Helen Bond, Registered Dietitian and nutrition consultant to VSL#3 looks at some of the positive steps we can all take coming out of lockdown to look after our gut health and help improve our general health and wellbeing….
After a difficult 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic and a rocky start to 2021, restrictions are finally starting to ease – which is great news! For many of us, the relaxation of lockdown brings longed-for opportunities to be reunited with friends and wider family, to re-engage in team sports and resume contact with work colleagues in the office. But, with new variants of coronavirus threatening our progress, it’s important that we continue to stick to the rules; come forward for the vaccine when called; and prioritise good diet and lifestyle habits to look after our gut health, and in turn take care of our body and mind.
Get healthier in 2021
Supporting our immune systems is high on people’s wish list – for obvious reasons – and it seems the pandemic has made many of us look for tips on how to improve our health and rethink our eating and lifestyle routines to look after our immune systems. According to a recent Public Health England (PHE) survey of over 5,000 adults, a staggering 70% say they’re motivated to get healthier in 2021, with data showing that around 4 in 10 (40%) Britons now want to eat more healthily, lose weight (39%), exercise more (41%), quit smoking (43%) and drink less alcohol (45%). 
Added to this, consumer research from IGD reveals from the very start of the first lockdown more than eight out of 10 (83%) of us adopted new food behaviours to empower better eating habits, such as cooking more from scratch, spending more time preparing meals and sitting down together to enjoy family mealtimes. Many of these new behaviours also had a positive impact on people’s diets, including eating more fruits and vegetables. 
How the pandemic changed the way we eat, cook and shop
While it’s encouraging we now value food more than we did before the pandemic and are encouraged to make better dietary choices, UK dietary surveys reveals there remains considerable room for improvement. Many people’s diets are still too high in ‘ultra’-processed foods and drinks, saturated fat, free sugars and salt, and low in dietary fibre, oily fish and fruit and vegetables – none of which are helping our general health and wellbeing. 
Good health starts with good gut health
One of the key elements of a healthier, happier life this year and beyond, may be enjoying good gut health – so as we tip-toe closer to normality, how about setting yourself the challenge of making your gut your new health ally?
The nine-metre long tube that transports food from entry - in our mouth - all the way to the exit at the other end is a hugely important for our overall health and wellbeing. And we’re not just talking about its role in digesting our food and absorbing nutrients. Our gut has a lot more tricks up its sleeve!
First off, the lower part of our digestive tract (aka our large intestine) is home to trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites (collectively known as our gut microbiota)  who calmly coexist together and carry out several benefits for our gut - not limited to harvesting energy from our food, keeping our gut lining healthy and producing certain vitamins, hormones and chemicals that communicate with many of our other vital organs, including our brain, skin and heart. [5, 6, 7, 8]
It’s estimated that around 70% of our immune system is found in our gut, and 90% of our body’s serotonin – the so-called ‘happy hormone’, also happens to be produced in our gut, too  So, in challenging times like these, when many of us are feeling anxious about going out into the world again, it’s imperative that we look after our gut health, to arm us with a strong immune system and good mental resilience.
“If you want to give your gut health a boost, your diet is the right place to start. The food you eat not only nourishes your body but also feeds the trillions of ‘friendly’ microbes that live inside your gut, enabling them to thrive and multiply.“
A healthy microbiota is a diverse microbiota
Study after study is showing the more diverse your diet, the more diverse your gut microbiota and the better this is for your health. The best way to increase the number and diversity of your gut microbes - and ensure your immune system is well supported - is to eat a varied, balanced diet every day, chockfull of wholesome plant-based, fibre-filled foods, and to follow a healthy lifestyle.
Try to create a ‘happy home’ for your gut friendly microbes
Your gut microbe community can easily be thrown out of balance - that’s when ‘bad’ gut bugs outweigh ‘good’ ones (a sciencey term called dysbiosis) – through illness and by things like eating a poor diet, feeling stressed out, not sleeping well and taking certain medications. But I hear you say - I don’t have any troublesome digestive symptoms, so my gut health is fine, right? Wrong! People with ‘out of whack’ gut microbiotas don’t always have gut troubles, but are still at risk of disease and infection.
Thankfully, a few simple changes to the foods you eat (when and how much), the exercise you take and the lifestyle decisions you make – can quickly readdress the balance, and bolster your physical health and mental wellbeing. Here’s how to do it:
How to pack more gut healthy foods into your daily diet to help ensure the best health for yourself out of lockdown…
Eat a balanced diet.
