So… Let’s Talk about Gut Health!
Caring for our bodies comes in all shapes and forms, and definitely doesn't stop at the gym; that's why we at Gymshark are shining a spotlight on an issue a lot of women are concerned about, the health of our tummies. What was once considered a taboo (and even something that you may not have even dared to discuss with your closest girlfriends), is now fast becoming the trendiest subject in the wellness space, and for good reason!
Our digestive system says so much for our overall health and wellbeing, and so it makes sense that we should discuss gut health concerns and educate you on why these might occur, as well as what you can do to get your gut in good working order to enhance your overall health and improve your ability to perform in other aspects of your life (such as smashing it out in the gym, for example!).
It’s time to share!
Gut Health Overview/Introduction
There are various digestive conditions that women (and men) can be affected by, including inflammatory bowel conditions (these include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), diverticular disease, and coeliac disease. However, one of the most common is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects 15% of the worldwide population.
IBS is characterized by a cluster of various symptoms, including:
Abdominal pains and cramps which often occur after eating, and can ease following a visit to the toilet
Bloating and gas
If you feel that you can relate to any of the symptoms listed above, then I recommend that you go to your doctor and have a check-up, to rule out any other possible causes of your digestive concerns. This will start you on the road to a healthier gut!
What causes IBS?
IBS is known as a functional bowel disorder, which means that it affects how the bowels function and work. In a functional disorder, all the organs of the gut (such as the stomach, small and large intestine) are physically normal and appear to be healthy, but the problem lies in the way that the gut functions.
The cause of IBS is still not fully understood, and this may be because the digestive symptoms under this umbrella might not have one single cause. That being said, one of the most common triggers for IBS symptoms starting is following a bout of food poisoning or a gut infection (e.g., gastroenteritis).
Also, there are some underlying mechanisms that may be affected in IBS, which involve an interaction between the nervous system in the gut and the brain, our gut bacteria, and the immune system of the gut, which I will go on to explore…
Why do we bloat?
One of the most common gut symptoms is bloating, which is where the belly feels full, tight, and uncomfortable. I often have many of my clients describe bloating as though there is an inflated balloon in their tummy, which can often be accompanied by abdominal pain, gas, and frequent burping. Not fun! For some ladies, their tummy may also become distended (known as abdominal distension), with some likening their guts appearance to that of pregnancy.
The truth is, bloating is totally common and you are certainly not alone if it affects you. It is very normal for women that come and see me, to have their confidence and body image affected by bloating, and this may extend into other areas of their life such as their motivation to exercise or take part in physical activity. See our ‘Advice’ section below for more details and support on bloating.
How does your gut health affect your hormones?
The gut and our hormones are more connected than you would think. An unhealthy gut (dysbiosis) can cause hormonal imbalance (such as estrogen dominance).
Stress also comes into the mix when it comes to gut health and hormones. The body’s main stress hormone is cortisol and high levels move blood flow away from the gut towards the brain, muscles, and limbs so that we can run away from a real or perceived threat. What this means is that, if we are in a state of chronic stress, the gut will not be working sufficiently, as it requires blood flow for optimal digestion.
The best foods for gut health
To achieve a healthy gut, you will first need to find out what diet works for you, based on ruling out any potential food intolerances and sensitivities that may be triggering your symptoms (see our elimination diet tips below!).
Eat more of these foods:
Fiber is a plant-based carbohydrate that passes through the digestive system and acts as a food source for our friendly gut bugs to nibble off and produce anti-inflammatory substances. Fiber is found in:
Fruit: a source of essential nutrients and antioxidants, fruits are an excellent source of fiber to feed your gut bacteria. Some of the highest-fiber fruits include raspberries, pears, apples, and kiwi.
Vegetables: chock-full of fiber, vegetables are also incredibly rich in vitamins and minerals, too. Aim for green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, rocket, and bok choy, which pack a nutritional high-fiber punch!
Nuts and seeds: whilst rich in fiber, nuts, and seeds (such as walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and almonds) are also a source of monounsaturated fats, which are healthy fats that can protect heart health. Plus, the lignans found in nuts and seeds can support hormonal balance by removing excess estrogen from the body!
Legumes: members of the legume family include beans, peas, lentils, and even peanuts, would you believe? Not only are legumes high in fiber, they are also a great source of plant-based protein, so are perfect for vegans to hit their daily protein requirements!
Wholegrains: these include brown rice, buckwheat, oats, and millet, and whilst the fiber can help to keep us regular, they are also a good source of B vitamins, which are essential for energy production.
Aim for 30g of fiber per day, which you can achieve by incorporating more nuts and seeds onto your breakfast or salads, and keeping the skins on your fruits and vegetables.
Eat prebiotic foods: These include plant-based foods which feed the good bacteria within the gut and include apples, oats, bananas, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, and chicory.
Is fermentation good for gut health?
Get fermenting: fermentation is a process that involves bacteria and yeasts breaking down sugars in certain foods, to increase the number of friendly bacteria contained within. Fermented foods include kimchi, kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut. Eating a diet rich in fermented foods has been shown in many studies to help improve healthy gut bacteria diversity.[CB2] [LW3] A clinical trial at Stanford School of Medicine involved a group of adults following a 10-week diet high in fermented foods, which was shown to increase microbiome (gut bacteria) diversity and improve immune function.
How to ferment foods at home:
Many people have a preconceived idea that fermenting foods at home is a tricky business, but the truth is it’s one of the easiest and healthiest things you can make. Not to mention fermented foods have a fantastic shelf-life and are incredibly versatile so you can often keep them for months on end, dipping into them as and when and adding them to the side of your meals.
