Gut health: what it is and how to improve it (signs of a healthy gut)
If your gut feels like an elusive, temperamental organ; try these (mostly) free & easy science-backed gut health hacks
“Gut” is a loose term that can be used to describe the intestines, either the small and large intestine together, or just the large intestine (for example, the gut microbiome). In this article, we’re going to focus on what happens inside the large intestine, which is also known as the colon.
There’s a certain ick factor associated with this poor organ, and it clearly suffers from a major PR problem, but the large intestine does far more than just provide a cosy canal to direct your stool towards the exit.
**DISCLAIMER** This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
What is a healthy gut?
The colon is home to about 70% of your immune system , as well as trillions of bacteria that make up the gut microbiome, which is the body’s most densely populated ecosystem of microbes . It’s plugged into your brain via the enteric nervous system , and it even produces its own serotonin that serves, in part, to regulate digestive functions.
For all these reasons, a healthy gut is critical to overall well-being. Interestingly, a healthy gut is actually harder to describe than an unhealthy one because a happy gut doesn’t draw attention to itself. Here are some outward signs of a content digestive system:
Regular bowel movements
Absence of pain and/or discomfort
Ability to digest a wide range of food without adverse reactions
No recent gastrointestinal infections or antibiotic treatments
Another way of checking in on your gut health is to take a microbiome test, like the Atlas Microbiome Test. These tests analyse what’s going on with your gut bacteria and can reveal some interesting information about the invisible effects of microbes on your digestion. Here are some of the most important ones:
Diversity: having lots of different bacteria is a sign of a balanced microbiome 
Probiotics: the presence of probiotic bacteria in your gut is positive 
Butyrate: good bacteria make butyrate, a substance that combats gut inflammation 
Signs that you need to restore gut health
If you’re reading this article, then it’s far more likely that you’ve been experiencing your own gut health problems. If that’s the case, you are not alone! In fact, it’s estimated that about 4 in 10 people worldwide suffer from a functional digestive disorder . Women, in particular, seem to be more susceptible to gastrointestinal issues.
There are many signs and symptoms associated with an unhappy gut . One of the most obvious and common is a change in bowel habits (constipation or diarrhoea) that affects the frequency, colour, and/or texture of your stool. This may be accompanied by other symptoms of digestive discomfort such as bloating, excessive flatulence, or abdominal pain.
Signs that you need to add gut health to your self-care regime:
Recent gastrointestinal infection
Recent antibiotic treatment
Alternating between constipation and diarrhoea
Fortunately, your gut is a cooperative organ, and it often responds well to simple changes in your diet and lifestyle. Plus, what’s good for your gut is also good for your gut microbes, which means that by trying out these easy health hacks, you’ll be showering your digestive tract with love and kindness.
Before we go any further, we’d always recommend booking a doctor’s appointment if you notice any sudden changes in your bowel movements, if you are experiencing severe abdominal pain, or if there is any blood in your stool.
How to improve gut health naturally
Try these simple tricks to improve your gut health. They’re good for your gut, your microbiome, your wallet, and even your waistline.
Diet: diversify, don’t restrict
It’s a common misconception that, to nourish your gut, you have to take to things out of your diet. In fact, it’s nearly the polar opposite. When you cut foods out of your diet, you run the risk of depriving your gut bacteria of sustenance, namely prebiotics.
“Prebiotics” is a fancy word for plant fibres, complex sugars, resistant starches and some other molecules that nourish good gut bacteria. These substrates can’t be digested by your body, but your bacteria turn them into beneficial chemicals for your gut, like butyrate .
Top tip: Eat the rainbow! Aim for 30 different plant foods in your diet every week. You can even use the Heights brain nutrition assessment, or this helpful plant diversity quiz  by Liza Hilman, registered associate nutritionist, to track how well you’re doing.
Take it easy on the take-aways
Take-aways, fast food, and processed foods generally contain a lot of fats, sodium, and simple sugars. Yes, even if you can’t taste it! They are fast, convenient, and oddly satisfying, but they can actually stimulate inflammation in the digestive tract and also encourage the growth of pro-inflammatory gut bacteria .
This style of eating, known as the Western Diet, can also cause metabolic imbalances that mess with your blood sugar levels, encourage weight gain and, over the long-term, can even be detrimental to your heart health . Plus, it can induce changes in the gut microbiome, which can feed low-grade inflammation in the brain, which is associated with low mood and anxiety .
Top tip: Delete your food delivery apps. Remove the temptation to order take-away by deleting those apps. Your wallet, your gut health, and your microbes will thank you for it!
Get moving, even just a little
Before the pandemic, many of us were chained to our desks and caught in an endless commute. Then we got trapped at home day after day until all desire for self-improvement was replaced by Netflix and Animal Crossing. Now is your chance to take back control.
Your body was made to move, and your gut knows it. Studies show that lack of exercise is correlated with increased prevalence of constipation , but introducing gentle exercise is a great way to rekindle your energy levels and boost your digestive transit. Even gut bacteria enjoy a good workout and people who exercise regularly tend to have greater microbiome diversity .
Top tip: Slow and steady. Start with small goals like getting out for a 30-minute walk every day, a gentle bike ride, or some yoga, and work your way up from there. Plus, it’s a great way to give your brain a break, lower stress, and alleviate anxiety .
Give your gut a rest
Your digestive tract is an amazing feat of engineering that spends a lot of time ingesting and digesting food. While it might seem like nothing less than normal, snacking and eating from dawn til dusk can take a toll.
Eating naturally induces a mild state of inflammation called “post-prandial endotoxemia”, which is totally fine and healthy, even if it sounds quite alarming. However, when a person constantly snacks, this natural inflammatory state is prolonged, which takes away from the time your gut needs to heal and restore .
Top tip: Give yourself an eating window. Take some inspiration from intermittent fasting  and aim to eat within a 12-hour or even 8-hour period. You don’t have to modify your diet, you just have to eat within that window – simple as that.
Sync with your circadian rhythm
Your gut is a creature of habit, which is why, if you’re in tune with your colon, you’ll know it has a preferred pooping window. The reason your gut is such a stickler for a schedule is because your body runs on a 24-hour clock known as the “circadian rhythm”.
This circadian schedule is run by clock genes that regulate the many activities your body performs on a daily basis. For example, they send a signal to other genes to release cortisol when it’s time to wake up  and they help control the release of hunger and satiety hormones .
Top tip: Set a schedule and stick to it. Sure, alarm clocks are wonderful inventions, but if you can find a routine and follow it, you’ll soon notice that your body adapts to it naturally. Plus, your colon will rejoice in knowing that it can poop without being pressured.