Yasmin Alexander on Gut Health, Prebiotics, Probiotics and The Importance Of Fiber

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on 23 November 2019

Yasmin Alexander is a nutritional therapist registered with the British Association for for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine.

In this interview, we speak about gut health, and in particular, some simple tips you can use to improve your digestion.

Yasmin also speaks about the difference between probiotics and prebiotics, as well as explaining why we can probably all benefit from eating more fiber.

It was great to chat to Yasmin again, and be sure to follow her on Instagram @nutritionbyyasmin to keep in touch with what she’s up to.

Also be sure to check out Yasmin’s website and sign up for her free email newsletter!

What does a nutritional therapist do?

Nutritional therapists and nutritionists are kind of the two ‘titles’ in the world of nutrition. You’ve also got dieticians as well that are more hospital based.

A nutritional therapist works to underpin what might be causing symptoms or disease that someone might have. When I see clients on a one to one basis, which is part of the job, it’s a lot of detective work to try and really get to the root cause of what the client might be suffering with or what they want to try and improve.

It’s working to improve the individual’s health through diet but also lifestyle as well. It’s client work, corporate work and I consult with some brands, so it’s very diverse, which is good!

Gut health issues seem to be a big problem these days. Why do you think that is?

What I think would be good is to start with what the gut actually is. We hear the word thrown around and everybody is talking about it, which is good, but sometimes I feel we need to strip it back and talk about what the gut actually is.

The gut is the gastrointestinal tract which actually runs from the mouth all the way down to the rectum and anus. It’s the whole tract that basically keeps our body away from the outside world.

We’re hollow in a way, because we have this tract that goes down and we then absorb our food and nutrients from this ‘hollow’ tract that’s inside us. When we talk about ‘the gut’, we’re mainly talking about the large intestine.

The food will normally go from the food to the mouth, through the esophagus and into the stomach, the small intestine and then the larger bit, which is the large intestine.

When we talk about our gut, we’re talking about the ecosystem of bacteria that lives within the large intestine, which is otherwise known as the colon. This is where a lot the food that we eat ‘chills’ and ‘hangs out’. It’s the bacteria that sits within that gut that makes up our overall gut health.

When we talk about gut health, what we are looking to achieve is a balance of more good bacteria that are ‘chilling’ in the gut than the ‘bad’ bacteria that is non-beneficial. Our gut bacteria is more unique than our DNA.

There’s a lot of research being done looking at twins and it shows that the sets of twins have more differences in their gut bacteria than they have in their DNA. We might share some of the same gut bacteria but for you they might cause issues and for me they might not. It’s something that’s really personalised and I feel like that there’s a lot of research but we’re kind of at the tip of the iceberg at the moment. We also have fungus and yeast, as well as the bacteria, that lives in our gut.

I think there are a lot of prongs to [why so many people suffer with gut issues these days]. One of them is stress. Stress can actually have a massive impact on our gut bacteria and how we’re able to absorb our food. Firstly, stress can decrease our stomach acid. The stomach acid is a digestive juice that we have that when our food reaches the stomach, mixes with the stomach acid and makes the food into a substance called Chyme, which allows the food the be broken down and absorbed in our small intestine.

When you’re very stressed, you can actually decrease the amount of stomach acid that you have, meaning that your food isn’t getting broken down adequately, which means that some of it will pass through to that large intestine where it then will ferment a bit more. That can cause symptoms such as bloating or increased wind, for example.

Stress can not only decrease stomach acid but also our ability to absorb our food. When we’re stressed and eating on the go and don’t relax, we’re always using our sympathetic nervous system, which is the ‘fight or flight’ side of the nervous system.

When we eat, we actually need to be in our parasympathetic nervous system. This is called the ‘rest and digest’ side of the nervous system. What we want to try and achieve while we’re eating is be in the ‘rest and digest’ side, so we can really focus and let the blood flow to our digestive system, so we can extract everything in terms of nutrients that we need from our food.

I think also that the use of antibiotics is a factor. Maybe it’s changing a bit now, but a few years ago, a lot of antibiotics were being prescribed, sometimes just in case and people weren’t that aware of the effect they can have on gut health.

Antibiotics are sometimes completely necessary and I’m not against them in any way, but I just think that sometimes the over-prescription of them could cause issues for some people. When you take antibiotics, their job is to kill off the pathogenic or the ‘bad’ bacteria within the gut, but it actually takes some of the ‘good’ bacteria as well.

