From what you eat, to how you eat it, looking after your gut health has never been more important. In fact, having a healthy gut microbiome is now thought to be the foundation for good physical and mental health.
The gut microbiome refers to the trillions of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses that live in the gastrointestinal tract. Gut microbes are microscopic in size, but collectively the gut microbiome weighs about 200g – around the same size as the average heart for a woman.
We also now know that our gut and our brain are connected both physically and biochemically, with the gut often being dubbed the second brain. Studies show that a diverse gut microbiome can lower the risk of diseases including cancer, heart disease and liver disease, as well as diabetes, asthma, depression and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
According to the IBS Network, the condition affects around 12 million people in the UK. Symptoms are individual to each person and can vary from abdominal pain, bloating, increased flatulence, diarrhoea, constipation and passing mucus, to lethargy, nausea, backache and bladder issues.
‘IBS is a disorder of the gut-brain axis, where the bidirectional communication between the gut and brain is not working as it should be,’ says Dr Sammie Gill, a registered dietician and ambassador for gut health supplement Symprove (symprove.com).
‘IBS is a very common gut condition and there are different reasons why someone might develop it, including a repeat course of antibiotics, a gastroenteritis bout, or certain foods. Symptoms may also worsen if someone is feeling stressed or anxious.’
While IBS cannot be cured, Dr Gill says it can be managed effectively with simple tweaks to diet and exercise. ‘There are now studies showing that exercise can trigger changes in the gut microbiome, in terms of the types of gut microbes and what they do. These are likely to have benefits for our health.
‘Although it is early days, studies have shown that the gut microbiome can change in response to a new exercise programme. If you’re feeling mentally stressed, the gut will feel physically stressed. This is because the gut and brain are intrinsically connected. There are several approaches to help calm the communication, including certain types of exercise.’
Personal trainer, Hayley Madigan (hayleymadigan.com), certainly knows the perils of IBS having suffered from it since she was a teenager. ‘As a fitness trainer, my job is to keep my body strong and healthy,’ she says. ‘I maintain a healthy balance by minimising daily stresses where I can and taking care of my gut health from within. Moving my body also helps strengthen it inside and out.
‘Incredibly, 80 per cent of people say they avoid exercise due to their gut problems, yet it’s reported that low-impact exercise can help to relieve symptoms.
‘Exercise aids in decreasing stress levels, encouraging bowel movement and improving sleep patterns. Recent research has identified yoga as more effective treatment for IBS, compared to pharmacological treatment and equally effective as dietary interventions or moderate-intensity walking.
Along with yoga, low to moderate intensity exercise has been shown to decrease the severity of IBS symptoms and in a 2011 study it showed less physical activity was associated with more severe IBS symptoms. This study also stated that physical activity should be used as a primary treatment for IBS.
‘Low-impact movements can reduce stress in the body which can ease symptoms of IBS due to stress being an IBS trigger. Also, endorphins release when we exercise which allows us to feel more uplifted and positive, again helping to lower stress. The gut-brain connection is well established and when we feel relaxed mentally, so does our body physically.’
Coupled with her personal experience of exercise supporting gut health, Hayley has created a series of GRIT (Gut Resilience Interval Training) workouts. ‘For sufferers like myself it’s really important to find ways of coping and alleviating symptoms to improve quality of life. These GRIT exercises get the body gently moving to help improve blood flow to the digestive system which can improve bowel movements, which in turn can relieve IBS symptoms.
‘Certain exercises that incorporate the abdominals, such as glute bridge, bird dog, dead bug and side plank crunches to name a few, can massage the internal organs to help encourage digestion – through the engagement of the abdominals.
‘When we exercise our breathing rate changes and we use the full capacity of our lungs. This helps to open up the front of our torso and allows more room for digestion, which can also ease IBS symptoms.’
A spin on the popular HIIT workout concept, the low to moderate GRIT exercises can be done at home and do not need any equipment.
‘While there is no cure for IBS, the key to living well is self-management,’ says Alison Reid, chief executive of The IBS Network (theibsnetwork.org). ‘Once you have a better understanding of what is happening in your body, you will be able to explore what treatments work best for you and these include dietary and lifestyle changes, psychological therapies and medication.
‘Gut Resilience Interval Training sounds interesting as we know doing regular exercise can have a positive impact on improving IBS symptoms. For example, running may help some people experiencing constipation symptoms, whereas a gentler form of exercise, such as walking or yoga, may benefit those with diarrhoea.
‘It is well known that exercise can help with managing stress, anxiety and depression, and because IBS can be triggered or exacerbated by stress and anxiety, exercising regularly can help to reduce IBS symptoms.’
PT Hayley Madigan shares two GRIT workouts to try at home
‘Follow these exercises, performing 45 seconds on and 15 seconds off,’ says Hayley. ‘Repeat three to four rounds of this workout, depending on your ability.’
How to: ‘Lying on the floor with knees pointing to the ceiling, tuck your tailbone under and keep your ribs down. Drive through the heels, lift your bottom and squeeze the glutes at the top of the movement. Return to starting position.’
How to: ‘Start on all fours, then bring your left knee and right elbow together, under your torso. While keeping your torso stable, straighten your right arm and left leg. Return to starting position.’
Low lunge with arms reach
How to: ‘Start in a lunge position with your left knee on the floor. Raise both arms up so they’re in line with your ears. Return to starting position. Swap legs halfway so the right is on the floor.’
How to: ‘Lie on your back with legs in a tabletop position (knees bent 90 degrees), arms extended straight up over your chest. Engage your core and slowly extend your left leg out straight, while simultaneously dropping your right arm overhead. Return to starting position.’
‘Perform this Tabata session at 20 seconds on and ten seconds off for eight rounds for each exercise,’ says Hayley. ‘Each exercise will take four minutes to complete, before moving to the next exercise.’
Fast punches (shadow boxing)
How to: ‘Get into a boxer’s stance: stand tall with feet hip-width apart and one foot slightly ahead of the other. Keep the forward foot flat on the ground and the behind foot on the tip toe. Alternate arms with fast punches, keeping your guard up at all times.’
Reverse lunge with twist
How to: ‘Keeping the core tight, step back with one foot into a reverse lunge position. As you drop down into the lunge, twist the upper body round, in the same direction as the front foot. Return to starting position.’
Alternating side lunges
How to: ‘Standing hip-width apart, step your left leg out to the side, bend your knee and push your hips back into a squat – keep the right leg straight. Drive through the heels to bring the leg back to the starting position.’
Crab ankle taps
How to: ‘Start in a tabletop position with hands under your shoulders and knees over your ankles. While engaging the core, bring your left hand up and over to tap your right ankle which should be lifted at the same time. Repeat on the opposite side, while making sure you’re keeping your hips off the floor.’
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