Understanding your gut

Written by Christina McAfee on 05/04/2023

Clinically reviewed by Macarena Staudenmaier on 24/01/2024

Gut health is one of many hot topics when it comes to health and wellbeing, with new research being carried out in this area all the time. In this article, Christina McAfee, Clinical Product Manager at Simplyhealth and HCPC Registered Dietitian, looks at what we currently know about how the health of our gut can affect our overall health and happiness.

A selection of fibre-rich fruits, vegetables and grains

Why is gut health important?

There are trillions of bacteria living inside our gut and research shows that these bacteria could be having a huge impact on, not just our digestive health, but also our heart health, mental health and immunity 1&2.

Our gut contains trillions of microbes, collectively known as our gut microbiota. These microbes produce hormones and vitamins that are essential to our health.

The gut is responsible for digestion and absorption of our food. If our gut lining doesn't have a wide variety of healthy microbes, it can mean we're unable to digest and absorb food properly. Meaning we lose out on the benefits of eating well.

What many of us don't realise is that most of the cells that make up our immune system are found in the gut. Having healthy gut bacteria means fewer illnesses, allergies and autoimmune conditions.

The wide-ranging benefits of a healthy gut

There is evidence now to suggest that the health of our gut affects a much wider range of conditions than previously thought, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and colorectal cancer.  Further research is being carried out into the interaction between our gut and our brain and the thinking is that gut health may have an impact on mood and conditions such as depression and even Alzheimer’s3.  

Lactobillus probiotic bacteria

How do I know if I have a 'healthy' gut?

No test can tell you whether your gut is healthy. However, gut microbiome tests can tell you what types of bacteria live in your gut and how some of these are linked to different health outcomes.

Digestive issues such as constipation, diarrhoea and stomach cramps can be clear indicators of imbalanced gut microbiota.  However, you can also have an imbalanced gut microbiota and experience no digestive symptoms1

Unfortunately, there is not always an easy way to know how healthy your gut is, but there are steps you can take to ensure you are supporting your gut health as much as possible.

Woman lying on sofa and holding her stomach in pain

What can I do to look after the health of my gut?

One of the most important things we can do is to include plenty of fibre-rich plant foods in our daily diet.  Evidence shows that when we make positive dietary changes, such as increasing the amount of dietary fibre we eat, improvements in gut health can be seen rapidly, meaning that it’s possible for us to start making a difference to our gut health right now3.

In the UK we eat, on average, around 20g of fibre per day; 10g less than what’s recommended for good gut health in adults4.

Top up your dietary fibre today

You can increase the amount of fibre you eat every day by incorporating new foods into your diet and by making some simple higher-fibre swaps.

  • unsalted nuts and seeds 
  • wholemeal, granary or 50/50 bread 
  • wholewheat pasta and brown rice 
  • wheat-based breakfast cereals or porridge 
  • all fruits and vegetables contain fibre, so continue to aim for the recommended 5-portions per day
  • for an extra fibre boost, try switching tinned fruit and veg for fresh or frozen alternatives
  • fruit and vegetable skins - wash and keep these on where possible, as it's often their greatest source of fibre.

Evidence suggests that the key to optimising gut health appears to be by not only increasing the amount of fibre we eat every day but also including a wider range of fibre-rich foods3&4.

Family doing yoga together

Other factors which affect gut health

The health of our gut is not dependent on diet alone and several other factors can also have an impact.  These include some medications, such as laxatives and antibiotics, which can cause imbalances in gut bacteria and negatively affect our gut health. Other factors include:


Stress is an important factor that is sometimes overlooked when it comes to gut health.  It is now well-recognised that stress can affect our digestion.  When we’re feeling stressed this signal travels to our gut and can manifest in a variety of common gut symptoms, including constipation, diarrhoea, pain, and bloating.  Unsurprisingly, digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and stomach ulcers can be negatively affected by increased stress. It’s therefore important for our gut health that we reduce and manage our stress levels as much as we can5.


Becoming more active appears to improve gut health by increasing the diversity of our gut microbes6.  Having a sedentary lifestyle; where movement is limited for large portions of the day, can result in reduced stimulation of our gut muscles which, in turn, results in the slowing down of digestion. It’s therefore important to try and increase our movement in order to optimise our gut health.  Raising your heart rate for 30 minutes most days can make an important difference6.


There is emerging evidence to suggest that poor-quality sleep can negatively affect our gut microbes.  Lack of quality sleep can also cause increases in stress hormones and inflammation.  It affects the levels of our hunger and fullness hormones we produce, which is why when we’re tired, we crave certain foods and can affect how much we eat, all of which will have a knock-on effect on digestion7.  As a general rule, we should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. You can help to improve your quality of sleep by limiting caffeine intake at least five hours before your bedtime8 and establishing a relaxing bedtime routine to help you wind down.


You may have heard of probiotic drinks and yoghurts that contain live bacteria and are designed to help improve gut health. These products will help increase the specific strains of bacteria that are contained within them but only while you continue to take them3.

Things to remember:

  • Different types of fibre can affect our gut in different ways
  • If you are planning to increase your fibre intake, do so gradually over several weeks to allow your gut to adjust to the higher fibre intake and to avoid bloating and wind
  • Bloating and wind are normal parts of the digestive process, and we all experience them – these symptoms should not be anything to worry about unless they are interfering with your day-to-day life, they are new, painful or uncomfortable.  If you have any concerns, please speak to your GP
  • It’s important for our gut health, and our overall health, that we are getting enough hydration and adults should be aiming for around two litres of water every day.  If you’re increasing your fibre intake you may also need to increase your intake of fluid to make sure the fibre is able to do its job properly within the gut
  • When you look at food labels, foods that have 3g of fibre per 100g are considered a source of fibre and those with 6g per 100g are considered high-fibre foods – you can use this as a guide to help make higher-fibre choices
  • If you have any concerns about your gut health, you should speak to your GP in this first instance.

Reviewed by Macarena Staudenmaier

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