Bowel health is largely determined by the gut microbiome, the vast population of bacteria that live in our intestine. Research suggests a high-fibre diet is crucial for healthy bowels, as these bacteria break down fibre into substances that have anti-inflammatory properties. But diets high in salt, saturated fat and red meat can lead to increased risk of inflammatory diseases. “Specific bacteria have been linked to bowel cancer,” says Prof Philip Quirke of the University of Leeds. “We think that the maintenance of them is probably linked to diet, because you find higher rates of bowel cancer in places with high red meat consumption, and lower levels in areas where diets are based more on high fibre content.”
Follow the rhythm of your bowel
One of the main causes of bowel problems, such as constipation, is interruptions to the natural rhythm of the body. “Bowel activity is normally greater when you wake up and after each meal, especially after breakfast,” says Dr Maura Corsetti of the University of Nottingham. “But in today’s world, many people don’t make time for this. Instead they delay bowel movements when they feel a stimulus, because they’re rushing out of the house or at work. This can lead to a bowel that is not opening regularly. So when you feel the desire to go, you should go.”
“The gut is full of nerves, and during times of stress they release neurotransmitters that can generate inflammation in the gut,” says Dr Elizabeth Mann of the University of Manchester. “It’s well known that stress worsens many diseases, and this is one of the pathways by which this occurs.” Exercise is an effective method of reducing stress, and it has an additional positive effect on bowel health by speeding up transit times.
Take antibiotics only when absolutely necessary
Antibiotics can be necessary to clear infections, but this comes at a cost: they disturb the normal balance of bacteria in your gut, wiping out many of the microbes that have health benefits.
Breastfeed your baby
Because the gut microbiome is mostly formed before the age of two, feeding patterns in early childhood play a crucial role in determining bowel health in later life. Scientists say there is evidence that breastfeeding babies can result in them having a far healthier gut, as can a diverse, healthy diet when they transition to solid foods. “This is important, because if you don’t develop a diverse microbiome early in your childhood, then you may be more at risk of inflammatory diseases such as asthma and eczema,” Quirke says.