Advertisement

'We are gut experts, here's why you regularly need to look at your stool'

Lisa and Alana Macfarlane, 35, aka The Mac Twins (former Radio 1 Xtra DJs), are now ‘gut health ambassadors’. They co-founded thegutstuff.com website, have written a book about digestive health (and a cookbook) and presented the Channel 4 series Know Your S***: Inside Your Guts. Here Lisa explains why they’re on a mission to help us improve our gut health.

Lisa and Alana Macfarlane want to teach the nation about the vital importance of looking after your gut health. (Supplied)
Lisa and Alana Macfarlane want to teach the nation about the vital importance of looking after your gut health. (Supplied)

Alana and I grew up in Edinburgh where lunches were often a Gregg’s pasty and 10 cigarettes. It was about as far away from the world of 'health and wellbeing' as you can imagine. We used to think that a diet was something you did two weeks before you went on holiday, and it meant eating nothing but cabbage soup.

But our interest in gut health was sparked in 2015 when we were approached by Prof Tim Spector of Kings College London to take part in a medical study on twins. We were DJs at Radio 1 Xtra at the time and we thought it might be interesting. Our father had died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 58 only a year or so earlier so we thought it would be beneficial to know more about our own health.

It was like having a free health check-up – we had everything from our bone density to our mental dexterity checked. But we were also one of the first people to have our guts analysed as part of the American Gut Project and became guinea pigs for the British equivalent.

Twins with different digestive systems

We were fascinated to find out that despite sharing identical DNA, our digestive systems shared only 30-40% of the same microbiota (the trillion or so bacteria and organisms in your gut which help control everything from blood sugar to cholesterol and hormonal balance) which may explain why our bodies had behaved so differently in the past.

We started out talking about gut health at dinner parties and on street corners. It raised eyebrows at times.

For instance, I had suffered quite bad acne in my younger days whereas Alana hadn’t. But she had suffered from juvenile arthritis – which we now think could possibly be down to a strong course of antibiotics affecting her gut – and I hadn’t. So, this is what sparked our interest in gut health and we wanted to tell the world what we were learning.

Initially, it started out with us talking about guts at dinner parties and on street corners. It raised a few eyebrows at times but we are always about ‘breaking the poo taboo’. Your bowel movements are such a great indicator as to what’s happening to your overall health.

Lisa and Alana Macfarlane are 'gut health ambassadors', aiming to stop the public being so embarrassed by bodily functions. (Supplied)
Lisa and Alana Macfarlane are 'gut health ambassadors', aiming to stop the public being so embarrassed by bodily functions. (Supplied)

Breaking taboos

Then in 2017, we started a YouTube channel, interviewing experts about gut health. We wanted them to talk to us 'like toddlers' about their expertise so that everyone could understand. That led to us creating our website and so while we were still DJing in the evenings, we were talking about poo and probiotics in the daytime! At one point we took over Old Street station in London telling people about gut health, the response was incredible.

But we wanted to amplify it further so we pitched the TV show called Know Your S*** and when Channel 4 said yes and that they’d give us a six-week show in the Bake Off slot, we knew we’d made it. It was on last January 2023 and can still be seen on All4 now. Millions of people watched it. We even had lots of pink posters all about poo plastered all over the country. We joke that we'll have, 'She was responsible for the pink poo posters' plastered on our gravestones.

Now scientists know that the state of your gut health can even affect your mental health.

There have been so many jaw-dropping moments while speaking to all these experts. I was fascinated to learn 70% of your immune system is housed within your gut and it can even affect conditions like arthritis and Parkinson's.

We’ve known historically that we get butterflies in our stomach when we’re nervous but have always thought it’s a one-way path from brain to gut. But now, scientists know that the state of your gut health can even affect your mental health. We have to be careful not to sensationalise that, as obviously mental health has lots of factors. But at least we know that it’s now one factor we can try to improve and control.

