Good gut health: How to promote healthy digestion

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Faeces, Stool, Poo, Number 2s, it’s a topic most people don’t enjoy talking about. But when it comes down to it, it’s really just a waste product that we excrete from our body after eating and drinking: the indigestible food that our body can’t absorb, plus bacteria and other substances produced by the intestines.

But this waste product and any changes to it can provide important insights into how our body is functioning. And maintaining good gut health is not only important to prevent colon issues, but it’s also linked to good health of other organs such as the heart, kidneys, liver, skin and hair.  

This article explores what bowel habits are considered ‘typical,’ and offers some simple ways on how you can encourage better gut health overall.

If your bowel movements become more or less frequent for some weeks without apparent reason - consult your GP.

It’s important to see your doctor if you experience:

  • blood in your stool
  • significant unintentional weight loss
  • persistent vomiting
  • dark or black stool that may be a sign of bleeding inside your stomach

Bowel behaviour

'Being regular’ means that you go to the loo the same number of times at the same time each day. Research has shown that anything from 3 times a day to 3 times a week wouldn’t be cause for concern to a doctor, unless it’s out of the ordinary for you. ‘Being regular’ means that you go to the loo the same number of times at the same time each day.

Anything less than 3 times a week suggests constipation, however a GP would say that if your bowels open infrequently, have done so for many years, and you feel well, then that is almost certainly normal for you and you don’t need to do anything about it.

If you do feel constipated, it may be your body giving you a sign that you need to change something in your diet or lifestyle to improve your gut health. And in turn, improving your gut health can have a positive impact on your general health.

Vital signs

When it comes to bowel health, it can be more significant to look at stool consistency rather than frequency. In comes the Bristol Stool Chart to shed some light on how you can assess your gut health. 

  • Type 1 and 2 are considered to be constipated and mildly constipated.
  • Type 3 and 4 are classified as ‘normal.’  
  • Type 5 indicates you’re lacking fibre.
  • Type 6 and 7 are classified as mild diarrhoea and diarrhoea.
Bristol Stool Chart

Better bowel health

Here are a few things to consider that might enhance your gut health and relieve any digestive issues. As with all things relating to your health and wellbeing, these may not work for everyone and some ways may just work better than others.

1. Exercise

A study into the effect of moderate exercise on bowel habits, found that digestion time was accelerated through jogging and cycling.

🏃🏼Try to do some form of physical activity for 30 minutes each day, even if it’s just a long walk.
Person exercising outside trainers on path

2. Drink lots of water

We’ve all heard the benefits of staying hydrated; but knocking back more water than usual can also help improve constipation. A 2003 study found a significant relationship between lower consumption of liquids (from 2.5 litres to only 500ml per day) and constipation. Drinking plenty of water can also help replenish fluids lost if you have bouts of diarrhoea.

💧 If you take a fibre supplement, take it along with a tall glass of water.
A glass of water

3. Eat fibre and high-fibre grains

Dietary fibre is a term that’s used for plant-based carbs that aren’t digested in the small intestine and reach the large intestine or colon. Overall, fibre helps to keep our digestive system healthy, bulking up stools, making them easier and quicker to pass. A study into the effects of fibre in the management of chronic constipation showed that soluble fibre may help increase the number of times you ‘go’ per week and may increase wind.

🍓🥦 Pack in fibre-rich foods into your meals, like whole-grains (oats, barley, rye); fruits (berries, pears); vegetables (broccoli, carrots); peas, beans and pulses; and, nuts and seeds. These fibrous foods can help improve digestion.
High fibre grains

4. Reduce stress

Typically, symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) get worse with stress. The Canadian Society for Intestinal Health reports that stress increases gut motility, so you might experience a bout of diarrhoea during or following a stressful event. Stress can also delay how quickly your stomach empties its contents, resulting in constipation.

🧘Try stress reduction activities like yoga and breathing exercises where possible to minimise digestive distress.
A person with palms held together, meditation, gratitude

5. Eat yoghurt with active cultures

Probiotics can help prevent some bowel illnesses. In an analysis of over 50 human trials, a report demonstrates that probiotics can prevent and treat infections, leading to improved digestive health. When we say probiotics, they’re found naturally in dairy products or enriched in other non-dairy products.

🥣 Spoon a few dollops of yoghurt onto your morning cereal or fruit – just make sure it’s got ‘active cultures’ or similar on the label.
A bowl of probiotic yoghurt with raspberries

Why not try some of the ideas above and see if they make a difference to your bowel health?

Further food for thought

Short term bowel changes

Our bowel movements really do reflect what we put in. So it follows that if you make any change to your diet, it will be reflected in your toilet habits. So if you suddenly start drinking lots of water over a few days, it follows that your stools will be softer. You might also see short term change if you have a few days of fasting or limiting food as some diets suggest. Short term changes are normal but as we said earlier, if you notice your patterns changing over several weeks with no apparent reason, then you should contact your GP.

The gut microbiome

Much research is being carried out to better understand the role of our microbiome on overall health. Microbiome refers to the collection of trillions of microbes such as bacteria, fungi and viruses, which mainly live in our gastrointestinal tract. Our microbiome affects our digestion, immune system, mood and cognitive function. It’s thought exposure early in life to a variety of bacteria can protect against immune-based illnesses. Conversely, an imbalance in the gut microbiome may have a role in the development of colorectal cancer. In the future, we could potentially alter the microbiome to reduce the risk of this cancer occurring. This is an active area of research and may deliver important benefits in the future and help us understand how to better support a healthy microbiome.

A comment on constipation

There seem to be different findings on what works to minimise constipation. Some studies show that fibre is more important in helping relieve constipation than water whilst others found that water intake contributes more to reducing constipation than fibre or exercise. Here are a few things you could try if you do find you’re having trouble.

  • Include more high-fibre foods in your meals: fruits, vegetables, whole grains.
  • Take a fibre supplement along with a tall glass of water each day.
  • Do some form of physical activity for 30 minutes each day, even if it’s just a long walk.
  • Use the bathroom as soon as you have the urge.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine.  

We’re on a mission to help you understand what’s most important to live a healthier, longer life. Make sure to retake the Gut Health Check in your Evergreen Life app after about 3 months to see if any changes you make are having a positive impact, and more importantly, how you feel. 

📲 Not got the app yet? Download the app here and take your available questionnaires including the Gut Health Check (found within Records) to understand more about your health and wellbeing.
References

Written by
Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA

Meet Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA, Strategy and Clinical Director at Evergreen Life, and a Medical Expert with more than 42 years' experience as a GP.

Article updated:
June 21, 2021
Reviewed by:
Dr James Harmsworth King MBBS MPhil PhD
Biotechnology & Medical Expert