Yasmin Alexander

It doesn’t mean that antibiotics are going to completely destroy your gut and it can never heal again, it just means that if you don’t consciously try and replenish the good bacteria and nourish the gut, it could potentially cause digestive issues further down the line.

What are some of your basic tips for improving gut health?

Firstly, I should say that these are just tips to improve your overall gut health.

For people who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome or any other condition, they would need to seek personalized advice, either from a doctor or a nutritionist.

For general healthy tips, one of them would be fiber. Fiber is really key for gut health. I was talking about food fermenting in the large intestine. That’s fiber’s role. We really need fiber in our diet to feed our gut bacteria and also plant the good bacteria there.

We are recommended to have 30g of fiber per day, and it’s about 18g that the average person has a day in the UK.

So we’re not really reaching the target in terms of fiber. Fiber’s really important because it not only plants and feeds the good bacteria, it helps to give us energy as well and yield the energy and nutrients from our food as well. We talk about fiber quite a lot, but most of us are not really reaching the daily target and there are some tips to increase that.

One of them is to go for colour in your diet. Some of them are beige, so oats are a brilliant source of fiber, but you should try and aim for colours in the diet as well. Having a diverse range of colours on your plate would be one of my tips.

Another one would be to utilize chia seeds and flaxseeds. I talk about them quite a lot because I just think that they’re such easy ways to add in fiber to your diet. Chia seeds are little black seeds that are actually a type of fiber called soluble fiber. They look a bit like frogspawn once they’re soaked in liquid.

If you leave some chia seeds in some milk or water for an hour or so or overnight, you’ll see that they form a gel, and that’s actually what they do within our digestive system as well. That can be good for people who are maybe suffering with constipation, because they help to form a gel and bulk out the stool. They’re really good because you can sprinkle them on to anything. Flaxseeds are the same as well.

Yasmin Muswell

Nutritional Therapist Yasmin Alexander

If we’re talking about carbohydrates more than fruits and vegetables, is to switch to wholegrain varieties. Making the switch from white to a wholegrain or a rye bread is automatically going to increase your fiber intake.

Another good one is to always keep the skins on. We might overlook this, but in a potato or a sweet potato, and fruits such as apples, a lot of the fiber actually resides in the skin, and often that’s what we discard. So always keep the skin on.

What about prebiotics and probiotics?

People often hear of probiotics as like a supplement that you might take, but ‘probiotic’ just means ‘good’ bacteria.

There are certain foods that we can consume that contain these good, live bacteria. Some of them are yoghurt that has live cultures in it. Kefir is a fermented, yoghurty liquid. Sauerkraut, which is a fermented cabbage. Kimchee, which is more of an oriental version. You can also get Kombucha and other foods that are fermented. Basically, any foods that are fermented, produce that live bacteria and that’s what’s going to plant that bacteria there.

But what we want to do is keep that bacteria alive, so that it can flourish, grow and nurture in the gut – and that’s where prebiotics come in.

Prebiotics are like the food or the fertiliser for the good bacteria once it’s in there.

Really, you need both, because if you focus on just the probiotic in the supplement, it is transient. Some probiotics will do the work once they’re there, but once they’re gone, they don’t do the work anymore.

So it’s really important to get those prebiotics in to make it flourish. When we talk about prebiotics, the main food sources are Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, bananas, leeks, asparagus and sweet potatoes are another one. It’s about focusing on having some sources of probiotics, which are the fermented foods, but also bringing in the prebiotic to the diet as well to marry the two up.

You’re big on diversity in diet, and you recently held a ’30 a week challenge’ on Instagram. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

A lot of what I’m about is trying to create diversity in the gut. How diverse our gut bacteria is is one of the best markers of overall gut health. OK, we want to have the good to bad ratio of bacteria, but actually what’s been shown in the research is that if we have loads of different types of bacteria, from different types of fiber, then that’s what’s really beneficial for health.

I ran a challenge recently on my Instagram called the ’30 a week challenge’. I was trying to get people to focus on having different types of fiber in terms of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, spices, and trying to aim for at least 30 during the week.

Sticking to a diet with fresh fruits and vegetables is important to your overall health

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

We can get into a routine that we buy the same fruits and vegetables every week and we think that we’re being really healthy, which we are if we’re aiming for our five or seven portions of fruit and veg a day. But actually, what’s more important, I think, is that they’re all different.

