How to improve your gut health 

Top gastrointestinal experts dish out the ‘gut’ stuff.

Gut health is something that is essential to our overall wellbeing and the functioning of other parts of our body.

There is a communication system between the gut and brain referred to as the gut-brain axis; it also influences our digestion and immune system. That’s why caring for your gut health is so important.

Hands cupped around an intestine shaped picture.Credit: Shutterstock/SewCream

This is especially true in later life because our digestive make-up changes as we age.

Being aware of these changes can help you to be more in control and prevent any potential health issues, and there are simple things you can do to help it right now.


Understanding gut health

What does gut health mean?

Gut health doesn’t just mean your stomach – it refers to the health of the entire digestive system. A core part of this is the gut microbiome.

This refers to the trillions of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi) in your gut. Scientists are still learning more about our microbiome, but it’s thought that each person has around 1,000 species of bacteria living in the digestive tract. 

“There are 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells [in the human body] and the number of bacteria that we have, particularly in our large bowel, weighs more than our brain,” says consultant dietitian and chair for the British Dietetic Association for London, Sophie Medlin.

What counts as the gut? 

The digestive system, sometimes called the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) starts in your mouth and ends in your anus. The oesophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine all sit between these points.

With so many bacteria in the gut, it is important to keep the microbiome balanced and diverse because research shows the bacteria work to keep us healthy overall by carrying out important roles, such as delivering essential nutrients.

Medlin says they are influenced by what we eat; the more plant foods in our diet, the more diverse our gut bacteria – the more variety there, the healthier our gut is considered.

Man and woman chopping fruits and vegetables.Credit: Shutterstock/Evgeny Atamanenko

Caring for gut health

Why is it important to look after our gut health?

Medlin says that the bacteria in our gut constantly interact with the rest of our body through communicating with our organs and cells by sending signals. This means the condition of your digestive system impacts overall health, so nurturing it is essential, even if you don’t suffer from any digestive-related conditions.

“For example, the bacteria communicate with our brain which helps to control inflammation, and they also tell [our immune system] when to switch on but also very importantly, when to switch off, helping to prevent autoimmune conditions,” Medlin adds.

Sophie Medlin
Consultant colorectal dietitian and director of CityDietitians

Medlin has worked with people with digestive problems for more than 10 years, in the NHS in research, in the media, and in her private practice. She is passionate about making good gut health accessible to everyone. 

Research published in the Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology journal shows there is even a link between gut health and hormone balance, which may mean a healthy digestive system could positively impact menopause symptoms in women. 

As we get older, it’s more important than ever to look after our gut health, as the microbial diversity in our gut reduces, explains Medlin. As recent research from the Nature Medicine journal shows, having more diverse bacteria in the gut can reduce the risk of developing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Thankfully, there are steps we can take to tackle the things that impact our gut and improve the health of our guts.

People chopping vegetables.Credit: Shutterstock/Inside Creative House

1. Foods for gut health

Add beneficial foods for gut health to your diet 

The modern Western diet tends to be high in saturated fats and sugars and low in plant foods, and research in the Nutrients journal shows that this can reduce the number of ‘good’ bacteria and diversity of bacteria in your gut.

This can cause inflammation throughout the body, which can have a negative effect on health.  

For this reason, Medlin recommends a diet high in diversity of plants. “Our gut microbiome loves fermented foods, but it also really loves plant foods such as nuts and seeds and fibre-rich fruits and vegetables as well as spices and herbs.”  

Assistant professor at the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, Dr Niharika Duggal, whose work focuses on the gut microbiome, adds: “The Mediterranean diet is a well-balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fish and olive oil and low consumption of meat, refined carbohydrates and sweets. Following the Mediterranean diet has been linked with a healthy gut.”

Dr Niharika Duggal
Assistant Professor at the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham

Also a trustee for the British Society of Research in Ageing (BSRA), Dr Duggal has a long-standing interest in the field of gut microbiome changes with advancing age and its impact on the immune system and on aged host health and during chronic inflammatory conditions. Her research group is focused on investigating the potential of microbiome-based interventions in reversing the immune ageing clock and promoting healthy ageing. Follow her on Twitter: @Duggal_UoB 

Here are some tips for adding more plants to your diet, but it’s not all about plants. Staying hydrated is also important when it comes to keeping the gut healthy, and there are some surprising gut-friendly foods you can still indulge in.

2. Rest for gut health

Get enough sleep

A lack of shut-eye can affect your gut, which in turn can cause further sleep issues. Studies show that sleep deprivation leads to changes in gut microbiome make-up, putting you at greater risk of gastrointestinal conditions.  

Resulting tiredness can also influence the foods you choose to eat – selecting easier, less healthy options that, in turn, can negatively affect gut health. 

That’s why it’s important to aim for the seven to eight hours per night that doctors recommend for the average adult. Here are some tips for achieving healthy sleep from the Sleep Foundation. 

