Five easy ways to improve your gut health

eating soup
An expert shares some tips on keeping that powerhouse in your gut working at its best. Photo credit: Getty.

With new discoveries and connections being made almost daily between our gut health and mind, it's fair to say your microbiome - the ecosystem of bacteria in the gut - is something worth looking after.

But all the daily stresses we put our microbiomes through with things like coffee, junk food and alcohol can have a detrimental effect and sometimes it feels like we're doing more harm than good. 

Kami Ramini, an integrative nutrition health coach at kitchen appliance company Thermomix, has given Newshub some easy ways to improve gut health through diet and lifestyle.

"Gut health is an incredibly complex and diverse topic with connections being shown with our immunity, mental health, obesity and so much more," says Ramini.

"It's an area of our health which is well worth looking into and there are lots of simple practices and habit hacks we can introduce to help bolster our health and happiness from the inside out."

Here are Ramini's top tips: 

Load up on plants 

This is always my first port of call but it isn't to say we need to follow a vegan or a vegetarian diet. Instead, it's about eating an abundance of plant foods in whatever way eating works best for you. It's a great way of giving all the different strains of good bacteria in our gut lots of fibre and loading up on phytochemicals, such as polyphenols (this gives fruits and vegetables their vibrant colour), which are extremely beneficial to our gut health. 

Choose one or two recipes that include different plant foods and add those to your weekly planner. Then look at the other meals you eat throughout the week and simply do some "veggie-loading".

So adding some sautéed kale and asparagus to the side of your steak and chips, for example, or throwing an extra handful or two of veggies into your chicken korma. Cauliflower and red cabbage are both in season right now and are great for adding plant-based bulk. 

Load up on plants to keep that gut bacteria healthy.
Load up on plants to keep that gut bacteria healthy. Photo credit: Getty.

Fibre is your friend

When we're talking about fibre and gut health, the spotlight needs to be shone on prebiotic fibre, which is the king of all foods for our gut. Prebiotic fibre stimulates growth and/or activity of specific good bacteria in our large intestine. 

What we're going for with our gut health is large diversity and larger quantities of the good bacteria, so we want to eat more of these foods. Some examples of ingredients rich in prebiotic fibre include: garlic, onion, leek, beetroot, cashews, chickpeas and dried fruit such as dates and figs. This isn't an exhaustive list, but it's a good start and includes foods many of us will likely be cooking with already. Being mindful of regularly including foods rich in prebiotic fibre is a great way to easily bolster your gut health.

Resistant starch is also worth a mention, as it works as a prebiotic in the gut. It is found in ingredients like green bananas, beans, lentils, cashews and uncooked oats. Easy ways to include more resistant starch to your diet are things like adding lentils to soups and salads, using some green banana flour in the place of other flours, and enjoying soaked overnight oats instead of hot porridge or even fresh muesli with raw oats. 

One trick I love is cooking and fully cooling rice before serving it. You can reheat it again if you want to serve it warm, but the simple process of cooking and cooling transforms the starch in the rice to resistant starch, making it a gut-loving food to include. The same goes for cooked and cooled pasta.

Choose your sweet spot

While fibre is the food of the gods for our good bacteria, sugar and refined carbohydrates are the staple of the 'bad' bacteria. High sugar diets have been linked with promoting inflammation in the gut, intestinal permeability (which can lead to conditions such as leaky gut) and overall dysbiosis or imbalance in our gut microbiome. 

This isn't to demonise sugar or place all sugar in the same basket. It's just a matter of being mindful about our consumption, limiting any hidden sugars and choosing unrefined options where we can. As a general rule, I lower the sugar quantity in baking recipes by a half to two thirds. You can also substitute some of the sugar with ingredients like chopped dates, dried figs, cranberries or unsulphured apricots, to give you a sweet bite every now and then without the whole recipe being super sweet. 

If you have a real sweet tooth, rather than going cold turkey, progressively reduce the sugar quantities in your recipes over time as your tastes adjust with you, and swap out a sweet breakfast or snack with a savoury one here and there.

Live probiotics like Kimchi and Sauerkraut keep things alive and kicking.
Live probiotics like Kimchi and Sauerkraut keep things alive and kicking. Photo credit: Getty.

Eat live foods

Consider including probiotic foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso paste, kefir and/or kombucha in your diet, as they contain live bacteria which can help bolster your overall gut health. 

While the science is showing that in most cases, probiotics don't permanently colonise the gut or necessarily make it to the large intestine, larger numbers have been shown to have some benefits. So why not? Especially as probiotic foods bring a beautiful tangy edge to a lot of recipes.

Easy ways to include foods like sauerkraut into your diet is to use it as a condiment for soups, stews or add to salads - I love to just place a spoonful on top at the end (we don't want it to heat or it will kill the bacteria). Kefir, which is fermented milk, is a great addition to smoothies - you won't taste it once it's blended up with the other ingredients. I also love to make miso-based dressings for Asian salads. 

Practice gratitude

It's not all about the food we eat. Lifestyle factors also play a role in our gut health and research into the gut-brain axis continues to reveal fascinating findings about the two-way communication between our gut and brain. 

One factor is stress, which has been shown to negatively affect the gut-brain axis and linked to increasing gut permeability, amongst other conditions. We also know that gratitude practice or simple breathwork can have immediate positive effects on our stress levels, lowering cortisol in the body and switching on our parasympathetic nervous system to help us restore and rest. 

mindful eating
Take a moment or two to be mindful when you eat. Photo credit: Getty.

There is no end to where you can go with gratitude and breathwork, but if you're just starting out then don't be put off by complex practices you may have seen online. Simply start with five-ten deep breaths into your diaphragm, being mindful your belly is going out as you breathe in and in as you breathe out.

Try to slow your breath and be aware of the cycle of filling your body with air and then letting it out fully. As you progress with your practice and find you can stay there for a few minutes longer, let go of your breath, while you think of one thing you are grateful for. It may be something that has happened recently or be a constant person, place or thing in your life.

Just let the thought come, picture it, feel it and let your mind breathe that happiness and gratitude in, then follow the train of gratitude as far as you'd like to go. You'll find it becomes infectious over time and may start to positively influence how you approach different events in your life.