Marika Day: A gut health primer

More and more evidence is emerging that shows the gut has a profound effect on our wellbeing. So, how do we care for it appropriately? Dietitian Marika Day breaks it down.

Marika  Day

Marika Day

Marika Day is a nutritionist and Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Just over 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with coeliac disease. Funnily enough, I didn’t have the typical symptoms of poor gut health that usually come with that diagnoses. My primary symptom was extreme fatigue and severe iron deficiency. I went to the doctor to work out why I was so tired all the time, and the results came back with coeliacs. From that point, there was a massive change in terms of my diet – and my overall health.

I was shocked at how profound the impact on my mental and physical health was within a month of starting treatment. The year before I got that diagnosis is a blur to me, I was so fatigued. I felt like I had a cloud over my head that only lifted once I began to change my diet.

At the time, I was studying real estate – but after I saw what a dramatic impact that improving my gut health had on my life, I wanted to learn more about it. I was also such a foodie that I thought, ‘Why not combine the two and build a career on it?’ If diet could have such a profound effect on my entire life, I wanted to share that with others in a similar position.

The gut and health

Maybe I’m biased – it is my specialty – but I think that optimal gut health is incredibly important for everyone. If you’re a healthy individual you most likely don’t need to be worried about doing anything special, it’s more a matter of caring for your gut generally through a healthy diet. The research around gut health is still in its infancy – but the way that it intersects with so many facets of holistic health is fascinating.

The gut-brain axis

There are more and more studies investigating the bidirectional communication between the brain and the gut. A lot of the research is showing that the gut may have a much larger role to play in conditions like depression and anxiety than we anticipated. For example, up to 95 per cent of serotonin – the happiness hormone – is found in your gut.

Your gut is also essential to your immunity, and may affect appetite and obesity as well as the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. It’s still early days, but the more we look into it – the more important the gut seems to be to our overall health.

Introducing the microbiota

In our digestive tract – in the bowel, mainly – is a vast ecosystem of bacteria. A lot of those bacteria are good – they’re essential to functions across the body. One of the major things that they do is break down and ferment fibre – during this process they also produce beneficial by-products in the form of short-chain fatty acids.

Recognising poor gut health

If you’re concerned about the wellbeing of your gut, the main thing to be aware of is any change to the frequency or consistency of your stool. If you’re going to the bathroom more than three times a day or less than three times a week, that’s not a great sign.

Severe bloating, excessive wind, pain, and cramping are also associated with poor gut health. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, the first step would be to rule out serious problems like coeliacs or Crohn’s disease.

From there, it’s a matter of building up a healthy and diverse microbiome. To do that, the best course of action is to make sure you’re getting adequate fibre by including a variety of fibre-rich foods in your diet.

Each bacteria variety in your in gut has a preference for a certain type of fibre or food. So, if the only vegetables in your diet are broccoli and potatoes, then you’ll have an overrepresentation of the bacteria that predominantly feed on those fibres – and you’ll miss out on a whole host of other bacteria. To maintain a healthy and diverse gut microbiome, I’d recommend eating 30 different plants per week.

Gut health and lifestyle

It’s not just about diet, though. One of the biggest factors when it comes to the health of your gut is stress. Often, when people are experiencing gut distress, they want to jump straight into trying to heal it through supplements and pills. They’re not actually addressing the root issue that might be provoking the symptoms. Unfortunately, if you don’t deal with the underlying cause of stress or anxiety – it can be hard to see an improvement.

Extreme exercise can also cause issues – but we’re talking about cases where people are doing ultramarathons, not your average gym-goer. Certain antibiotic medications can have an impact on your gut microbiota, too. They’re designed to kill harmful bacteria, but they can cause collateral damage and wipe out good bacteria as well.

Prebiotics versus Probiotics

Inevitably, the role of probiotics and prebiotics comes up when you’re discussing gut health. Probiotics contain the live bacteria that are housed within your gut ¬– normally, they’re marketed as supplementary capsules. Whereas prebiotics contain the food that those bacteria feed on – the fibre. Both are extremely beneficial to the gut.

Generally, supplementation isn’t necessary if you ensure you’re getting an adequate amount of both in your diet. To achieve this, look to include incorporate lots of fibre-rich foods in your diet. Things like onion, garlic, and leeks are great sources of prebiotics – and probiotics can be found in foods like cultured yoghurt and kefir.

If you’ve got concerns about your gut health, consult with a medical professional, like your GP or a registered dietitian who can help you to create a unique treatment plan.

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Marika  Day

Marika Day is a nutritionist and Accredited Practising Dietitian who knows what the body needs to function at its best. With more than five years’ experience in the health and fitness industry, Marika's holistic approach to diet and exercise is tried and true. The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional, tax or other advice. It does not take into account any individual’s personal situation or needs. You should consider obtaining professional advice from a financial adviser and/or tax specialist, or medical or health practitioner, in relation to your own circumstances and before acting on this information.