Balance is key to a healthy diet and healthy gut, and therefore a healthy you. Balance your diet right with a wide range of foods from the main food groups - fruits and vegetables; starchy wholegrain carbs; protein rich foods (and championing plant-based versions such as, beans and pulses); dairy and alternatives; and unsaturated oils, and keep your portions in check, and you can be sure that you’re getting all the key nutrients needed to support a healthy gut, and keep your immune system working properly. 
Eat more fruit and vegetables.
Despite us eating more fruit and veg during lockdown, most of us still struggle to achieve 5-A-Day - with adults only managing 4.3 portions and teenagers, not even three portions.  But, with a little bit of know-how you can effortlessly up your fruit and veg tally at every meal and snacking occasion – and remember fresh, frozen, canned and dried all count and can be just as nutrient dense!
Top tips to boost your meals - why not sprinkle fresh berries over your morning yogurt or muesli; throw in frozen sweetcorn to rice when it’s almost done cooking; grate in courgette to your Spanish omelette; or give your one-pot dishes such as bolognaise, chilli and stews a boost with a tin of mixed beans or lentils?
Go big on plant foods.
It can be hard to separate fact from fiction with all of the diet myths and conflicting information out there, but if there’s one thing that we can all agree on it’s that eating more plants is great for keeping our gut microbes happy and working well.
Variety is king and diversifying the types, colours and number of plant-based foods in your weekly diet is one of the best ways to keep your gut microbe population healthy – as they’re brimming full of their favourite foods - fibre, prebiotics and plant compounds called polyphenols. Plus, you’ll be catering for all your gut microbes different food preferences and tastes, too.
So, as well as fruit and veggies, let wholegrains, beans and pulses, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices take centre stage in your diet and on your plate – and challenge yourself to eat 30 different types of plant foods every week. 
Eat fibre rich foods.
As well as keeping you regular and your blood sugars stable, certain fibres act as a type of ‘fertiliser’ (aka prebiotics) for our ‘good’ gut microbes – giving them the fuel they need to flourish and do what they do best – think: leeks, onions, garlic, almonds, dates, legumes, Brussels sprouts and apricots. Adults should be trying to hit the 30g of fibre a day target, but on average, we are only managing 19g! 
Remember, there are many types of fibre and not all fibres are prebiotcs, so the more varieties of fibre rich foods you eat, the greater the benefit for your gut and overall health, too.
Top tips to increase fibre intake - increasing your fibre intake could be as easy as switching white refined carbs for wholegrain or higher fibre varieties such as brown rice, oats, whole-wheat pasta, wholemeal bread, as well as enjoying more legumes and pulses, skin on fruit, vegetables and potatoes, and nuts and seeds.
Get your lockdown cooking mojo back.
While lockdown had a positive influence on many people’s cooking habits, for others, the daily grind of shopping, chopping and cooking for the family - day in, day out - over the past year has left them burned out and relying on nutrient poor processed foods. But, that quick takeaway or microwave ready meal is not always the best option for your gut health.
Of course, with restaurants now open, some of us are also loving the chance of dining out again. But, cooking more meals from scratch will help you eat more healthily by allowing you to control the amount of fat, salt and sugar you add. Plus, you can boost vitamins and minerals, good fats and gut healthy fibre by adding nutritious ingredients such as oily fish, veg and wholegrains.
Top tips for cooking quick and healthy meals - if you’ve lost your cooking mojo, why not try batch cooking and freezing individual portions for a speedy and healthy midweek meals, or break out of your recipe rut by ordering some of the commercial meal kits available – boxed ingredients delivered straight to your home, and lots of tasty and gut healthy options to choose from. You will be falling back in love with cooking in no time!
Your digestive system needs lots of water to keep things moving and therefore requires regular top ups. This is especially true if you are upping your intake of fibre rich foods! We get some fluid from food, but on top of this, women need about 1.6 litres of fluid and men around 2 litres a day – that’s around 6-8 glasses a day.
Top tips to drink more water - water is the best choice as it’s calorie, caffeine and sugar free - but if you want a little plant-power zing to add flavour, just add slices of fresh lemon or lime, or sprigs of mint or rosemary.
According to the PHE ‘Better Health’ survey one-third of people surveyed reported snacking on unhealthy food and drinks at least once a day (35%) - up from 26% before the pandemic.  But, as tempting as it may be to reach for the chocolate biscuits or a bag of crisps at the slightest hunger pang, do try to stick to gut healthy snacks where possible - as they’ll offer lots more nutrients that your body and gut microbes do well on.
Top tips for having healthy snacks - be prepared for mid-morning munchies or mid- afternoon energy slumps by prepping carrot batons ahead to dip into salsa or Tzatziki; have a couple of oatcakes with smashed avocado or rye crispbreads with peanut butter.
Drink alcohol sensibly.
