Love your Guts

I have spent the last 7 days dealing with vomit and diarrhoea (not mine I might add!) combined with a weeks’ worth of lectures I have dedicated to poo talk, wind, bloating and mucous. Just a typical week in the life of a mum and an academic, oh joy!

To add the icing on the cake I thought it only natural to bring you a series of tips on boosting your gut health this month . Coincidentally  April is dedicated to IBS, bowel cancer and stress awareness – as you will find, these 3 things link together very closely!

  • 1 in 4 of us in the UK are affected by poor digestive health
  • Up to 20% are affected by IBS
  • Over 40,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year

Clearly, digestive problems affect many people and for some the symptoms can be exhausting and debilitating.  For many however, just small and simple changes to our diet and lifestyle can make a big difference in terms of our digestion and overall well-being.  So no excuses, stop abusing your guts and start taking care of them – the impact of unhappy guts spreads far beyond your digestive system.

If you are in the no / low carb camp then you need to read this one!

1. Increase fibre intake

Yes, dietary fibre is a type of carbohydrate. WE NEED FIBRE!

Fibre helps to keep our gut moving, keeps you ‘regular’ and reduces the likelihood of becoming constipated.  If  you need more convincing, fibre helps to prevent haemorrhoids (aka piles) and lowers our risk of developing bowel cancer.

Poo talk and bowel habits are such taboo subjects. But we all do it! Even though we lock oursleves away and if other men are anything like my husband, some can spend hours in there (!) we need to get into the habit of talking about it and taking notice. Altered bowel habits can be a sign that something is not right and they can also be a sign of something sinister.

Current dietary advice states we should be eating a variety of fibre containing foods. In the UK most people do not eat enough fibre (the average intake is ~15g/day) which is way off the recommended 30g per day. It’s certainly not impossible (get working on your 10 a -day) but a highly processed (junk food) diet will mean you’re going to fall short.


Ideally we should be having a mixture of soluble and insoluble fibre in our diet. Eating more fruit and vegetables (with the skins on where possible) is a great start.

We don’t have the ability (like cows and other cud chewers) to digest and absorb fibre. But it is precisely this property that confers so many benefits to our bowels.

Soluble fibre

Soluble fibre is broken down by the bacteria that live in our bowel (they ferment it). Soluble fibre becomes jelly-like  (making it easier to pass stools) and is great at holding onto toxins and also cholesterol.  Eating soluble fibre helps us create a nice mutual relationship with our bacteria; we give them food from which they generate energy, and in return they help us out……….

Particularly eating more soluble fibre, will help boost the numbers of ‘good’ bacteria in our gut. In return, they provide us with some nutrients (B & K vitamins)  and they also work to keep any harmful bacteria at bay, in other words they keep our gut happy.  The by-products of fermentation have also be shown to help lower cholesterol levels in addition to stabilising our blood sugar levels (reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes). Pretty clever eh?!

Good sources of soluble fibre include:

  • oats
  • bananas
  • apples
  • carrots
  • potatoes
  • peas
  • beans
  • lentils

Foods that will particularly help increase the numbers of good bacteria in our bowel include onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, and soya beans.


These are known as prebiotic foods; you can buy prebiotic-containing foods otherwise known as functional foods from the supermarket; look for ‘live’ yoghurt and prebiotic yoghurt drinks (like Yakult), some breakfast cereals and cereal bars (but do watch the sugar content of some of these ready-made foods).

Insoluble fibre

Insoluble fibre is very much like a sponge and absorbs lots of water  (about 15 times it’s weight). It is completely indigestible but it is this feature that gives ‘bulk’ to our stools and really gets our guts moving. Insoluble fibre so is often referred to as ‘natures’ broom’

The profound ‘mopping up’ effect also helps to effectively remove waste products, toxins ans potentially carcinogenic substances from the gut so this type of fibre is hugely important in protecting the gut from cancer.

Good sources of insoluble fibre include

  • wholemeal breads
  • whole grain breakfast cereals
  • bran
  • nuts
  • dried fruit
  • brown rice

When you decide to increase your fibre intake it is important you do this gradually. A sudden increase in fibre can make you very windy, leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable. Too much soluble fibre can also do this and can increase symptoms in those that suffer from IBS.


