It’s time to tackle taboos, as we put your most pressing gut health questions to the experts to get some much-needed answers

It happens to all of us. Sometimes, you wake up and something just doesn’t feel right. Sometimes, it can catch you off guard, you could be enjoying your morning coffee and oop – you need to move, quickly. Sh*t happens. So why are we so ashamed of talking about it?

It’s no secret that our gut health needs to be looked after, but how much can we really know when the majority of us aren’t comfortable asking those all-important questions? Well, we’ve asked them for you. Linda Albinsson, head nutritionist at London’s Advanced Nutrition Clinic, answers some of the most commonly searched questions related to our guts and bowel habits. It’s time to talk sh*t.

1. Is gut health really so important?

It’s really the root of everything. Your gut bacteria impacts your metabolism, oestrogen, your mental health, bone health and longevity! And time and time again, I see gut issues on those with eczema and skin issues, inflammatory conditions, and pain conditions such as joint pain, headaches, etc. Though we don’t always see gut symptoms in these clients, so stool testing can be useful here – it’s possible to have chaos in the gut, but be almost completely asymptomatic.

2. How do you know if you have bad gut health?

Watch out for wind and changes in bowel movement.

If you’re unsure, have a look at the Bristol Stool Chart – this breaks poop into seven types, with three and four considered ‘normal’ (fairly smooth, sausage-shaped). Some people can find it a little difficult to work out where they are on the chart, especially if your stool varies from day to day. Really, you want your poop to be consistent and very similar in shape.

Many of us have a sluggish gut, which means we’re likely not fully eliminating. If you’re only going to the toilet once a day, for example, and it’s not ‘100% complete’, you’ll quickly get a jam. And if, when going to the toilet, your elimination feels more like the work of gravity than muscular movement, it’s possible that you’re not properly eliminating.

Constipation is also a common cause of wind and bloating, and, believe it or not, fatigue! The sweetcorn test can be a useful home assessment to investigate the speed of your gut transit.

The sweetcorn test involves avoiding corn for a number of days to ensure the gut is clear of kernels. Then, introduce some corn into a meal. Note the time of eating, and wait for the magic to happen. How soon you see corn in your poop can indicate the functioning of your bowel – in an ideal world, you’d expect to note the corn between 24 and 36 hours after eating, as a rough guide. If you spot it in less than 12 hours, you may have diarrhoea, and longer than 36 could be a sign of constipation.

3. Are there specific foods that help gut health?

Fibre is by far the most important element in gut health, as this is what feeds your ‘good’ microbes. But fibre is a double-edged sword. If you don’t have enough of the good bacteria in the gut, fibre might just be the thing that’s causing you wind, bloating, and changes in bowel movements.

Polyphenol is one of my favourite microbiome-building foods, as it is so well-tolerated and has anti-inflammatory and protective benefits. Fermented foods, such as kvass made with berries, can be helpful, though these should be avoided if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

Cloves are also good for gut health, as they are a powerful, natural antimicrobial, and can be really useful to treat symptoms like wind, without the need for expensive supplements.

The effects of gut health

4. Is it true that gut health affects the immune system?

One of the most forgotten and ignored gut element is the lymph system! The lymph has an important immune system function, and much of it in the gut sits just by the lining, ready to patrol the area. It’s no wonder a compromised gut mucosa or insufficient beneficial bacteria can allow microbes and intruders to trigger the immune system. In fact, I often find the presence of SIBO or overgrowth of ‘bad’ bacteria in clients with inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis.

5. Is gut health important for weight loss?

We know that, in obesity, the microbiome is often ‘disturbed’ or imbalanced, with a particular type of pattern of bacterial groups. Some bacterial groups are associated with weight gain.

Something I often observe in the clinic is that people who come to me with either SIBO or chronic constipation will complain of unexplained weight gain. They are often the type of person who has tried everything and lives on a restricted calorie diet, yet sees no change in weight whatsoever. When we work on the gut however (which may also include working on the liver), and the diet and insulin response, the person will find that their weight responds better to their true dietary intake.

6. Are probiotics worth it?

Yes, probiotics are an invaluable tool in gut treatment. But one thing probiotics don’t do is become ‘added to your microbiome’, so to speak. The bacteria will hang around in the gut for a while, and be beneficial while it’s there, but it’s not for ever – which many people don’t realise.To improve your gut microbiome long-term, you need prebiotics.

I am a huge fan of prebiotic supplements as opposed to their food form (e.g. artichoke, chicory, and chickpeas) as you can control the dosing properly, and avoid the risk of aggravating symptoms. With supplements (and the support of a professional), you can slowly increase the dose over a longer period of time, in line with tolerability.

There are instances where prebiotics should be avoided, however. If you have very severe and reactive wind and bloating, you may find that many types of prebiotics cause even more wind. In this case, you’d want to consider SIBO or what the digestion is doing (the gallbladder and stomach acid in particular) and treat this first. For this, I would always recommend a stool analysis or SIBO test, so that treatment can be tailored.

As more research has developed, we are gaining an understanding of specific strains being beneficial for particular areas of the body; including bone health, skin issues and liver health, so matching the right strain to the condition is key.

For more information about gut health, visit the Nutritionist Resource or speak to a qualified nutritionist.