Woman lying down asleep.Credit: Shutterstock/fizkes

3. Probiotics for gut health

Take probiotics and prebiotics 

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts usually added to yoghurts or taken as food supplements. Meanwhile, prebiotics are indigestible fibre compounds found in many plant foods.   

Dr Duggal explained that evidence from clinical trials shows probiotics and prebiotics can correct malnutrition in older adults, restore the balance of gut bacteria and treat inflammatory bowel conditions; together providing health benefits.

Probiotics are particularly helpful after a course of antibiotics. 

4. Stress and gut health

Lower stress means happier guts

Thanks to the gut-brain connection, feelings such as anxiety or stress can result in stomach discomfort and vice versa.  

This is because stress alters the composition of bacteria in the gut. According to the NHS, stress slows down digestion, causing bloating, pain and constipation in some people. 

In others, it speeds it up, causing diarrhoea and frequent visits to the toilet in others, with some people losing their appetite altogether. Stress is thought to worsen conditions such as IBS in particular. 

Although stress is a part of everyday life and can be hard to avoid, there are simple relaxation techniques you can try to reduce stress. Not only will your mind thank you for this, but your gut will too. 

Man sat on the ground meditating.Credit: Shutterstock/Inside Creative House

5. Help your digestion

Change your eating habits

Often notice yourself cramming down your food as if someone is going to snatch it away? This can have a negative impact on your digestion and gut by causing issues such as bloating and indigestion. Experts recommend that you chew each bite of food around 32 times. 

Eating little and often throughout the day rather than having large portions can also be kinder to your digestion according to the NHS, as it puts less stress on the digestive system. 

If you struggle to eat little and often, plan your meals a day in advance – while this is time-consuming, it can quickly become a simple habit and can help you to make sure you’re getting enough plant foods too. 

6. Food intolerances

Check for food intolerances

Food intolerances can cause symptoms associated with stomach discomfort, like cramping and bloating. You can try removing certain foods from your diet to identify the trigger of these symptoms.  

The NHS doesn’t recommend buying tests that claim to diagnose intolerances as they may not be reliable. Instead, speak to your GP who may refer you to a dietitian. 

Woman holding an apple and resting during exercise, with a yoga mat and bottle of water beside her.Credit: Shutterstock/Dragana Gordic

7. Exercise for gut health

Move more to improve digestion 

Physical activity is not just beneficial for staying a healthy weight. In fact, Dr Duggal says doing regular exercise can have a positive impact on helping the gut microbiome stay healthy.  

Further, a study of healthy elderly women who did aerobic exercise combined with brisk walking found that they experienced an increase in a particular gut bacteria associated with positive health outcomes. 

Despite this, “around less than 10% of older adults in the UK meet the recommended guidelines of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week,” Dr Duggal adds. 

The solution is to create and keep a regular exercise routine that meets these guidelines. More specifically, Medlin recommends practising pelvic floor exercises as this supports rectal function too. 

8. Seek professional help

Professional support for gut health

If you’re still struggling with digestive issues, there’s a range of gut-specific support available: from visiting your GP to receiving gut-directed hypnotherapy and joining in with organisations such as Crohn’s and Colitis UK and The IBS Network.  

There are also a variety of apps available for download including the Monash University Low FODMAP diet, which is designed to guide you through a specific diet to help with symptoms of IBS.

So, while a lot can impact your gut, just a few simple lifestyle changes can help you nurture your gut health and start to improve it. To learn more about your digestive system and keeping your gut healthy, visit Guts UK.

Gemma Harris

Written by Gemma Harris she/her


Gemma Harris is a Staff Writer for Fitness, focussing on nutrition content, at Saga Exceptional. Gemma has been a journalist for over seven years and is a self-confessed health and wellbeing enthusiast, which led her to specialise in health journalism. During her career, she has worked with top editors in the industry and taken on multiple high-discipline fitness challenges for certain outlets. She is particularly passionate about nutrition; after being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in 2016, she discovered her fascination for gut health and founded – a dedicated space for providing a hopeful outcome for people with gut issues. Gemma’s core aim is to help others through her writing.

Previously a freelance journalist, Gemma has written about topics including combatting the spread of health misinformation on social media, how to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet with a stoma and probiotics for gut health. Her work has been published within leading health journals such as Gastrointestinal Nursing and the British Journal of Healthcare Management, as well as multimedia health and lifestyle platforms, including, StomaTips, Fit&Well, LiveScience and

She is the proud owner of two adorable guinea pigs who are far too spoilt and have become her writing companions. When she is not writing, Gemma can be found making a colourful and nutritious meal in the kitchen, walking in nature, at a yoga or spin class, swimming, doing an at-home YouTube workout, snuggling up with a self-help book or meditating. These experiences help to influence and shape the content she creates. And because life is all about balance, Gemma also enjoys having cocktails with friends.

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