23% of drinkers (at least 1 unit a week) say that their alcohol intake had increased since the second lockdown.  While your gut microbes might thank you for the odd glass of red wine (because it contains polyphenols, which some like to feast on) make sure you stick to no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Drinking too much alcohol can irritate the gut - and will do your waistline no favours either!
Make extra virgin olive oil the oil of choice.
Choose extra-virgin olive oil over other oils and fats for your cooking, and drizzled over warm sourdough bread and summer salads. At the very core of the Mediterranean diet, it contains the highest number of microbe-friendly polyphenols, which your inner ecosystem will love.
- Give fermented foods a go. Put simply, anything that involves the use of microbes to convert basic ingredients qualifies as a fermented food - we’re talking about ‘live’ or ‘bio’ natural yogurts, unpasteurised cheeses, Kefir (fermented milk), Kombucha (fermented tea), Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), Tempeh (fermented soya beans) and many pickles, too. Lots contain live bacteria (aka probiotics), and while we don’t know for certain if they do reach the gut - if they do make it, they may offer some digestive health benefits. But, at the very least they’re cheap and fun to make in the kitchen, and they’ll add new and exciting tastes and flavours to your diet.
Avoid severely restricted ‘faddy’ diets.
It’s reported that 48% of people have experienced weight gain during lockdown , so with summer coming many people will want to loose weight and if possible with travel restrictions, be beach ready. But despite what Insta-gurus would still have you believe, there’re no magic bullets to losing weight. Faddy diets, detoxes and cleanses that eliminate whole food groups, without any medical need, just deprive your body and your ‘good’ gut microbes of essential nutrients that are necessary for healthy function.
So, ditch the ‘diet’ mentality and focus on eating healthier rather than how you look in the mirror. Focus too, on what you can add in, rather than remove from your diet – like adding a side of seasonal veg to your fish supper, bulking up a smoothie with rolled oat, or livening up a pasta dish with fresh basil. And there’s no need to say NO to the occasional piece of cake! Yes, big changes might be needed to lose the weight, but little ones made everyday, really can add up….
It’s not all about diet – it’s important to have a healthy lifestyle, too.
Just as you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet, no amount of gut healthy foods can outdo an unhealthy lifestyle, so it’s important to take a whole diet and lifestyle approach for good gut health. Let’s take a look at the lifestyle steps that can help to support your gut health…
Ensure you get adequate sleep.
Sleep is so important for our gut, immune and overall health – allowing the body to rest and repair itself. Try to get into a good bedtime routine every night which involves no screen time for an hour before hand, and a cool, quiet and dark bedroom is ideal to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep.
Don’t start smoking - and if you are one of the 29% of smokers who’ve smoked more since the second national lockdown , ditch the cigarettes now as smoking harms your gut microbes. Ask your GP or practice nurse for advice on giving up.
Manage the stress in your life.
Feeling stressed can play havoc with your gut health, via the gut-brain axis, and is a common trigger of gut symptoms, too. Carve out some ‘me time’ in your week to help shake off stress - whether it is taking up a new exercise hobby with friends like yoga, going for a walk, listening to music or just enjoying a good book while soaking in the bath.
One-third of people said they were exercising less (30%) during the pandemic. Being active is not only a great way to combat stress and reverse any lockdown weight gain, but it promotes healthy bowel habits, too. And moving more also increases the diversity of your gut microbes (especially if you workout outdoors!) – which as we know now is a good thing!
So, if the sun is shining, get your trainers back on and get out there. It doesn’t have to involve going to the gym, but any exercise – brisk walking, doubles tennis, pushing a lawn mower, an easy outdoor-workout or hiking – something that gets your heart beating faster for the recommended at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity every week.
Don’t take antibiotics unnecessarily.
Antibiotics kill your ‘good’ gut bugs, as well as the ‘bad’ overgrown ones that are causing you problems. If you need antibiotics, make sure you eat lots of foods that boost your microbes before, during and afterwards to help restore balance to your gut. Alternatively, consider taking a probiotc food supplement throughout the course of your antibiotics and for at least a few days after finishing your course.
Does your gut need an extra little helping hand?
If your healthy eating and lifestyle habits have taken a back seat during lockdown and you’re struggling to get back to some of your old routines; you’re taking antibiotics; experiencing some gut health issues; or you simply feel your gut health needs some extra support - consider taking a probiotic supplement. Look for the brands with high concentrations and multiple strains of live bacteria, such as VSL#3 as each specific strain has particular uses and benefits for different health concerns.
Top tip for taking a probiotic- the proof is in the eating – try it daily for at least four weeks, in the amount recommended by the manufacturer, while monitoring how you feel and if your symptoms improve.
The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Go to the NHS.UK https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19 for advice about COVID-19, including symptoms, testing, vaccination and self-isolation.
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