Let’s talk about poop for a minute. This may embarrass you, but if we’re talking health, looking at your digestion is a huge part of the equation.
Menopause and intermittent fasting can affect your gut health, and your bowel movements can tell you a lot about this. I recently did a little experiment called the #BluePoopChallenge to gain some insight into mine, which I’ll tell you about in a minute.
But first, did you know that gut health and bacteria are the most overlooked elements of hormonal balance? This is according to the book Natural Menopause, which points out that changing hormonal levels during the menopause can really affect your gut health and lead to major digestive problems.
Your gut WHAT?
Your “gut microbiome” is made up of the trillions of microorganisms and their genetic material that live in your intestinal tract, including bacteria called gut microbes. It impacts hormone production and helps or hinders hormonal balance. It also plays a critical role in your overall metabolic health and immune system.
There’s a growing amount of research on IF and its effect on your gut microbiome. While much of the research to date is in animals, the results are promising. For example, one study shows that IF can “reset” the gut microbiome so that your gut becomes populated with microorganisms that are associated with leanness rather than obesity. Let’s park that here for now, but… wow!
You can easily do this challenge in the comfort of your own home to get an idea of how your gut is performing and what types of bacteria your microbiome might be populated with.
It was launched by researchers at ZOE, a health science company that was co-founded by Tim Spector, author of The Diet Myth and Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London. ZOE is running the largest in-depth nutrition study in the world and naturally, looking at the gut microbiome is a key part of the research.
To do the challenge, you just need to bake and eat some vegan muffins with blue food colouring (recipe here) and see how long they take to go through your system*. You can make a gluten-free version, too.
Then you go onto the ZOE website and fill in a 5-minute questionnaire on how long it took for the muffins to come out the other end, as well as some information about your diet.
*Note: The muffins are bright blue on the way in, but expect a dull blue or green at the other end, so you need to look out for the blue poop. It’s not going to be like a fluorescent beacon in your toilet.
I just had to try this, as I’m constantly trying to learn more about my body and what makes it tick. Also, it was a good excuse to eat muffins!
ZOE’s idea for doing this challenge emerged from a scientific study that they carried out on 863 participants. Among other things, researchers found that gut transit time – measured via the blue dye method – gives better information about gut microbiome function than the traditional measures of stool consistency and frequency.
I found my test results really interesting. They showed that my “transit time” falls within the normal range, but that I probably only have about six of 15 possible “good” bugs (microbes) in my gut. This estimate was based on ZOE’s database of the people in its study.
I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t score better on the bugs front, but at least it gave me some information that I can use to try and improve my gut health.
The end of the report offers one takeaway tip, and mine was to eat more plant-based foods. It was a confirmation of something that I know, which is a great motivator for me. I’m always saying that I need to eat more veggies, beans and legumes, and now there’s more evidence that this is the case.
ZOE also has a test you can buy – coming soon to the UK, but already available in some US states – that can help you figure out what types of foods are best for your individual body and microbiome. As I’m a bit of a “test junkie” I’m hoping to do this when it becomes available if it’s not prohibitively expensive.
Five tips for improving your gut health
Now that you know about all this ZOE stuff, what practical things can you do to improve the health of your gut microbiome? Here are Dr. Spector’s top five tips:
- Try to eat 30 different plants each week: Nuts, seeds, pulses, whole grains fruits and veggies are all packed with nutrients that support a healthy gut, and the wider the diversity, the better for your gut microbiome. Garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus and whole grains are especially good for your gut.
- Add some colour to your plate: Colourful foods contain loads of fibre and polyphenols. Nuts, berries, seeds, brightly coloured fruits, extra virgin olive oil, vegetables and dark chocolate are rich in these beneficial compounds.
- Try eating some fermented foods: Fermented foods like live yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, kefir and sauerkraut contain probiotics, which are living microbes. When you eat them, your gut is populated with these good bugs, which increases the number and diversity of bacteria that make up your microbiome.
- Give your gut bugs a break: Try to avoid or limit snacking and aim to give your gut bugs time to rest overnight. By giving your gut bugs a break, they’ll have time to recover and function optimally. (This seems to align with research on IF and the microbiome.)
- Limit ultra-processed foods: Eating lots of ultra-processed foods is associated with conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity, among other undesirable outcomes. They don’t support a healthy gut microbiome because they lack the fibre and nutrients that good bugs need to flourish.
Listening to your body
Despite my penchant for taking health tests, there’s a lot to be said for simply tuning into your body’s signals, like bloating, aches and pains, sleep, skin condition, bowel movements, etc.
It’s amazing how well you can work out which foods your body loves and which ones it doesn’t by paying attention to these messages. “We all have unique microbiomes, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition that suits everybody’s gut bugs,” Dr. Spector notes.
IF has definitely helped me gain a better understanding of the subtle messages my body is giving me all day long. And it’s not just about which foods work or don’t work for me.
Over time, I’ve intuitively learned more about what real hunger/fullness feels like, whether I do better with grazing or with fewer but larger meals, and the time of day that my body likes to be fuelled.
Now I’m off to buy some veggies!
Are you going to try the #BluePoopChallenge? If you did, what did you learn? Let me know in the comments below!