Whilst there are various fermentation kits you can purchase that can help you ferment at home, for a beginner you need nothing more than an airtight jar. If you are new to fermentation then why not try making this simple, delicious crunchy kimchi recipe, which you can add to countless recipes, whether it's included within a sandwich, or a side to eggs on toast, the possibilities are endless.
Working with a nutritional therapist can be an extremely beneficial process to helping you work out your unique triggers and a fast-track way to helping ease your symptoms, ensuring the advice is personalized to you. After all, we are all biochemically unique, in the same way that we have a unique fingerprint.
Although everyone reacts differently to various foods, I recommend that you consider introducing the best foods for gut health into your diet, as listed above. I am also sharing some of the top bloating causes and tips to support it below:
Medical conditions: IBS, inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease, eating disorders (e.g., anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa), anxiety, depression. Speak with your GP if any of these affect you and how you might be able to navigate the bloating based on your medical condition. Note: the below bloating causes are all applicable to IBS.
Food intolerance and/or sensitivity: this includes FODMAPs, non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, and lactose intolerance. Food intolerance refers to an inability to digest a particular food, often related to fermentation of that food by our gut bacteria (which then releases gas and can contribute to bloating), or an enzyme deficiency (in the case of lactose intolerance, which is where there is a deficiency of the enzyme lactase, to break lactose down). A food sensitivity is where there is an immune-mediated response to a food, which may also result in bloating, too.
If you suspect that you have a food intolerance or sensitivity, keep a food diary for 3 weeks and track this against your symptoms, to see if you spot any potential trigger foods. Remove the trigger food(s) from your diet that you suspect are causing problems for 6 weeks minimum. If you feel better after this 6-week elimination period, then you can start to reintroduce those foods back, one at a time, waiting 3 days to see if your symptoms return, to discover whether that food is the culprit or not. Do this again for the remaining foods that you have restricted from your diet to see if any of these triggers your symptoms too, and you can work towards a tailored diet that works for your gut health in the long term. Note: if at the end of the 6-week elimination period you do not find any relief from your symptoms, it might be that you are not sensitive or intolerant to those removed foods, after all, and other causes may need investigating.
Dysbiosis (including SIBO): dysbiosis refers to an imbalance of bacteria in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Our gut bacteria are collectively referred to as the microbiome, which refers to both the friendly and not-so-friendly types of bacteria that we host in our bodies. Dysbiosis may include either of the following scenarios:
A deficiency in beneficial (friendly) bacteria
An overgrowth in friendly bacteria
A lack of diversity of gut bacteria
An overgrowth of disruptive (aka “bad”) bacteria
An overgrowth of bacteria in the wrong place, for example, the small intestine (known as SIBO)
Many facets of modern life such as high-stress levels, too little sleep, eating processed and high-sugar foods, alcohol, and taking antibiotics can all contribute to dysbiosis. Dysbiosis can also lead to a phenomenon called leaky gut (also known as intestinal permeability), which is where the gut lining becomes porous and allows bacteria and food substances into the bloodstream, which can contribute to inflammation and further tummy troubles.
Lack of digestive enzymes: these are proteins that help to break down our food into smaller molecules so that it can be absorbed by the body. If our pancreas is not producing adequate levels of enzymes, then we may not be breaking down or absorbing our food very well, contributing to gas build-up in the gut and, yep, you guessed it, bloating!
Fortunately, there are certain foods that contain digestive enzymes such as pineapple, papaya, ginger, and avocados, which can support digestive breakdown. Why not include some of these in your daily diet to support digestion?
Not chewing food properly: it sounds simple but, if we are not chewing our food very well, then we are not enabling salivary enzymes to coat our food and help to kickstart the digestive process. This is one of the largest contributors to bloating and must not be overlooked, folks!
Aim for 30 bites each time before you swallow and remember to take out distractions from mealtimes including social media, TV, or laptop devices, as these destroy the ritual of mindful mealtimes and can hinder digestion.
Tight clothing: certain clothes can restrict the abdominal area and exacerbate bloating.
Smart choices in your wardrobe may help reduce the severity of your symptoms, for example, Gymshark’s high waist leggings could be the ideal workout attire if you suffer from bloating due to the high-stretch materials, and supportive high waistbands.
Water retention: this is when the body holds onto excess water, which can result in bloating and distension of the gut.
Interestingly, the way to get rid of water is to drink more water and ensure that you keep the body moving with physical activity so that the lymphatic system can help to support fluid balance. Aim for 2 liters of water daily and avoid high salt foods which can also contribute to water retention and bloating.
Disruption in the communication between the gut and the brain (and chronic stress!): did you know that the gut and the brain are more connected than you would initially think? It’s true, the gut has been coined “the second brain” and the two are connected via what is known as the “gut-brain axis”. This refers to the fact that we house an entire nervous system within our guts, which is called the enteric nervous system. This connects to the brain via a large nerve called the vagus nerve, which means that the brain can talk to the gut and the gut can talk to the brain (the vagus nerve acts much like a walkie-talkie!). These two systems send messages to one another, and this can influence various aspects of our gut health, as well as our brain health, too. One such explanation for bloating might be a disruption in the communication between the gut-brain axis and a sensitivity in the nerves that reside within the gut, which is where stress comes into play in terms of exacerbating gut health issues, including bloating.
We can influence the health of our gut-brain axis via working on calming our nervous system through relaxation and mindfulness techniques, which can be supportive when battling the bloat!