From mental health to immunity, your gut health impacts every system in your body.
Immune system, mood, digestion, energy… You name it, the gut has a starring role to play in keeping it functioning in a healthy way. The gut is home to the microbiome, which is made up of billions of bacterial microbiota, and the quality and diversity of these bacteria are key to our health and happiness. While bacteria-boosting probiotics and kombucha have become super trendy in the past few years, good gut health is about much more than that.
A new TV show, Know Your Sh*t: Inside Our Guts, airs on Channel 4 tonight. It explores the intricacies of gut health, and how it’s intrinsically linked with body and brain. The identical twin presenters, Lisa and Alana MacFarlane, were pizza and chips-loving DJs in their early twenties, until they took part in a large scientific study by TwinUK on the gut microbiome, which was led by Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist who spends his time researching the microbiome.
They quickly discovered that, despite being genetically identical, their gut microbiomes were wildly different. “The two of us only have 30 per cent the same gut bacteria – learning this made us think very differently about health and wellness,” they tell me. “Our bacterial diversity was very low before we took part in the study; we were living a certain lifestyle.”
From sending stool samples in the post to colonoscopies, the pair were Professor Spector’s “guinea pigs”, and were tested rigorously. “Tim put us on a diet where we had to drink alcohol and only processed foods for the first month, then we went on a high-fibre plant-based diet for the second,” they say. What they learned from being part of the study, they share via their platform, The Gut Stuff, and now on Channel 4, too.
“The main thing we want people to learn from the show is to simply understand what the gut is and how important it is,” the pair explain. “We just thought the gut was our stomach, but soon realized that it actually extends from the mouth down to the bottom. The microbiome ecosystem sits along this passage, and it plays a huge part in our health.” The show sees people with an array of different gut issues, from constipation to bloating to excessive wind, visit the show’s array of experts in a bid to understand why these symptoms emerge – and how to successfully treat them.
As well as gastroenterologist Dr Rabia Topan and dietician Sophie Medlin, some guests visit a psychologist and immunologist, which illustrates how intertwined mental wellbeing and immunity are with the gut. “Sometimes it isn’t just dietary interventions that help, but holistic practices, like breathwork and hypnotherapy,” Alana says. This alone can help us begin to understand that the stress many of us experience every day really can impact our gut, and therefore our overall state of health.
Achieving a healthy gut microbiome doesn’t require extreme diets or expensive probiotic supplements; instead, it’s about approaching your health and wellbeing routine mindfully, and adding in lots of plants into your diet. “It’s also prioritizing your sleep—which really affects the gut—and addressing stress,” Lisa explains. “For us originally, anything wellbeing was unattainable and a bit ‘gong bath’, and we just weren’t interested in that. The things you will learn from this program are accessible and affordable for everyone. And that’s important.”
Having successfully changed the make-up of their own microbiomes with Professor Spector’s guidance (more on this in the series), here the pair share their top ways to improve your gut health now.
Eat your fibre
“We talk a lot about fibre in the show—it’s like the bassist in a band who nobody knows the name of, but it’s so important. Not only does fibre bulk your stool, but it also feeds the good bacteria in your gut. Nine out of 10 of us don’t get enough of it.”
Keep an eye on your stools
“We need to start to break the poo taboo. If you have a problem with your poo, it’s your body’s way of screaming at you that there’s something wrong. In the show, we go through all the aspects of different sorts of stools, what to look for, what’s normal and when you should see your GP.”
Tune in to your gut health
“None of us pay attention to our gut until we’re hungover, ill or we have an issue. If you go to your GP and say you’ve got something wrong, they will ask you when you last went to the toilet. We need to know those things, so tracking and logging in a diary is a great idea. Empower yourself with knowledge to help you change your behaviors.”
“Exercise helps with gut motility. Your microbes love you to move. There’s a study that took a cross section of people and the only thing they changed was exercise. When they stopped exercising, their microbial diversity reduced to base level. The more you can move, the better their diversity—and your overall wellbeing.”
Eat a variety of plants
“According to learnings from the American Gut Project, we should eat 30 different plants a week. That doesn’t just include vegetables, but fruit, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and legumes too. ‘Eating the rainbow’ is key—most of us will go into the supermarket and pick up the same six fruits and vegetables because we know what to do with them, but it’s about trying to pick something different each time. Can you mix it up, rather than batch cooking the same thing for the whole week?”
This article was originally published on British Vogue.