The gut. A simple yet powerful three-letter word and something that will change your life. Over the past decade, working as a dietitian and nutritionist, I have witnessed first hand how this very organ has transformed the lives of thousands of my patients.
Now, for those who don’t know me, I get it, your fad radar is probably firing. But rest assured, you don’t just have to take my word for it, I have the science to back up these bold claims. In fact, every week there is a new scientific paper proving that if you look after your gut, it will, in turn look after you. From fewer sick days, to better kidney health, heart health and mental health, our gut health has been shown to play a pivotal role. What really blows my mind is that, unlike our genetic make-up, over which we have no control, we have the ability to shape our gut health simply by how we treat it – which means that a big part of our personal health is in our hands.
I grew up on a farm where our lifestyle was inherently supportive of good gut health – we played in the dirt exposing us to a wide range of microbes (that indeed end up in our gut) and lived on fresh, home-grown produce – however, my first conscious memory of the gut wasn’t a happy one. It was during my nutrition and dietetics undergraduate degree, when my grandma, the most caring soul, was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I remember watching on helplessly as she bravely battled through chemo and surgery – I hated the gut for doing this to her.
A few years after she passed away, those negative emotions surrounding the gut resurfaced. I was working in a hospital as a dietitian and was struck by the sheer number of patients with diseases outside the gut who were complaining of gut issues. I really struggled to get my head around how, whereas my grandma had her disease in her actual gut, all these patients also suffered with such prominent gut issues. I searched just about every textbook and research paper I could find and still couldn’t give my patients a proper answer. I couldn’t let it rest. I was determined to get to the bottom of it and, before I knew it, I found myself signing away my early twenties to answer this very question – was there a link between the gut and other organs in our body? Fast-forward three years, and it turns out there is. By looking after our gut health with the right nutrition, we can in fact improve the health of our other organs, like our kidneys.
My immersion in the subject didn’t stop there. I was fortunate to also work with Olympic athletes and a number of company CEOs, which made me think about the link between the gut and the brain (commonly referred to as the gut-brain axis). I noticed that those who were suffering the greatest levels of stress were the ones suffering the most significant gut issues. It also became clear that, by nourishing the gut and caring for it, people could improve their lives in very real, and often surprising, ways, and I could help them to do this. This was the turning point in my relationship with the gut – my eyes were finally opened to its power and promise.
I went into clinical research to make a difference, but a year into my post at King’s College London I became frustrated that, despite the incredible research that was being done, it was the unfounded and potentially dangerous fad nutritional messages that were being almost force-fed to the public. I was seeing extremes in my clinic, with some people essentially starving themselves because they’d had (invalid) food-intolerance tests and were scared to eat anything, while others (and I’m talking really intelligent people) were overdosing on herbal supplements in order to “boost” their gut health because they’d read about the gut-brain axis and wanted that extra ‘edge’ at work. Right before my eyes, I was seeing that the very thing I had come to admire – the gut – was being misrepresented and so destroying people’s health.
As with all landmark scientific discoveries, there are those who will seek to take advantage of people looking for help by twisting the truth and promoting over-hyped, sham, gut-boasting products. But don’t let this detract from the fact that the field of gut health is based on real science and has the potential to have a measurable impact on your health and happiness.
Here are my top three gut health myths busted:
1) Looking after your gut health means following a restrictive diet
Certainly not. It’s actually the opposite. Those who have the most diverse range of plant-based foods in their diet actually have the best gut health. This doesn’t mean you need to become a vegetarian, it’s just about adding in the variety from wholegrains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit and legumes. In my book I provide simple strategies to help even the busiest of people achieve 30 different plant based foods in their diet each week. For example, one simple tip is to sprinkle on a teaspoon of mixed seeds onto what ever you’re having for breakfast – that’s four points right there.
2) Everyone should take a probiotic (live bacteria) supplement
Generally speaking, if you’re in good health, the evidence for taking a probiotic at this stage is actually pretty weak. If there is something in particular that you’re aiming to manage, for example a gut symptom or a health condition, then, in some cases that I talk through in my book, it may be advisable. It all comes down to your specific condition and whether there is any evidence for a particular type of probiotic. It’s also worth recognising that different probiotics do different things and therefore have different indications. It’s like medication – you wouldn’t take a painkiller to improve your cholesterol.
3) Gut health is all about your diet
Diet is one of the most effective ways you can improve your gut health, but here’s the thing: you can have the “ultimate” gut-boosting diet, but if you’re not sleeping right or your stress levels are through the roof, your gut health will likely pay the price. Just as they say that no amount of exercise can outdo a bad diet, no amount of gut-boosting eating can outdo a disastrous lifestyle. In my book I not only share diet strategies (and over 50 gut-loving recipes), but offer practical strategies including my ten-minute gut-directed yoga flow and an evidence-based sleep hygiene protocol that has been trialled and tested in a clinical study by my colleagues at King’s. I also offer a handy checklist for looking after your gut microbiota which includes tips on how to reduce stress levels and how furry pets are linked to better immunity.
While there is a plethora of misinformation out there, don’t be put off on starting your gut-journey today. Taking control of your gut health has helped people regain their confidence, improve their quality of life, revive their love of food, defy the odds and prevent family history of chronic diseases such as diabetes, as well as manage other conditions, including heart disease, and so much more. Gut health is truly revolutionising our approach to health and wellness, and embracing this vast, untapped resource that lives within each and every one of us is a game-changer.
Eat Yourself Healthy by Dr Megan Rossi is published by Penguin Life, out now, £16.99