Book review: Gut – Giulia Enders


I noticed this book in the entrance display of Waterstones and as I’ve been going through the ~ motions ~ with my own digestive system for the past couple of months, naturally I picked it up.

It said it was an international bestseller – I know, an international bestseller about the digestive system!? It must be at least funny, if not educational I thought.

I’ve read before that the gut can have an effect on your emotional well being, and that the sayings ‘butterflies in my tummy’, ‘a gut feeling’, actually have some science behind them. However, I never understood too much about the subject, I just knew from personal experience that when I’m not having a great time mentally, my stomach issues are much worse.

I have also read that serotonin is mainly produced in our gut, which is an important chemical that controls our mood, I’ve always wondered what that meant – in terms of the connections it could mean are there.

There were a couple of things that really interested me in this book, from a perspective of mental illness and digestive issues so I’ll highlight a couple of the things I found most interesting. Moreover, I did find the whole book really charmingly written, I liked the way she wrote it like lots of little stories. I learned a lot about the whole of our digestive system, and it wasn’t boring! Here are a couple of main points that stuck out to me…

Why your tummy doesn’t like stress

When you are stressed, your brain wants to solve the ‘problem’. To do this it needs to borrow energy from our gut. The gut is informed via nerves that we are stressed, and so it decides to save energy on digestion to help with the stress our brain is going through. When this happens it alters the way our gut actually works temporarily. Enders explains how this situation is not ‘designed for long term use’. If our brains think we are in an emergency situation all the time it uses the gut to ‘fund’ this. She goes on to tell us that when the gut has to forgo energy in ‘favour of our brain’ it’s own health suffers and therefore our own. This can cause the gut to become more sensitive in lots of ways – including intolerance to food and basically, poopy problems. It can also mean the ‘bad bacteria’ has more chance of taking over – which can cause illness for us. Even after long term periods of stress or mental illness, the gut can still be negatively effected. Sort of like a ‘pay back’. Which is why you might feel ill even after the initial stressful times you had.

Wheat just wants to survive being eaten by insects! A reason lots of people are intolerant or sensitive to gluten

When wheat is growing in the wild, just hanging out – it doesn’t want to be eaten by predators. It makes it’s seeds slightly poisonous so that insects don’t want to eat it, the gluten has the effect of inhibiting an important digestive enzyme which causes the grasshopper to have an tummy upset. That puts them off doing it again and again.

These seeds are what causes gluten intolerance or sensitivity in humans too. Gluten can pass into parts of our gut in a partially undigested state, Enders tells us. Basically, that means it can end up in places that our body doesn’t want or need it. Some peoples bodies react really badly to this and it causes damage, others find it causes a bit of trouble, and some people are not affected by it at all.

So in simplistic terms, that’s why gluten can be a pain in the butt for some of us, and seemingly fine for others. The book does go into the subject in more detail if you are interested to learn more.

Gut bacteria is a contributing factor to our mood

There have been lots of experiments on mice in terms of depression. A well used experiment involves making the mice swim. This is to see how long they will keep swimming until they give up and die (I know, quite sad). The mice that are less ‘depressive’ will swim for longer before they give up. Scientists test new anti-depressants in this way and it tends to show positive results if they work.

A new experiment was carried out on mice to change the bacteria in their gut to see if this influenced their mood. The scientists gave the mice certain types of bacteria and then did the swimming test. The bacteria seemed to have a positive effect on the mice, and made them want to swim longer – much like the less ‘depressed’ mice. The mice with the ‘pimped up’ gut bacteria also had less stress hormones in their blood.

In 2013 a study was carried out on healthy humans to see if this might be the case for us too. They were given a cocktail of bacteria suspected to be have beneficial effects on our digestive system. It turns out it the new bacteria in our gut did alter the areas of the brain that are responsible for processing emotions and pain.

The book doesn’t go further into this study – because it only touches on subjects for chapters (it’s a popular science book after all) but I found this all rather fascinating myself so will definitely try and seek out other research or papers on this!

Definitely food for thought though eh!?

Looking after our good bacteria

‘Gut’ explains in detail the whole of our gut flora system more than I could ever type out in a short summary. But here are a few things I picked up re: how we can help our digestive system by way of probiotics and prebiotics…

Probiotics are useful for building back up good bacteria in our gut after illness, bouts of diarrhoea, anti-biotic use, stress or bad diet. They can also help maintain bigger gaps between flare ups in ulcerative colitis and IBS diarrhoea. Sexy… (and good to know!) Usually you need to take them for at least 4 weeks to build up the good bacteria.

Prebiotics are better for daily use and maintaining the good bacteria, helping them sustain themselves and keep the gut healthy.

For prebiotics to work there already needs to be plenty of good bacteria present. So for example if you took them after a course of strong antibiotics – you’d be better to take the probiotics first.

Enders tell us how there has been a lot of research into the ‘good bacteria’ improving our overall immune system as well as possible protection against allergies. Something I must admit I knew fairly little about but is pretty fascinating non the less.


I’d definitely recommend this book if you have an interest in your body, the gut is one of our biggest organs and seemingly contributes so much to our wellbeing! I doubt very much that there is another book like this out there in terms of accessibility of the subject matter, ease of understanding and with an added sense of humour!

I am going to a gastroenterologist myself in a couple of weeks and now I feel pretty prepared with all my new ‘gut knowledge’. And a little less confused.

Have you read this book, what did you think? Also if you have any other popular science health books that are super good please recommend me them :)

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