ou’ve probably seen them at bus stops all over the city; bubblegum pink posters posing a rather intimate question. Brixton, Battersea, Clapham: ‘How do you poo?’ Along with the frank inquiry are illustrations, also in a rose-hue, offering Londoners an array of possible examples. It’s kind of like the Bristol Stool Chart, but for the millennial age.
‘I think people are willing to talk about their poo; they just don’t,’ says Lisa Macfarlane, who is one half of the duo behind the campaign.
With her identical twin sister, Alana, she founded The Gut Stuff in 2017; an online wellness platform. If you’re already put off, don’t be. The straight-talking sisters are no Gwyneth Paltrow wannabes and their company isn’t part of the ‘eat like me, look like me’ brigade of Instagram. Instead, with the help of a wealth of experts researching this exciting new field, they’re on a mission to bring gut health to the masses.
Their pink poo posters, of which there are about 100 around the capital, are designed to get people thinking about their gut microbiome; the trillions of bacteria that live in our digestive systems that scientists have discovered are key to our overall health. It’s not a ‘sexy’ topic, admit the two, but it’s an important one. In fact, research now shows that your microbes can affect everything from mental health, to obesity and even conditions such as Parkinson’s. Luckily your gut microbes aren’t fixed like your genes and can be altered by diet and lifestyle.
The 32-year-olds who have 99,000 followers on Instagram, are passionate about democratising this information. ‘We want to make it accessible to everybody,’ Lisa says. ‘That’s why we put the posters at bus stops. This shouldn’t be a middle-class luxury.’
They’ve just released their first book, The Gut Stuff: An Empowering Guide to Your Gut and Its Microbes. In it the sisters go into more detail. ‘Your gut microbes help regulate your hormones, control your blood sugar, manage the calories that you absorb, affect your immune system and, most fascinatingly, communicate with your nervous system and you’re brain.’
It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. ‘To have a “gut feeling” translates equally well in almost all languages,’ says contributors to the book, microbiome experts John Cryan and Ted Dinan from the University College Cork. We get ‘butterflies in our stomach’ when we like someone and may want to go to the loo more often when we feel nervous. Given this, it is surprising that the idea the gut may influence the brain is one that’s only recently gained traction, they say.
‘We now know that microbes in our gut have a profound effect on how our brains function,’ they say. For example, about 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin (our happy hormone) is made in the gut and 70 per cent of our immune tissue is there. It was learning this ‘mind-blowing’ information that made the sisters truly obsessed with the topic.
Our gut microbiomes are all as individual as we are - no two people will have exactly the same make-up of species - and this is how Lisa and Alana, who used to be Love Island DJs, became the unlikely faces of gut health. In 2015 they volunteered for twin research run by professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, Tim Spector and became the first set of twins studied by the American Gut Project.
It found that while they shared 100 per cent of their DNA, they only had 30 per cent of their gut microbes in common. For the twins, who were 25 at the time, this explained a few things - why they had different health growing up, why there was a stone’s difference in their weight. It also proved that so much of the diet industry is, in their words, ‘complete nonsense.’ ‘The idea that ‘what works for me will work for you’ is a lie,’ says Alana. ‘We have 100% the same DNA and it doesn’t work for us.’
What scientists can say is that the wider variety of bacteria you have in the gut, the better. It means that in terms of nutrition the sisters now focus on what they can add in, rather than take away. ‘We used to think a diet meant eating cabbage soup for two weeks before Magaluf,’ says Lisa. ‘Now every time I eat I think about what my microbes would like too. They’re like my little pets.’
So what do they like? ‘It’s all the stuff that isn’t cool or sexy,’ says Lisa. They like lots of fibre - nine out of 10 of us don’t get enough - which means making plants the star of the show. A regular apple has 2.1g of fibre and we need to be hitting 30g a day. The twins say not peeling your veg is a helpful hack.
Gut bugs also like variety. We should aim to eat 30 different types of plant-based foods per week, which, thankfully, includes things like herbs and spices. There is also some evidence that fermented foods, such as kefir, kombucha and kimchi may promote a healthy gut.
Interestingly, it’s not just what you eat, but also how you eat it. Chewing more, taking time to look at your food, sitting down to eat and taking three deep breaths before tucking in all prepare your body for digestion. ‘It’s about treating eating with the importance and mindfulness it deserves,’ says Lisa.
More sleep, less stress, and exercise have also been found to promote good gut bacteria. Avoiding antibiotics (where you can) which can wipe out bacteria both good and bad, is also advised.
It’s the antithesis of their previous lives as DJs where they existed on little sleep and relied on on-the-go processed foods.
‘It’s been quite the pivot,’ says Lisa. ‘If you’d have told us when we were 14 that we would have a gut health business we would have taken our Greggs Sofite and 10 Lambert and Butler and ran away. We’re from Scotland where people see health as not being ill and wellness as something Gwynth Paltrow talks about.’
Since they began looking after their guts they say they’ve got more energy, their moods have improved, they have better skin and find they get ill less often.
There’s another reason they’re so keen to spread the word. ‘Our dad died of a heart attack in his fifties,’ explains Lisa. ‘We think that if he knew even some of this he would still be here. That is a subconscious fire in our bellies.’
They’ve even got their once-skeptical mum on board. ‘She was initially like “what are you two doing now?” says Lisa. ‘At first she thought we were being preachy. But now she really gets it. That’s when the penny dropped. We thought if Mother Mac gets it then we can make this mass market.’
The pair foresee a future or personalised nutrition where everybody will know what species are in their gut and how best to feed them. ‘It’s empowering to know you can change its make up,’ says Alana. ‘I’m sure one day there will be toilets that analyse our poo and we’ll be given diets based on that.’
But for now tune in, experiment, and show your gut the respect it deserves.
The Gut Stuff by Lisa and Alana Macfarlane (RRP £14.99) is out now.