Staying hydrated is super-important for your digestive and overall health. As well as keeping a water bottle with you, enjoy a cup of filtered coffee or tea in the morning (or decaf after noon), as they’re rich in phytochemicals.
Despite the old wives’ tale, moderate caffeine intake (around three single shots of coffee or tea per day) has been shown to be as hydrating as water.
4. Breathing exercise to de-stress your gut
Psychological stress can make your gut stressed, too, which can lead to bloating and altered bowel movements.
Whenever you’re feeling a little stressed, try this technique: breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold for four, slowly and steadily out through your nose for four seconds, hold for four. Repeat for ten cycles.
The slow holding of breath changes the amount of carbon dioxide in your body, which in turn activates your ‘rest and digest’ nervous system, sending a wave of calmness through your body.
I love this technique — used by US Navy SEALs as part of their combat training to stay calm in battle situations — as it’s been shown to lower heart rate and stress hormones.
5. Get sweetness from fruit not sweeteners
Products with artificial sweeteners may seem like a good option, but they can increase your craving for sugary foods.
One study from the Center for Human Nutrition in Sheffield found that diet drinks resulted in more calories being consumed the next day. And animal studies show certain types of sweeteners can reduce beneficial gut bacteria.
By contrast, whole fruit — such as dates in brownies or bananas in smoothies — offer not only that sweet hit, but an array of dietary fibers to keep you more satisfied for longer, and phytochemicals to boost beneficial gut bacteria.
6. Choose pre-mixed fruit, veg and beans
Pre-mixed packs — fresh or frozen — are one of my top tips for diversifying your diet. For example, swap plain lettuce for the mixed salad bag with rocket, spinach and carrot; don’t choose just red pepper, pick up the orange and green as well; swap a tin of chickpeas for a five-bean mix; and swap frozen green beans for a bag of frozen Mediterranean veg.
Did you know?
The darker the chocolate, the more cocoa and the more gut-loving plant chemicals (or phytochemicals). In fact, one study found that daily consumption of cocoa significantly lowered blood pressure — a key risk factor for heart disease.
7. Pop a poop step in your bathroom
Our bodies are designed to poop in the squatting position (something that Western bathroom designers have overlooked) — essentially with your knees higher than your bottom.
This straightens out the lower end of the intestine, allowing for a smooth departure and reducing the risk of constipation and piles. Pop an old phone book, shoe box or footstep under your feet while on the loo.
8. Swap tight trousers for stretchy clothes
‘Tight pants syndrome’ is a real thing — it’s where pressure from a tight waistband on the intestinal wall triggers abdominal pain and bloating. If you’re suffering with any gut distress, particularly bloating, making this simple swap can be a game-changer.
9. Pizza or takeaway? Add an extra veggie
Looking after your gut health doesn’t mean missing out on your favorite foods or dinner with friends. Simply add fiber goodness (ie plant foods) on the side to feed your gut microbes, whether it’s adding greens to your pizza topping, lentils to your curry sauce, or another side of veg to your Sunday roast.
10. Avoid large meals THREE hours before bed
It takes, on average, three hours for most of a meal to clear your stomach. You don’t want food hanging around there when you go to bed as you’re then more likely to suffer from acid reflux, as the food puts pressure on the valve that separates your stomach contents from your esophagus, disrupting sleep.
Sleep is one of the most underrated resources for good gut health. One study, by neuroscientists at Uppsala University in Sweden in 2016, showed that just two nights of sleep deprivation can alter your gut microbes in a way linked to problems such as higher blood sugar levels.
The following ten micro-habits can make a meaningful difference to your gut microbes, no extra effort required. They’ve been tried and tested by thousands of my clients. Why not try to focus on one each week for the next ten weeks
Try this: Black bean brownies
I serve this as a treat to all the fussy eaters in my life. Loaded with polyphenols and prebiotics, their microbes love me for it!
- 125 g tinned black beans, drained and rinsed
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 20 g cocoa powder
- 80 g rolled oats
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 8 Medjool dates, pitted
- 1 ripe banana, peeled
- 120 ml milk of choice
- 50 g dark chocolate chips
- 2 tbsp nut butter of choice (optional)
Preheat oven to 180c fan/gas mark 4. Add all ingredients, except the chocolate and nut butter, to a blender and blitz for a few minutes until completely smooth.
Stir in the chocolate chips and then spoon the mix into a lined square baking tray, swirl in the nut butter, then dot in a few extra chocolate chips. Bake for ten to 12 minutes. Allow to cool in the tin for five minutes. Best served warm.
I have long-standing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, frequently I also get what sounds like liquid gurgling around my tummy. It is noisy and embarrassing as my tummy actually moves around (almost like something’s trying to get out), and it’s uncomfortable.
Colette Mulligan, by email.
Borborygmi, the scientific name for those rumbles and grumbles your gut makes, is totally normal. It happens in all of us and it’s just the sound of the movements in your gut, as food, fluid and gas pass through.
It does occur more frequently in those with IBS. This is because IBS tends to involve incomplete digestion of food that then ferments in the large intestine, resulting in more gas-filled rumbles.
Even if they seem loud to you, chances are other people don’t notice them quite so much. And if they do, it’s just your gut doing its thing, sweeping itself ‘clean’, so try not to be embarrassed. You might hear the noises more when you’re hungry and your stomach is empty, as food (and liquid) help muffle the noise.
If you’re feeling like yours are getting too loud or come with other symptoms, one thing to consider is your stress and anxiety levels. The noises are often louder if you’re anxious, as your gut muscles tend to contract more aggressively. And if you’re a fast eater, try slowing down and chewing well, so that your food is better digested.
Contact Dr. Megan Rossi
Email email@example.com or write to Good Health, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT — please include contact details. Dr. Megan Rossi cannot enter into personal correspondence. Replies should be taken in a general context; always consult your GP with any health concerns.