Trying to buy a few new and different vegetables a week rather than having the same ones every week. Another good tip is when you’re eating out, to try and go for something different, something that you wouldn’t normally cook at home. Because that’s a really easy way to try and spice things up in terms of diversity.

A lot of people joined in with the challenge and a good way to do it is to keep it in your ‘Notes’ on your phone. When you’re focusing on it and are writing it down, naturally you’re going to want to try and see if you can get to that goal.

It automatically increases your motivation to reach that, but actually a lot of people were surprised at how easy it was. It’s all about diversity and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to eat loads more fruit and veg.

It’s just about making sure that they’re different. With your dinner, you might have one vegetable that makes up a vegetable portion. It’s about keeping the same amount, but maybe having two different types rather than just the one portion.

Could you explain how the gut can influence mood?

This is fairly new within the research but there are a lot of animal studies out there and a few human studies that are now highlighting it.

There is a massive connection between our gut and the nervous system in our gut, which is called the enteric nervous system, and our brain. There’s a nerve, called the vagus nerve, which literally runs from our brain straight down to our gut.

What this means, is that the two are always in constant contact with one another. So any changes that happen within the gut, your brain is informed, and vice-versa. I like to use the example of getting butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous.

It’s something that you’re going through mentally but then you get symptoms within your gut. We might have experienced that a lot, but if we take a step back and think about it, that is the gut-brain axis really coming into play.

Yasmin Alexander

Yasmin Alexander talks to HumanWindow’s Martin Caparrotta

It’s a very new area of research and I think there is a lot more to come. But it’s definitely a new idea. If you’re thinking, how can I improve my mood or better my brain health? Actually, it might be worth starting on the gut to have that connection.

Several neurotransmitters are actually made in the gut as well…

Yeah, so serotonin is what people know as the ‘happy hormone’. It makes us feel good. Actually, about 70-90 per cent of the serotonin that we have in our body is produced in our gut.

Some of it can travel up into the brain but it actually does gut work while it’s there as well and so it can have an impact on our gut motility as well. It’s not only a brain chemical, it’s also beneficial for our gut and how that functions as well, which is really interesting.

There is an amino acid called tryptophan and that is then converted into serotonin. So we can eat some of these tryptophan-rich foods. Some of them are turkey, chicken, eggs.

Paleo diet foods

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Also, what’s important is that if we are consuming tryptophan-rich food, then in order for that to travel and cross the blood-brain barrier, we actually need some carbohydrate with that as well, so it can actually travel to the brain.

Complex carbohydrates such as sweet potato or quinoa… that’s where combine food comes into play, not only for our gut-brain health but also for our blood sugar levels, which can also impact mood.

Everything in the body is connected. There are principles of good nutrition and healthy eating that will have so many knock-on effects on bodily functions.

Where do you stand on animal and dairy products?

I would never advise a blanket in terms of meat and dairy. It’s very much personalised to the client and what their health goals are.

I think that in terms of the environment, there was the planetary health diet that came out earlier this year. That really blew up and showed that in order to benefit the planet and our health, we don’t need to all be vegan necessarily, it’s just about reducing the amount of meat and dairy products that we do consume.

I can’t personally say that everyone should do X or Y because we are all so different. But I think that people who do consume a lot of red meat and processed meat, for gut health and risk of colon cancer, then [eating less of it] could be a move in the right direction.

Interestingly, what the planetary health diet highlighted is that we need to eat more fiber, so increasing our intake of nuts, seeds and legumes.

That was the highlight that came out from it for me. We shouldn’t focus on what we should eat less of, even though some people could benefit from that, but it was about what we should increase and they were all the plant-based foods.

Tell us about the Yoghurt and Juice Network…

The Yoghurt and Juice Network is a company that myself and Jenna Hope, who is my business partner, founded late last year. We go into nurseries, schools, colleges and universities to deliver health promotion.

We’re all about promoting healthy children, and we want to inspire and empower the children to improve their health. We target across the childhood years but we think that focusing on implanting the healthy behaviours from a young age is what is really important.

We felt that we had a responsibility to have an impact on the health of the children. We go in and deliver our services, but we’re also hoping now to develop another side of the business, which we’re currently working on. You can follow us on Instagram to be kept up to date.

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