Looking after your gut has always been important – now more than ever

By Sarah Keogh, Dietitian

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of our immune systems, with the desire to stay healthy sparking growing interest in health and wellbeing and an increased demand for products, from food and drink to dietary supplements, that support immunity and overall health and wellbeing.

As society reopens and people around Ireland prepare for increased social interaction and a return to pre-pandemic routine, supporting our immune systems is more important than ever. 

However, despite this, a recent consumer research study by Danone has found that a third of people do not actively take actions to support their immune systems - although 77% would like to nearly 50% don’t know how to support their immune system

The research by Danone found that 62% of people are concerned about their immune health since COVID-19, with millennials significantly more concerned (67%) than baby boomers (56%). While younger people are more proactive when it comes to looking after their immune systems, most rely on food to do this and may be forgetting other beneficial activities such as managing stress. 

It is clear that more education is needed to encourage people to be proactive with their immune system and address the knowledge gaps that exists in relation to immunity. 

For example, although about 70% of our immune cells are located in the gut, the research uncovered a lack of public understanding about the direct link between gut health and immunity and how to achieve good gut health. Many consumers don’t know that a healthy immune system starts with a strong gut and achieving balanced gut health is easier that one might think.

World Microbiome Day is a great opportunity to raise awareness about the link between gut health and immunity and encourage everyone to prioritise gut health to help support their immune system as we emerge from lockdown.

What is gut health?

Gut health refers to the balance of microorganisms in our digestive tract. Microbiota (microorganisms including bacteria) in the gut support our digestion, our immune system and help keep potential harmful bacteria at bay. 

A balanced gut means a state of physical and mental wellbeing without gastrointestinal symptoms that require consultation with a doctor, absence of any disease affecting the gut, and the absence of risk factors for diseases affecting the gut. It is the overall health of your digestive system and your ability to eat and digest food without discomfort.

Why is it important?

The gut is connected to almost every organ in our body. Gut health can therefore positively impact our weight, heart, and skin health. Gut health also reduces the risk of irritable bowel syndrome, which affects one in five people. Balanced gut health can therefore help us feel and look better.

Gut health myths

Although gut health is important for a healthy immune system, 40% of people aren’t sure how to go about having a healthy gut and 62% would like more information and advice. 

There are a range of misconceptions and perceived barriers to gut health which make it seem unobtainable.

Danone’s research found that improving gut health is seen as expensive and unappetizing, particularly amongst younger consumers. The perceived effort it takes may also be off-putting - nearly 70% of people agree that changing your diet completely supports gut health.

With so many myths and misconceptions, it’s no surprise that 44% of adults polled said they were confused by advice on gut health, and the same number don’t know which foods are best for their gut health. 

How to make a difference to your gut health

The good news is that achieving balanced gut health is not nearly as difficult as people believe. 

Enjoying good gut health is something that can be accessible for everyone and there are many simple ways for people to support their gut health, while enjoying numerous other health benefits. 

This World Microbiome Day, we want to encourage people to take three simple steps to support their gut health and in turn their immune systems and feel happier and healthier, in preparation for increased social contact:

  • Enjoy a diverse diet: Aim to eat 30 different types of plant foods a week – such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices – and 30 grams of fibre a day. With many people currently at home more often, there could be an opportunity to introduce new ingredients, such as different kinds of beans or lentils, into our diets. Dairy, and particularly fermented dairy products such as yoghurt, has an important role as part of a balanced diet. Yoghurt has live cultures as well as calcium which contributes to the normal function of digestive enzymes.

  • Stay hydrated: Adults should drink between six and eight glasses of fluids a day.

  • Sleep and exercise: Most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep every night. Regular exercise is also important to promote a healthy bowel and gut function by transporting good bacteria into your gut. 

This isn’t about expensive foods or drastic lifestyle changes – small changes, like eating more vegetables or fruit, and exercising more often, make a big difference.

And remember, if we look after our guts, our guts can help protect us in return.

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