We hear (and see!) the phrase ‘gut health’ all the time, but what exactly does it mean? You might be surprised to hear that there’s no official definition of gut health (yes really!), but we can broadly think of gut health as meaning a gut which is free from disease or issues like constipation and bloating. When your gut is healthy, it’s able to do its job properly, digesting and absorbing nutrients effectively, which in turn influences your health as a whole.
A healthy gut also includes a balanced microbiome (the collective name for all the bacteria in your gut). We’re starting to see that some conditions like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) are associated with reduced numbers of beneficial bacteria, although it’s not yet clear whether this is a cause, or consequence of the condition. We also don’t yet know what the ideal microbiome looks like – but scientists agree that having a microbiome with a diverse range of bacteria is a good thing.
Because your microbiome is invisible to the naked eye, the signs of an unhappy gut aren’t always obvious, but your stools (poo) are a helpful indicator. A regular poo habit (between three times a day and three times a week) is considered normal, but you also need to think about the appearance of your poo. I like to refer to the Bristol Stool chart (a cartoon guide to different types of poo!) as it’s a really helpful tool for identifying what’s normal.
An ideal poo is type 3-4, smooth and easy to pass. Types 1-2 indicate constipation and type 6-7 can be a sign of infection or other gut conditions like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or problems like lactose intolerance.
What about other symptoms? Although passing wind is normal (around 15-20 times a day is about average, and is simply a sign of your gut bacteria doing their thing!), excessive or very bad smelling wind can be a sign of malabsorption of certain foods, or underlying gut problems.
The same goes for symptoms like bloating, tummy pain, heartburn and nausea – although suffering from the occasional episode of bloating or heartburn is nothing to be concerned about, ongoing symptoms should be checked out, as they can be a symptom of underlying conditions like acid reflux, IBS or celiac disease.
If you notice a change in your poo or develop gut symptoms that lasts longer than a couple of weeks, it’s really important that you book an appointment with your G.P. to discuss them. They’ll be able to rule out any underlying conditions, and refer you to a specialist if needed. If you feel embarrassed about chatting poo, take a stool and symptom diary along with you, as this can help to explain what’s going on.
We’re still learning how lifestyle affects gut health, but these habits are a great place to start.
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