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We Spoke To A Gut Expert And This Is What You've Been Getting Wrong When It Comes To Gut Health

Gut expert Julie Thompson gives us the lowdown on gut health and what we should pay more attention to when it comes to our lifestyle and eating habits.
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“Gut health” has become a hot topic in recent years, and for good reason, with Google Trends reporting a huge increase in related searches since 2022. But how much do we really know about our guts?

We spoke with Julie Thompson, a gastroenterology dietitian and information manager at Guts UK Charity, the charity for the digestive system. They have joined forces with IMODIUM®, GB’s leading anti-diarrhoea brand¹, to talk all things guts and what we’re getting wrong when it comes to looking after them. From the food we consume to the impact our lifestyles have on our digestive health, she shares what we can do to help maintain a healthy, happy gut.

The common bad habits that could be impacting your gut health, and an expert’s tips to combat them

Bad habit: eating the same meals every day

When you have a busy life, sticking to the same meals seems like the simplest way to get the nutrition you need without having to think too much about what you’ll be eating next or planning for the rest of the week. However, Julie insists that when it comes to your meals, “variety is the spice of life.”

Expert’s advice: embrace variety when it comes to your diet

Julie said, “Getting a good variety of healthy foods in your diet is advised by experts. This enables people to get all the nutrients they need and is the best option for health.”

Julie advised eating whole grain starchy carbohydrates, such as potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and cereals, as well as increasing fruit and vegetable intake to reduce the risk of bowel cancer and help to prevent constipation. While this may seem like an expensive undertaking, Julie says it doesn’t have to be. “Frozen mixed vegetables contain a variety and are suitable. Plus, tinned beans or lentils are a good source of fibre, and if you use the liquid from the tin in a sauce, it will increase your prebiotic intake too!”

Bad habit: drinking too much alcohol

While stats from DrinkAware show that alcohol intake in younger people and the overall UK population are reducing, Julie warned that people still don’t understand how much they are drinking, which can have a negative impact on the digestive system and the body’s overall health: “From increasing heartburn, reflux and diarrhoea symptoms to longer-term damage to the liver and pancreas and increasing the risks of developing bowel cancer.” An ONS survey reported that in 2017, 1 in 10 people in the UK drank alcohol on five or more days in the previous week.

Expert’s advice: cut down on alcohol if you often overindulge

Julie says that the recommended alcohol intake is no more than 14 units per week, ideally spread out over three or more days. Additionally, she urges that if you do drink regularly, try to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink by having a non-alcoholic drink between alcoholic ones or by diluting your alcohol to make a longer drink. There are also lots of non-alcoholic equivalent drinks available that you could choose instead.

However, Julie urges, if you think you are dependent on alcohol, you should see your general practitioner before considering reducing.

Bad habit: drinking too many fizzy drinks

As satisfying as cracking open a cold can of a fizzy drink can be, Julie warns that sadly, they can be a cause of wind for people with sensitive digestive tracts, such as those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Expert’s advice: drink more water to help your digestive system

Of course, we all know that we should stay hydrated, but did you know that it’s an essential part of the digestion process? Julie said, “The gut contents also need liquid to help them to move through. If you don’t get enough fluid but still have fibre in your diet, you could still get constipated. Both are needed. Fluid requirements do vary, but in general, 6 to 8 tall glasses a day are enough.”

Bad habit: having too many caffeinated products

While we tend to associate caffeine primarily with tea and coffee, it’s actually also found in some of our favourite treats, such as chocolate and energy drinks. Julie warns that frequent consumption of energy drinks, particularly by young people, was found to be associated with poor sleep quality and stomachaches.

Additionally, Julie said, “Some people are more sensitive to caffeine, and this can cause heartburn and reflux symptoms or diarrhoea if too much is consumed and the person is sensitive to it. Caffeine is a stimulant and can affect sleep and can make people more anxious if a lot is consumed.”

However, she admits this is not a straightforward relationship, since caffeine can have both negative and positive effects. “Some people with constipation can find a cup of coffee in the morning helps stimulate a bowel movement,” she said.