Lisa and Alana Macfarlane emphasise the link between gut health and good mental health. (Supplied)
Lisa and Alana Macfarlane emphasise the link between gut health and good mental health. (Supplied)

The gut-brain connection

The brain-gut connection is so strong that gut health hypnosis is now even being used in clinical practice to help people manage conditions such as IBS. We’ve heard some dreadful stories from people about how debilitating these conditions can be for them – some can’t go out for meals with friends and even struggle with the commute – so making the connection between brain and gut might be vital in helping them.

But one of the key messages we wanted to get ‘out there’ was that keeping on top of your gut health doesn’t have to be expensive. There are a lot of companies selling expensive products located at the back of health food stores, but actually a lot of the stuff that we talk about in improving your gut health is what our granny taught us – eat more fibre, manage your stress levels, get more sleep, drink more water. Simply reading up about how microbes and your gut works could help – it’s not sexy but it might change your life.

Sharing our message

Now we work on the Gut Stuff and have 10 people on the team and we’re always learning new things. We not only use social media such as Instagram to share our advice but we give corporate wellness talks to large organisations. We also have a ‘giveback scheme’ so that we give a free talk to a college or university for every corporate talk we do.

So much of everything you see on places like TikTok is absolute nonsense. You see all these ‘cleanses’ and 'juices' and they’re not backed up by scientific evidence and they could actually damage your health.

We try to avoid ultra-processed foods, cook more from scratch, add more veg, legumes, pulse foods and fibre, and prioritise our sleep.

We love to hear from people whose health has been transformed by following advice from our experts. Just this week, a new member of our team – a man in his 30s – said he’d tried to increase his fibre and water and was already sleeping better and had more energy.

With our own diet and lifestyle, we try to avoid ultra-processed foods, cook more from scratch, add more veg, legumes, pulse foods and fibre, and prioritise our sleep. We’ve both had babies in the last two years so we understand just how lack of sleep can affect your overall health.

Lisa and Alana Macfarlane were interested to learn that despite being identical twins, their digestive systems were very different. (Supplied)
Lisa and Alana Macfarlane were interested to learn that despite being identical twins, their digestive systems were very different. (Supplied)

Opening up about gut health

We’re particularly keen on getting the message out there to women. Female health is affected throughout our lives with our hormones – everything from periods to pregnancy and fertility and later on the menopause. There’s more research coming out about how oestrogen can affect our guts too.

The good thing is that women tend to be more open about their gut health now – they talk about everything from being constipated in pregnancy to ‘period poos’ with their friends.

Women are tending to be more open about their gut health now – for instance, they'll talk about being constipated in pregnancy.

Bowel Babe Deborah James helped break some of that taboo as well. Men tend to be a bit more private about it all, but we get lots of messages from men asking for advice and saying they’ve been tracking their poos on our app!

The feedback from people has been incredible. We did an episode of the TV show about people with stomas and we still get messages from people today saying, 'Thank you, people now understand what I’m going through.'

On the reviews of our website, we recently had someone saying, 'Thank you for creating a place where I won’t be judged.' We offer appointments via our app with gut experts for £65 for half an hour over Zoom. The reality is for some people, who have been told by doctors or other health professionals that their gut issue is all in their heads, even getting their symptoms validated by one of our specialist dieticians is helpful. To be told: 'You’re not making it up' or 'I believe you' can often be part of the way to relieving the stress of gut problems.

Alana's five simple ways to boost your gut health

  • Keeping the skin on vegetables in a really easy way to up your fibre intake.

  • Drink plenty of water.

  • Educate yourself on what the gut is and what it does – changing your behaviour is one of the hardest things you can do so just reading up and understanding more about your body might help you make some tweaks that could help your health enormously.

  • In order for you to be able to digest properly you need to be relaxed. Many people eat on the go and even just three deep breaths before you eat is enough to put you in the 'rest and digest' mode.

  • Talk about your bodily habits. Track your bowel movements and monitor them for any red flags such as blood in the stool. Our app helps you monitor your stool for any signs.