Why is bowel health important?
Your bowel health can affect your general health. Studies show that the health of your gut can affect everything from your anxiety levels to your risk of autoimmunity. When people talk about bowel health, they usually mean the intestines, both lower and upper.
Digestion occurs in the small and large intestines, so it’s important that everything functions well. Good digestion means you absorb all the nutrients from your food, have regular bowel movements and don’t experience symptoms of bloating and excess gas.
Your large intestines are also home to most of your microbiome – the trillion of gut bugs which affect many areas of your health.
Common bowel health issues can include:
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- inflammatory bowel disease
Unfortunately, bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers. Bowel cancer is more common in over the age of 50, and signs and symptoms include:
- persistent change in your bowel habits
- bleeding from your bottom or in your poo
- unplanned weight loss
- a lump or pain in your tummy
If you have any of the above symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible. And if you are symptom free but 60 or over, remember to complete your free bowel screening program. This is offered on the NHS, with at home screening kits sent to you in the post every two years.
How do I Improve my bowel health?
There are lots of things you can do to improve your bowel health as you get older. Many of these tips will also benefit your general health and wellbeing too.
Below are five ways you can improve your bowel health going forwards.
1. Increase your fibre intake
Many of us in the UK don’t get enough fibre. The recommended daily intake is 30g. Although this might not sound a lot, many of us now eat low fibre diets made up of mostly processed foods. A low fibre diet can increase your risk of constipation, heart disease and may contribute to some bowel cancers.
It’s easy to add more fibre into your daily diet – but remember to start slowly as suddenly increasing your fibre intake may cause bloating or gas. And if you already have a particular bowel condition then do check with a dietitian before increasing your fibre intake. This is because some conditions require modified fibre intake. Increase your fibre by:
- switching to wholegrains such as wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholewheat pasta
- aiming to eat at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables per day
- keeping the skins on fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, courgette, and cucumber
- choosing high-fibre breakfast cereals such as porridge, Weetabix or bran flakes
- adding nuts and seeds to cereals, yoghurts, or salads
- eating more lentils, pulses, and beans for example, by adding them to stews and curries
2. Stay hydrated
You might have heard that staying hydrated is important for your general health. This is especially true for your bowel health. This is because drinking enough helps to prevent constipation as fibre cannot work properly without fluid. Even if you have plenty of fibre in your diet – dehydration can lead to hard stool (poo) which is painful and difficult to pass. Aim for around 8 glasses of fluids a day which can include water, squash and tea.
3. Feed your gut bacteria
In order for you to have a healthy microbiome (range of helpful gut bacteria) you need to eat a varied and fibre rich diet. This is because the healthy gut bacteria feed on the fibre rich plant foods you eat. Aim to include wholegrains, vegetables, and fruits as part of your daily diet.
It’s also a good idea to include prebiotic and probiotic foods too, as these can support the health of your microbiome as well. Prebiotic foods include leeks, garlic, onions, and oats. And probiotics are found in foods such as live yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir, and kimchi.
4. Keep active
As well as adapting your diet there are other lifestyle choices which can promote a healthier bowel. Getting regular exercise supports your heart health and helps you maintain a healthy weight. But did you know that moving more can reduce your risk of constipation too?
Aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise spread across the week, to include a mix of cardiovascular activities such as running, and strength training too.
5. Manage stress
Your gut and brain are closely related, and this relationship goes both ways. This means that your gut health can impact your mental health, but your mental state can also affect your bowel health too.
When you are stressed, you might experience an upset stomach in the short term. But also, chronic stress can negatively affect the gut microbiome over time too. Which can then affect your bowel health. So, taking steps to manage stress is key.
Everybody deals with stress differently, but evidence shows that mind body techniques such as deep breathing and yoga may be able to reduce stress and improve your bowel health too.
If you’re struggling with bowel health symptoms, it may be worth making some simple changes to your diet and lifestyle. But if you are worried about your bowel health, make sure you see a doctor for more help and support.