Expert’s advice: limit your caffeine intake to three drinks a day maximum

Julie urged that if you often consume caffeine and are experiencing poor sleep and gut symptoms, reducing your intake could help you. Julie recommends limiting your caffeine intake from tea, coffee and soft drinks to a maximum of three per day. She warns that it is important to reduce caffeine intake slowly to prevent withdrawal effects.

Bad habit: not getting enough fibre in the diet

We all know that fibre is important for us, but according to Julie, we’re not getting enough. Experts advise that we should get at least 30g of fibre per day, but the average UK intake of fibre is 19g per day. Julie said, “[Getting enough fibre] is particularly important as it ‘feeds’ the good bacteria that we all have in our guts.”

Expert’s advice: increase fibre intake

Julie urged that ideally, each meal and snack should include a source of fibre. She said, “Fibre contains both prebiotics and what is called insoluble fibre. The non-soluble fibre in food helps contents move through the large bowel quicker, preventing constipation.”

“Prebiotics are energy food for gut microbes, and the microbes produce short-chain fatty acids that keep the gut wall healthy,” she said. “They are found in onions, garlic, wholemeal bread, pulses chickpeas, lentils, peas and beans and in lots of other fruit and vegetables.”

However, she added that if your body isn’t used to having much fibre, introducing more should be done slowly to avoid gas and bloating.

Bad habit: cutting lunch breaks or not having one at all, and not taking time to relax

Many of us with busy lives have convinced ourselves that we can cut our lunch breaks short, skip them altogether and that rest is a luxury, not an essential. Julie warns that this mindset could be playing havoc with our guts, saying, “You may have heard the term ‘fight or flight’ to describe the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system, which is associated with the stress response. The opposite of that is called ‘rest and digest’ — for good reason. Eating too fast can cause you to swallow air, which can contribute to intestinal gas.

Additionally, a study has shown that there is a correlation between having a high workload and experiencing more psychological fatigue, physical fatigue and sleep problems. Having a break during work is important, even if you don’t work a ‘physical’ job.

Expert’s advice: prioritise rest

Julie warned that experiencing stress during mealtimes is not conducive to good digestion. And. while managing your diet is important, making sure where and when you eat is just as important when it comes to maintaining good gut health. Julie said, “It is important to take time out to eat your meals in a calm environment, chew your food well and concentrate on your meal.”

Finally, we asked Julie if there’s anything else that we should know about gut health

Julie said, “One of the areas we need to learn much more about is the gut-brain interaction. The gut and brain are connected and communicate with each other all the time through nerves. This ensures it works properly. Normal feelings like being excited and experiencing butterflies — this is the brain ‘talking’ to the gut. Feeling full is another normal interaction, and this is due to the gut ‘talking’ to the brain. Sometimes this connection can go wrong, and the result can be conditions like IBS.”

“Considering how many people are diagnosed with [IBS], there is a lack of research to help to understand and treat [it]. The whole area of gastroenterology, excluding cancer, only receives 2.2% of national health research funding. Guts UK exists to change that.”

As a final note, Julie added, “If you are experiencing gut symptoms or have a change in symptoms for no apparent reason, it is important not to self-diagnose. See your doctor first. Getting a diagnosis can help you to know how to manage your condition.”

IMODIUM® and Guts UK Charity are collaborating to promote awareness of better gut health, educate on how your gut health is linked to your overall health, as well as help get people better equipped and more confident to manage their symptoms. IMODIUM® shared, “We’re incredibly proud to be joining forces with such an impactful charity — we have a whopping 100 years of combined experience, and we are using this to provide trustworthy information and cut through the noise!” Learn more about their collaboration.

  1. For claims verification please call 0808 238 9999. Source© NielsenIQ data, Value, Units, anti-diarrhoea category (client defined) 52 w/e 10.02.2024 (GB Total Coverage).

Healthcare professionals quoted in the article do not endorse IMODIUM® or any other brands.

IMODIUM® and Guts UK combined have 100 years of expertise. Johnson & Johnson Limited will donate £20,000 to Guts UK Charity (reg. charity no. 1137029) in relation to this 2024 charitable campaign and are working collaboratively with the charity to raise awareness, including creation of a media campaign and patient education materials.