'Partying in my 20s and eating junk food destroyed my gut for decades'

Gut health real life. (Supplied)
Julie Stewart before and after transforming her gut health. (Supplied)

You've probably heard that looking after your gut health is important. But what happens if you don't, or even do the opposite without realising?

Julie Stewart, 55, learnt first hand how abusing her gut with a bad diet, drinking and partying in her 20s – while harbouring stress – led to knock-on health consequences.

"Like many people, when I was younger, I never gave my gut health a second thought. Growing up on a standard western diet was just something I carried through to my adult years," says Stewart, who also had a weak immune system and asthma.

"Leaving home at 17 to live with my boyfriend meant learning how to cook and prepare meals on a budget, but that often consisted of a microwave ready meal for convenience."

Gut health real life. (Supplied)
While everyone is different, a plant based diet has worked wonders for Stewart. (Supplied)

With them breaking up, the new home set up only lasted six months. "I then survived on nothing but rice krispies, milk and Bakewell tarts for a couple of months. I was suffering from terrible flatulence and would easily go three-four days with no bowel movements, but never made the connection between what I was eating and what my gut was doing," Stewart recalls.

"My 20s were spent living a life of working hard and playing hard. It was the 80’s, the days of spending all night in a field raving or clubbing. My diet was pretty poor, I never thought anything of eating a bacon sandwich, copious amounts of fizzy drinks and fruit would hardly ever pass my lips."

After a traumatic childhood, chaos was normal for Stewart in adult life. "I was working night shifts, living in a mobile home with just a deep fat fryer and microwave to cook with. In my late 20s I then got married and became pregnant," she adds.

In her 30s, Stewart was balancing parenthood and working, and knew she needed a better solution than yo-yo dieting. "I knew I should be eating more plants, but I craved muffins not green beans, and I did not enjoy exercise."

In her 40s, after going through a divorce and adjusting to life as a mum-of-two, she recalls being on a bike ride and her stomach feeling more uncomfortable than usual one day. She'd eaten steak and chips the night before, and put it down to not digesting red meat well.

Then, after stopping off for a pub lunch, recalls, "That afternoon the discomfort turned to niggling pain on each side of my lower bowel, which turned to a severe stabbing pain. That night it got so bad, I had to call an ambulance."

The doctors found it was caused by diverticulitis [a condition that affects the large intestine] – not what they were expecting at her age and her second wake up call.

Effects of diet on gut health. (Frontiers/BioRender)

"After copious amounts of IV antibiotics and a two-week hospital stay, my consultant sent me away with advice to increase fibre and take yet more medication. I was desperate for a solution."

That's when Stewart discovered a 'whole food plant based diet' (which to her surprise she found cheaper) and led her to a whole new path of becoming a nutritional therapist at Plant Based Health Professionals.

"Within a year of eating this way, I had healed all my symptoms, and come off all medications. My whole life changed, my head was clearer to make better decisions, I was able to start thinking about myself, being kinder to myself and respecting my body. I discovered yoga, weight training and running and really enjoyed the ease of cooking this way."

So, here's a closer look at what the experts say.

What happens if you don't look after your gut?

What happens if you don't look after your gut. (Getty Images)
What happens if you don't look after your gut. (Getty Images)

"Many people overlook the significance of their digestive system and assume it's only responsible for breaking down food before it's eliminated from the body. However, it's important to note the gut is among the most intricate and vital parts of your body; it's almost as crucial to the body's proper functioning as your brain!" explains Dr Kathryn Basford of ZAVA Online Doctor.

"Poor gut health can have several adverse effects on our entire bodies. Within the intestines, it is often associated with various digestive disorders like IBS, Crohn's disease, chronic constipation or diarrhoea. When we look outside the intestines, there are still a plethora of issues that can be caused by poor gut health: an increased risk of obesity, a weakening of the immune system, skin conditions like acne or eczema, decreased energy levels and increased risks of cancer.

What are signs someone is 'abusing' their gut?

man's gut stomach pain graphic
Are you putting your gut microbiome under strain? (Getty Images)

Dr Basford says symptoms that may indicate someone is hurting their gut and potentially have underlying conditions (though not all come with symptoms), include:

  • persistent, severe abdominal pain

  • unexplained weight loss

  • bloody stools

  • difficulty swallowing

  • persistent diarrhoea or vomiting

  • an abnormally swollen tummy/abdomen and not passing wind or stools

Karen Lee, nutritionist at The Sensitive Foodie Kitchen and Plant Based Health Professionals points to the Western diet for poor gut health or a 'leaky gut'. "It is full of processed foods that are nutrient deficient, [often has] high levels of meat and dairy, refined grains and sugar, high saturated fat and is low in fibre and fresh produce, which is detrimental to the microbiome."

She also points out some medications like antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and antacids, as well as stress, can affect gut health.

"If you are someone who eats a diet of white bread and pasta [starchy carbs are good], fast food, meat and dairy, doesn't hit the five a day target of fruit and vegetables, avoids wholegrains and doesn’t drink much water then you are putting your gut and microbiome under great strain and opening yourself up to a range of chronic health problems."

Can you heal a damaged gut?

Senior man running in public park
You can improve your gut health with lifestyle changes. (Getty Images)

"The good news is the gut can be healed and overall health improved with diet and lifestyle interventions. However it takes time for these changes to be effective so it’s not a quick fix and returning ‘normal’. Changes to diet and lifestyle are life long," Lee warns.

"It depends on several factors, but it generally depends on the extent of damage to the gut. Although some conditions caused by poor gut health are incurable or require major surgeries, most can be improved through simple, everyday lifestyle changes."

One of the best ways is through diet.

Is a plant-based diet the best way to boost gut health?

Overhead view of woman's hands holding a plate filled with healthy plant-based food. The composition includes soy beans, soy milk, tofu, legumes, leaf vegetables, root vegetables, wholegrain pasta, avocado, chia seeds and veggy patties. High resolution 42Mp studio digital capture taken with SONY A7rII and Zeiss Batis 40mm F2.0 CF lens
While some diets are more beneficial than others, 'no universal one size fits all' suits everyone. (Getty Images)

"A plant-based diet is definitely a great option," says Dr Basford. "Reducing red meat/meat-based products, like beef or pork, will also massively improve gut health."

The key is eating a diverse range of food, including fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and proteins, limiting processed foods and foods high in sugar, as well as getting enough sleep and living a healthy lifestyle for better gut health and overall health.

Lee says a 'whole food' plant based diet is best as whole foods are minimally processed and tend not to contain chemicals.

Is plant-based the only way? This may depend on who you ask, but Lee points out fibre is only found in whole plant foods, and while some may think fermented dairy is beneficial, many are intolerant to it and "it is not essential for health when other nutrient sources are available".

Meanwhile, while some may consider oily fish a good source of omega 3, others may argue sea pollution and microplastics now diminish this.

"Overall, I believe no universal 'one size fits all' diet would suit everyone, and a diet should be tailored to the individual," says Dr Basford. "As long as you eat in moderation, stick to your main food groups (complex carbs, proteins and fruits/vegetables), and try to reduce saturated fats and sugars, most people will see an improvement in gut and overall health."

Always consult your GP before altering your diet or about any symptoms.

Watch: Keys to improving your gut health