January Kickstarter: 7 simple tips for improving your gut, according to a gastroenterologist
This January, we’re on the search for quick, accessible hacks to kickstart 2023 in the strongest way possible. Today’s nutrition kickstarter: 7 tips for improving your gut and skin microbiome.
Our bodies are covered – inside and out – in trillions of bacteria. Our microbiome doesn’t just exist in the gut; we have huge communities of bacteria in every organ, including our skin and mouth.
Scientists are only beginning to piece together how each impacts and communicates with the different organs and systems in the body, including your brain, your nervous system, your immune system and your hormones.
As a practising gastroenterologist, it’s Dr Roshini Raj’s job to examine people from the inside out. The author of Gut Renovation, she believes that the gut influences virtually every single aspect of your health, and that a balanced, diverse microbiome is the ultimate foundation for steeling your immunity and protecting yourself against age-related chronic diseases.
Inspired by her years of research into the gut/skin connection (more on that later), she has even formulated her own line of probiotic-infused skincare products, Tula, which launched in the UK last year.
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Navigating the weird and wonderful world of the microbiome may sound complex, but looking after your gut-skin axis can be refreshingly simple. In fact, Dr Raj says there are seven simple, inexpensive ways to care for those all-important bugs.
Add spices to your morning coffee
Adding spices to your coffee is one of the simplest and easiest ways to add more phytonutrients into your diet – of which coffee is already a rich source, Dr Raj says.
“Phytonutrients act as antioxidants, which are great for fighting free radicals that damage your cells and cause ageing. Coffee is also great for fostering the growth of good gut bacteria,” she explains.
Dr Raj likes to dial up her morning brew by adding spices, such as cinnamon, a natural sweetener that contains 11 different phytonutrients, directly to her coffee grinds every morning. Non-coffee drinkers could opt for a classic turmeric latte or turmeric milk (the spice is highly anti-inflammatory), while many swear by the warming drink before bed for deeper sleep.
Feed your flora with (even more) fibre
You already know it’s a good idea to follow a high-fibre diet. For one thing, the more fibre you eat, the more regular you’ll be. But there are other distinct benefits to upping your intake.
“Eating more fibre is probably the single most beneficial thing you can do for your gut,” Dr Raj says.
Dietary fibre consists of the parts of plants that can’t be digested in the small intestine and get passed through to your colon or large intestine. When the good bacteria in your gut digest fibre, they release bioactive compounds (metabolites) that have a beneficial effect on you. This includes strengthening the gut lining, “making it less leaky and harder for toxins to leak from your gut into your bloodstream triggering inflammation”.
Increasingly, we’re encouraged to aim to eat 30 different plants a week, including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. But Dr Raj warns that it’s important to build up gradually to avoid bloating or flatulence. Your gut is surprisingly adaptable, but start slow and build up.
Don’t rely solely on probiotic supplements
Probiotic (good bacteria), prebiotic (the fibrous food that feeds the good bacteria) and now even postbiotic (the result of probiotic fermentation in the gut) supplements are booming in the world of wellness, but they are often expensive.
It’s far better, Dr Raj believes, to prioritise trying to get these bacteria from our diets – particularly focusing on fermented foods. “People often focus on a specific strain of probiotics rather than getting a variety,” she says. “Fermented foods offer a variety of healthy probiotic strains rather than just one.”
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Having live yoghurt for breakfast each day is an easy and inexpensive way to ensure you’re factoring fermented foods into your daily diet. Dr Raj suggests aiming for one to two probiotic and prebiotic foods every day.
“I love to eat yoghurt every day; it contains live cultures which are a great source of probiotics, and then I add some prebiotics such as a fibre-rich granola or berries which are great in terms of antioxidant activity.”
Sauerkraut is another popular probiotic food, although you’re better off swerving anything overly processed or pasteurised (which kills off both the bad and good bacteria). Better still, make your own: Google is full of purse-friendly recipes.
