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Everything you need to know about alcohol and gut health

You might have heard the term 'gut health' banded around a bit, but do you know what it means and why it's important? I wanted to have a better understanding of gut health and the impact it has on my overall wellbeing, so I had a chat with Dr Liz Isenring, a Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, to find out more.

In the early years of Nourished Life (my first company) I saw the incredible rise in awareness around gut health and the role it plays across so many vital parts of our body, even our mind. Dr Liz (pictured above) says that there are magical things happening in our guts. 

What does it mean when we talk about ‘gut health’?

"In the past two decades, research has proven the links between gut health and the immune system, mood, mental health, autoimmune diseases, endocrine disorders and skin conditions," she explains. 

Dr Liz tells me that although our 'gut' technically describes our gastrointestinal tract, more commonly called our stomach, small and large intestines.

"On any day and even at any hour we each have a unique health status. This is because we have more than 100 trillion bacteria, both good and bad, living inside our gut. The mixture of bacteria in your gut is different from everyone else’s mix. This is one major reason that one person can be healthier than others," she explains. 

Dr Liz also notes that while genetic factors are important to our overall health, the science of epigenetics shows us that certain things, such as the environment and good bacteria, switch our genes on and off. 

Anxiety and gut health 

Studies have found that people who experience anxiety or have been diagnosed with depression improved their symptoms by regulating their gut using probiotics and healthy foods. "Moreover, adults who follow Mediterranean diets or balanced diets are less likely to suffer from depression compared to people who eat a lot of processed and junk foods," Dr Liz tells me. 

This is how it works: Essentially, our gut and our brain 'talk' to one another. Compounds made by the good bacteria in our gut send signals to our brain that can influence our mood, food cravings and even how well we sleep.

Dr Liz notes that when we too much processed food and not enough fresh food, it can cause and/or worsen a wide range of health issues, such as neurological disorders, arthritis, autoimmune illnesses, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis, skin complaints, low fertility rates, GI infections, low sex drive, nutrient deficiency and more.

Alcohol and gut health 

Alcohol has a negative impact on the amount and type of good gut bacteria in the gut.

"Alcohol in the small intestine inhibits the absorption of vitamins including folate and thiamine. It can also increase gut permeability meaning that toxins and bacteria can pass more freely from the gut into the circulatory system and cause inflammation in the body. This is associated with numerous mental conditions including depression," Dr Liz explians. 

What can we do to improve gut health?  

Dr Liz tells me that good nutrition is one thing that we can all do to improve our gut health.

"The first step to take is to reduce the amount of processed food, such as high fat/sugar products e.g. chips, chocolates, fast food, deep fried food, soft drink, lollies and anything with a super long ingredients list," she says. 

There is more. Here are Dr Liz's top tips for improving gut health: 

  1. Swap alcohol for good alternatives such as non alcoholic wine or mocktails. Reduce processed food and takeaway food. Reduce takeout food to a maximum twice a week.
  2. Add high fibre food such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. At least half a plate of vegetables at each meal.
  3. Add probiotics to your diet. Probiotics include fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir. Other fermented foods are beneficial and include kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and kombucha.
  4. Add Omega-3-fatty acids to your diet. One way to include omega-3-fatty acids is to have fatty fish like salmon (or vegan alternative like algae) at least twice a week.
  5. Get enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep can cause poor absorption of nutrients. Try to prioritize getting at least 7-8 hrs of uninterrupted sleep.

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