Did we really just say that?
Yes, we did! And here’s why. The gut microbiome – the delicate balance of billions of microorganisms living inside of our gastrointestinal tract – is really having its time in the lime-light in terms of its role in our overall health and well-being, and it’s not showing any signs of slowing. It seems like new journal articles are being published almost daily about how these critters can influence everything from the obvious (like our digestive health) to the less obvious, like our mental health. Our bodies are 10 to 1 bacteria; you have more bacterial cells residing in and on you than you have human DNA. Think about that for a moment… most of the DNA in your body isn’t human!
Why should you care about the health of your gut, and how can you tell whether or not yours is in tip top condition?
Our guts are our ‘second brain,’ with the bacteria that reside there producing a whopping 95 percent of the serotonin in our bodies. (1). This serotonin is responsible for regulating both mood and gastrointestinal activity. Ever wonder why you get butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous? That’s the gut-brain axis at work.
The balance of bacteria in the gut can also be a powerful player in terms of how well you do or do not digest your food. They help regulate everything from transit time, to nutrient absorption, and gas, bloating, and stool consistency.
Your gut is also your best defence against attacks from the outside world – bacterial infections, viruses, and foodborne illness. It is responsible for an enormous amount of your immunity – whether or not you get sick. Frequent illness could be a sign of a compromised gut! Even mild stress can be enough to tip the balance between health promoting bacteria, and disease causing bacteria.
So, with the health of the bacteria that reside in our guts being so crucial to our health, how can we tell if our guts are healthy or not?
1. Transit time
This one is fairly straight forward and involves eating something that passes through the digestive tract relatively unchanged. This is a measure of how long food takes to pass through your digestive tract. A transit time that is too slow could indicate constipation, and an overly rapid transit time could indicate poor nutrient absorption. Some options include:
Sesame Seeds: Mix a tablespoon of sesame seeds into a glass of water and swallow them whole. They should reappear in your stool mostly intact.
Beetroot: In addition to being an awesome source of many vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, beetroot also turns things purple – your poo included! You need to eat about a cup either cooked or raw, and on its own. Watch for the change in colour in your stool.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a study conducted in the 1980s showed significant differences between men and women in terms of transit time, with men having a much faster rate (33 hours compared to 47 hours for women). A normal transit time is anywhere between 12 to 48 hours, with anything more than 72 hours likely indicating constipation. (2).
2. The Bristol Stool Form Scale
Developed by a team of researchers at the University of Bristol, the Bristol Stool Form Scale classes bowel movements by form and shape. There are seven ‘types,’ all indicating different degrees of bowel health.
The longer faeces stays inside our bodies, the more dried out and hard it becomes. The Bristol Stool Chart is essentially another way of measuring transit time.
Type 1: Indicates constipation. The stool is hard and scratchy, and painful to pass. There will be little gas, as there is inadequate fibre to ferment.
Type 2: Also indicates constipation, but is more severe than Type 1 owing to the size. Considerable straining required to eliminate. Common in sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Stool in this form has been in the colon for several weeks.
Type 3: Has all of the same characteristics of Type 2, but transit time through the colon is faster. Also common in sufferers of IBS.
Type 4: Normal! Common in people who have a bowel movement daily.
Type 5: Also considered normal, but not if there is incompletely digested food visible (this could indicate a transit time that is too fast).
Type 6: Abnormally fast transit time, but comfortable to pass. Can be caused by excessive stress, laxative use, or gut disorders.
Type 7: Classic diarrhoea. Transit time is far too rapid to allow for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. (3).
So, Types 1, 2, 6, or 7 could indicate gut issues that require further investigation.
3. Just looking!
Does your poop float, sink, or contain undigested food particles? All of this tells you something about your digestion, and the overall health of your gut.
Floating stools can indicate flatulence and gas in the stool, and is not caused by too much fat in the diet (as is commonly believed). However, an increased fat content of stool can indicate a pancreatic disorder, as the pancreas is responsible for emulsifying dietary fats. (4).
- Undigested food in your poo can be harmless, or a sign that something is wrong. For example, not chewing thoroughly, swallowing a lot of air, or eating hard to digest foods can all cause food to be incompletely digested, but are harmless. However, it can also be a sign of inadequate hydrochloric acid production, intestinal inflammation, or malabsorption. If this happens to you frequently, see your doctor.
Although everyone is different and there is no set ‘ideal’ bowel movement frequency, it can tell us a lot about our gut health. As stated above, there is considerable variability between individuals influenced by factors such as fluid intake and diet. There is also much variability between men and women, with men passing stool more frequently. (5).
It is generally accepted that having a bowel movement every day to every three days is considered normal. Any less frequently than this could indicate serious constipation. Frequent loose or watery stools can also indicate malabsorption, or digestive disorders such as IBS.
5. Listen to your gut
Symptoms such as pain, gas, and bloating can all indicate abnormal digestive health – especially if experienced frequently. However, there are many lesser-known symptoms of poor digestive health as well. If you experience any of the following symptoms frequently, it could warrant further investigation:
Indigestion and/or heartburn
Food sensitivities and intolerances
Mucus in the stool
If you experience any of these symptoms, there are a number of things you can try at home to help health your gut and restore digestive health, such as:
Increase your fibre intake – especially from fresh fruits and vegetables
Increase the amount of fermented foods you eat, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha
If you suspect you may have food intolerances, try an elimination diet to single out the food or foods
Increase your fluid intake
Get a good probiotic supplement
Get enough sleep, and reduce stress as much as possible
If you suspect you may have a more serious condition such as Celiac Disease, Crohn’s Disease, Colitis, or a bacterial (such as SIBO) or fungal overgrowth (such as Candida), it is essential that you see your doctor for testing.
Healing the gut and optimizing gut health can be a complicated process with many moving parts, but it’s well worth the investment of time and effort for the sake of your physical, mental, and emotional health. We’re still learning just how important our gut health is in achieving optimal well-being.
Thanks, from Team Feel Fresh Nutrition.