Kimchi, kefir, miso and tempeh are other great fermented foods, while Dr Raj isn’t such a fan of kombucha, noting that many off-the-shelf products “don’t contain large amounts of live beneficial bacteria”.
Dr Raj’s favourite prebiotic-rich snacks are ridiculously simple:
- Handful of almonds with a handful of raisins
- Bowl of popcorn with garlic powder
“Garlic is a prebiotic, so it helps to boost energy and provide food to your healthy bacteria to allow them to grow and be more balanced.”
Consider using a toilet stool
Constipation is one of the most common “plumbing issues” Dr Raj sees among her clients. It’s loosely defined as experiencing fewer than three bowel movements a week, but she stresses that “you’re only constipated if you feel constipated”.
Everyone has their own bowel movement pattern, so unless you notice a change or you’re feeling particularly clogged up, things are probably perfectly normal. Loading up on fibre (slowly), getting regular exercise and drinking more water will help, but even so, Dr Raj recommends buying a toilet stool and has one at her home.
The position of the stool raises your knees – putting you into a semi-squatting position. Dr Raj explains that it “reduces straining and helps you to empty your bowels quicker and more completely”.
Go for that run – your gut will thank you
Dr Raj says that as a gastroenterologist, she talks about exercise almost as much as she does about diet. Exercise creates positive exchanges in your microbiome and the gut benefits from it in two ways.
“First, when you’re sluggish, so is your digestive system. If you don’t get enough exercise, your digestion may slow down, causing bloating, gas and constipation.” It can also help to relieve stress, which can worsen digestive problems if left ignored.
“Second, people who exercise regularly have greater diversity among their gut bacteria – no matter what they eat. And when you’re fitter and your microbiome is more diverse you have more types of bacteria that produce butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that’s the main energy source for the cells that line your gut and maintain its barrier function.”
Research suggests another really interesting relationship between the two: having good gut diversity may give long-distance runners a competitive edge. “Studies have shown that elite athletes have more gut bacteria that are good at metabolising lactate (an acid that builds up in your muscles when you exercise). Because their gut bacteria can more efficiently clear the lactate from their systems, they may have better endurance and athletic performance.”
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Pass on processed meat
The one thing she actively asks her patients to cut out completely is processed meat. “Processed meats like bacon, ham and sausages contain nitrites that are really ‘toxic’ for your gut.”
It’s important to flag that ‘toxic’ in this context means damaging to our gut bacteria rather than being hazardous to our overall health. Obviously, having a portion of processed meat now and again won’t harm you, but study after study has warned against regular consumption. Save that bacon sarnie for a lazy weekend morning when you can enjoy it the most, rather than dousing everything in pancetta.
Try probiotic skincare
Dr Raj’s skincare line is based on a growing body of research in the last decade which suggests applying probiotic extracts topically may have a beneficial effect on the skin.
“Not only is the skin – the largest organ in your body – an important barrier to toxins and other assaults on your body, but it’s also a reflection of your inner health,” she explains.“As it turns out, your gut and your skin are tightly linked. In fact, because what happens in your gut has such an impact on your skin, we call that interplay the ‘gut-skin axis’.”
An imbalanced gut microbiome can cause inflammation, which some research suggests may show up on your skin via conditions like rosacea, eczema, psoriasis and acne. “Both the gut and skin are links between the external world and the internal body; both have rich blood supplies; and both communicate actively with the nervous system, the immune system and hormones,” she continues.
“For example, when your gut microbiome is happy and healthy, your immune system is calm. Your overall inflammation level is low – and when inflammation is low, your skin benefits. It gets thicker, stays hydrated better and is less sensitive.” In other words, “you get that outer glow from your inner health”.
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Go for more fats and green tea
Eating plenty of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like avocado, leafy greens, nuts and oily fish will both feed your gut bacteria and help to improve your skin’s barrier function, keeping moisture in and irritants (like pollution) out, Dr Raj says.
And, finally, drink more green tea. Research suggests the polyphenol compounds in green tea have potent antioxidant powers that help to protect against UV damage.
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