Do you really need to pop probiotics, load up on kombucha and eliminate dairy to have a healthy gut?
When we investigated the new wave of ‘gut-friendly’ products hitting the shelves, we found it’s rarely that simple.
Some products can be beneficial, depending on the issues you’re experiencing, but the same thing won’t work for everyone, and diet and lifestyle changes can make a big difference too.
Gut health is a complex and evolving field of research. It’s increasingly clear that your gut health can have a much wider impact on your body, but the hype around gut-boosting products has resulted in a wealth of misinformation and confusion.
We asked leading experts for some of the most persistent gut health myths they encounter, and their top tips on what really works.
Do probiotics work? – read more about these supplements and other remedies in our full gut health guide
Top gut health myths – and why you shouldn’t fall for them
Myth 1: It’s as simple as taking probiotics
Just reaching for a pricey probiotic in your local health food store is unlikely to be a magic bullet solution.
Different probiotic strains have differing levels of effectiveness depending on your specific health issue.
While more research is needed for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to approve any health claims linked to probiotics, there is some evidence that probiotics can help with IBS symptoms and antibiotic-associated diarrhoea, but it’s important to match the bacteria strain to your specific symptoms.
If you’re generally in good health already though, the jury is out on whether there is any benefit to taking probiotics.
Myth 2: Cutting out food groups is the answer
Exclusionary diets have gained steam over the past few years, with dairy and gluten often in the firing line, but these diets are unlikely to be suitable for most people – unless you have a diagnosed medical condition such as lactose intolerance or coeliac disease.
Gut health expert, Dr Megan Rossi, says: ‘cutting out any food group unnecessarily can impact your gut microbes and decrease gut microbe diversity’. It can also lead to nutritional deficiencies.
Myth 3: You need to buy specialist products to support your gut
There might be a glut of new products and supplements vying for your attention, but including more plant-based food into your diet is a much simpler solution, though admittedly this can be challenging with busy lifestyles.
When we asked experts for the single best thing you can do for your general gut health, the answer was clear. You should aim to include a variety of fruits, vegetables and legumes (beans and pulses such as lentils) in your diet.
Good gut food: what to eat
- Prebiotic foods such as onions, garlic and leeks, will help the good bacteria in your gut to thrive
- Fibre from fruit, veg and whole grains, aids digestion and encourages healthy bowel movements
- Probiotic foods such as yoghurts and fermented foods, include strains of good bacteria similar to those in your gut
Cooking with frozen fruit and veg, and tinned beans and pulses – such as chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils – is a good cheap way to feed your gut good things without blowing your budget in the health food aisle.
Don’t forget your fibre
It’s not as trendy as some of the new gut health products, but most of us could do with adding more fibre to our diet. It’s thought that we need to consume around 30g of fibre a day, but the average Brit consumes an estimated 18g a day.
There is strong evidence that eating lots of fibre lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, bowel cancer and more.
It also helps you feel fuller for longer, can aid digestion and prevent constipation. Many fibrous foods are also prebiotics, making these choices a win-win for digestive health.
Myth 4: Gut health remedies work in the same way for everyone
Everyone’s gut is different, so something that your neighbour claims to be a miracle cure might well be a waste of money for you.
According to Dr Simon Gaisford, professor of pharmaceutics at UCL, the difficulty lies largely with the fact that ‘nobody knows what a “normal” microbiome should look like, and the diversity of gut bacteria will always vary from person to person’.
For best results, you need to tailor treatment to your specific symptoms. For example, certain strains of probiotics have some evidence of reducing IBS symptoms, but others don’t.
Some treatments might actively make things worse – for example, large doses of prebiotics could actually trigger IBS symptoms.
Myth 5: Changing your diet or taking probiotics will yield immediate results
Introducing a sudden change to your gut – even if it’s something healthy such as eating more fibre – can initially disrupt your microbiome and produce side effects such as gas and bloating.
It’s best to make any changes gradually instead.
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