Keeping your gut healthy isn’t only about what you put into your body. Learn how to improve your gut health and find relief from IBS with these exercise, health and lifestyle tips…

Words: Abi Jackson | Photos: Getty Images

1. Reduce your stress levels to improve gut health

‘Stress can have a big impact on your gut and it’s all to do with the gut-brain axis – the constant two-way communication between your gut and brain,’ says ‘gut health doctor’ Dr Megan Rossi.

‘Typically, when you feel stressed, your gut function also gets stressed. This may help to explain why some people struggle to poo when they’re stressed’. For some though, the opposite can be the case and stress can also trigger diarrhoea. ‘Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is often considered a disorder of the gut-brain axis, when the communication between the two is out of whack,’ she adds.

Dr Rossi recommends doing 15 minutes a day of meditation, or using a mindfulness app. This can make a significant difference after just eight weeks. ‘For those who have IBS, gut-specific yoga has been found to be equally as effective as diet intervention for reducing symptoms.’

Researchers are also starting to see evidence that high stress levels may be linked with lower gut microbe diversity. What’s more, specific strains of microbes have been found to lower stress hormones and decrease anxiety. ‘There are more microbes in your gut than stars in the Milky Way! It’s interesting that just one particular microbe can have such a profound and powerful effect,’ says Doctor Harriët Schellekens from University College Cork.

exercise ibs relief improve gut health

2. Do regular exercise for IBS relief

For anyone prone to IBS, keeping active is a great way to reduce stress – a key trigger for IBS, as previously mentioned. There’s also evidence that professional athletes have greater microbial diversity, compared with control groups. This isn’t just because their diets may be healthier.

The link was first found by researchers at University College Cork in 2014 and further studies have since backed it up. ‘These studies have shown that the microbiota of athletes is very, very diverse. So, the hypothesis arose that doing exercise can increase your gut diversity,’ says Dr Schellekens.

‘Also, as we age, we have more inflammation in our bodies and brains and we produce more pro-inflammatory cytokines,’ she adds. These are cells that signal to the body to produce more inflammation. However, having a diverse microbiome and consuming anti-inflammatory antioxidants in your food can bolster your protection against their negative effects.’ She adds that these antioxidants must come from food though, not supplements.

‘If you exercise, you also make more antioxidant enzymes. Unlike dietary antioxidants, your body can use these over and over,’ she adds. So an antioxidant-rich diet alongside an active lifestyle is a double win. However, when it comes to improving your gut bacteria with exercise, regular exercise is best.

‘These gut health benefits rely on sustained exercise. Because of this, hitting the gym hard for a few weeks and then stopping isn’t going to do much good in the long term,’ says Dr Rossi. ‘The good news is your microbiota will like whatever form of exercise you do. The main thing is to ensure you’re moving your body regularly and getting your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes most days.’

3. Get some fresh air to improve your gut health

The experts have already established that smoking is bad news for your gut. Now, scientists are looking at how air pollution might impact the microbiome too. Gilaad Kaplan, associate professor at the University of Calgary, became interested in this topic after realising areas with worse air pollution had higher rates of inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s.

It’s too soon to say exactly how big a role this plays and which pollutants in particular are involved. However, there’s a growing suggestion that poor air quality alters the gut microbiome. Either way, it’s a good reason to head to the countryside or coast for walk or run – as well as a nature fix!

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4. Improve your sleep for IBS relief

‘Sleep is one of the most underrated resources at your disposal to support optimal gut health,’ says Dr Rossi. ‘Studies have shown that sleep deprivation over just two days can impact your gut microbiota. It can also increase inflammation and stress hormones in your body. This may explain why not getting enough sleep is linked with worse gut symptoms, particularly in people with IBS, as well as increased risk of weight gain and diabetes.’

It’s early days in terms of the exact link between sleep and the microbiome. However, it seems better quality sleep may be more important than sleep duration. After assessing the sleep patterns of 482 people, those with less disturbed sleep had a richer range of gut bacteria. This is according to research led by Dr Erika Hagen at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the US.

Related: How to improve your gut health for weight loss