When upping your fibre intake it is vital you drink plenty of fluids; at least 1.5 litres a day as the fibre will absorb this water which helps ensure a more ‘gentle’ action.  It doesn’t have to be just water; just be sensible about what you are drinking but get those (low sugar) fluids down 🙂



Next up:

  1. Probiotics – do they really work?
  2. Stress and digestion – what really happens when we get all worked up!

Top Tip No.4 for a healthy gut: watch what you drink

Limit coffee, alcohol and spicy foods



Some of us just can’t function without those two cups of coffee each morning and we look forward to the Saturday night takeaway all washed down with a few beers or glasses of wine but do we know what these foods are doing to our gut?


Alcohol and caffeine are both known to increase the amount of acid produced in the stomach.  They also relax the ring of muscle at the top of the stomach (where the stomach joins to the oesophagus), making it easier for the acid to bubble up out of the stomach, causing those unpleasant symptoms of heartburn.

As well as the above, alcohol and caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea and cola) are also amongst the main triggers of IBS symptoms.  These include:

  • abdominal cramps and pain
  • bloating
  • excessive wind
  • frequent need to go to the toilet
  • diarrhoea and / or constipation

Coffee typically contains twice the amount of caffeine as tea (although it depends on how you like your tea – a good mug of ‘builder’s tea’ will contain nearly the same amount as an instant coffee) and cola drinks contain a little less than an average tea. Then there are all these caffeinated energy drinks that fill me with horror, I am shocked by how much caffeine is in these! (Keep a look out for a blog coming soon about caffeine….)


Alcohol and caffeine both have a particular tendency to speed up the activity of the gut, making everything rush through much more quickly causing diarrhoea; you don’t have to suffer from IBS to experience this though – have you have ever had a runny tummy after a night out drinking or a few too many cappuccinos to get you through a long day?

There is lot of evidence to show that alcohol consumption is linked to a variety of digestive cancers from the throat down to the bowel (particularly mouth, throat, stomach and bowel cancers).

How is alcohol linked to cancer of the gut?

There are a number of theories as to why alcohol causes cancer:

  1. The  alcohol is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde by the liver (as it helps remove the alcohol from our body) or by the bacteria that live in our mouth and gut.  This acetaldehyde can damage the DNA in our body’s cells triggering some cells to divide and multiply uncontrollably, making the cells more likely to turn cancerous.
  2. Alcohol makes it easier for the lining of the mouth and throat to absorb cancer-causing chemicals; particularly those found in tobacco. This is  why people who drink and smoke further increase the damage caused and have especially high risks of cancer.
  3. Folate is an important  B vitamin (B9) that helps our cells produce new DNA correctly. People who drink alcohol tend to have lower levels of folate in their blood and some studies have found that cancers can be more common in people with low folate levels.

The risk of cancer is not just increased for heavy drinkers

We are consuming more alcohol in the home now than ever before.  Cheep booze offers in the shops and the convenience of drinking at home means we often underestimate how much we drink. What is worrying is you don’t have to be drinking excessively to increase your risk of cancer (again, I’ll be blogging about this more on another day).  Regularly drinking 3 units (1.5 pints of  lager or a large glass of wine) a day can still  increase the risk of mouth, throat, oesophageal and bowel cancers.  It also doesn’t seem to make a difference if you drink it all in one go or spread it out over the week (not for cancer risk anyway). Overall, the risk of developing cancer is smaller if you stay within the government guidelines:

  • 2-3 units a day for women
  • 3-4 units a day for men


Spicy food

Compared to alcohol and caffeine, overindulgence of spicy food can be equally irritating to the gut. Eating spicy food more than 3-4 times per week can cause heartburn and stomach ulcers. A chilli chicken madras balti right before bedtime is certainly a great way to fuel the flame of heartburn.


So go easy on the drinks and the spices to keep your gut happy. Not all spices are irritating however; ginger can really help with nausea and peppermint is often used to relax the gut and reduce the spasms associated with IBS; these have been used for 1000’s of years to calm the gut!


Last tip tomorrow 🙂