Fixing your gut health may be the key to boosting overall health.
Gut health has become one of the hottest health topics in recent years as people have started to learn about the complex connection between their gut health and overall health—from their skin to their mood and everything in between. And this is thanks in large part to social media, especially TikTok, where gut health is a fast-trending topic, and hashtags like #guttok, #guthealth, and #guthealing have millions of viewers.
While you might cast the gut health interest aside as another viral phenomenon, this is one wellness topic to take seriously, because your overall health is strongly linked to the health of your gut. “The last 15 years has taught us that there’s a whole bunch of bacteria in your gut, and they play a big role in whether you have good health or disease,” says Mark Pimentel, MD, gastroenterologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and medical advisor at Good LFE.
What is the gut microbiome?
Your gut has its own microbiome, an ecosystem of trillions of microorganisms that live in your large and small intestines. Some of these bacteria are beneficial and others aren’t. And although the composition of everybody’s gut microbiome is unique, all of these microscopic residents—the good and the not-so-good—should coexist in a peaceful balance within your gut when you’re healthy.
It’s incredibly important to maintain a healthy gut microbiome—a healthy environment in which these microbes can thrive and function properly—because it plays several key roles within your body. For example, did you know gut health is linked directly to your immune system? “About 70 percent of your immune system lies in your gut and is intricately dependent upon the gut microbiome,” says Andrew Boxer, MD, gastroenterologist at Gastroenterology Associates of New Jersey in Clifton, N.J. In other words, better gut health means better immune functioning.
The gut microbiome is also closely associated with metabolism, breaking down nutrients that your body needs and influencing weight and energy levels. Gut health has also been linked to more serious disease prevention and inflammation regulation, helping to lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, as well as impacting cognition and mental health.
When your gut microbiome is out of whack, your body will let you know. Dr. Boxer usually judges the health of his patients’ microbiomes by how they feel. Digestive woes like diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and bloating are all common signs of gut health issues, but there are also other less-obvious symptoms of an unhealthy gut, like chronic low energy, skin inflammation/irritation, intense sugar cravings, and even sleep troubles.
The exciting news is that you can fix and improve the health of your gut naturally, and also prevent gut dysfunction, by adjusting certain lifestyle habits that directly influence the balance of your microbiome.
The Best Habits for Gut Health
Eat more plants.
Nutrition is the “foundation of good gut health,” according to Desiree Nielsen, RD, registered dietitian in Vancouver, Canada, author of Good for Your Gut, and ambassador for Silver Hills Sprouted Bakery. After all, the food you eat comes in direct contact with your gut lining and microbiome. That’s because anything that’s not 100-percent digested and absorbed like some nutrients, phytochemicals, dietary fibers, and indigestible carbohydrates called FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) will interact with your gut tissues and gut bacteria for better or worse. What’s more, “the type of food you eat determines the type of bacteria that can live in your gut,” Nielsen adds, and the beneficial microorganisms in your gut prefer plants. Therefore, adding tons of plant-based foods to your plate is the best way to start improving your gut health ASAP. This includes all vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, teas, and whole grains.
Take, for instance, foods like onions, berries, tea, and even coffee. These contain flavonoids, a group of phytochemicals that encourage the growth of a beneficial species of bacteria called Bifidobacteria. Plus, eating more flavonoid-rich foods has been associated with an increase in bacteria that produce butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that supports gut barrier function and immune function. Plant starches, along with a compound found in whole grains called arabinoxylan, also promote the growth of butyrate.
One more reason plants are critical? Fiber, a nutrient that animal-derived foods don't provide, keeps your bowels moving and digestive system running smoothly. One type of fiber called insoluble fiber sweeps the gut lining and helps bulk up stools to make them easier to pass. The other type of fiber, called soluble fiber, forms a gel that helps hydrate stools, also making them easier to pass, Nielsen explains. Most Americans get an average of only about 15 grams of fiber a day, even though the recommended intake calls for 25 to 38 grams daily.
Eat a wide variety of foods.
Variety isn’t only the spice of life, it’s also what keeps your gut healthy. “Data from the American Gut Project suggests that people who consume at least 30 different types of plants each week have a stronger, more diverse gut microbiome than those who eat fewer than 10 plants per week,” Nielsen says. This matters because your intestinal bacteria essentially eat what you eat, so consuming a colorful and diversified diet means your gut will also have a greater diversity of nutrients available to them. “The different bacteria, with different metabolisms, will then have the food they require,” she says. Thirty might sound overwhelming at first, but consider something like a bowl of oats with blueberries, hemp hearts, soy milk, and cinnamon. In that one dish, you’re getting five plant foods!
Eat fermented foods.
If you already love fermented things like kimchi, tempeh, kombucha, and sauerkraut, consider yourself lucky, because these are excellent, gut-healthy foods that help your digestive system thrive. Want proof? After following a high-fermented-foods diet with an average of 6.3 servings per day for 10 weeks, participants experienced improved microbiome diversity, according to a study in the journal Cell. Not only are fermented foods often made from nutrient-dense plant foods like soybeans, cabbage, and tea, they also contain something called commensal microbes, which Nielsen says help promote a diverse and healthy gut microbiome. Here are a few of the healthiest fermented foods you can eat, and more on their many health benefits.
Find healthy ways to lower stress.
Stress is a natural part of life, but too much stress, especially when left unchecked, can wreak havoc on your health in a number of ways, including your gut health. It’s not entirely clear why stress impacts the gut so profoundly, but experts do know that the gut is supplied with nerves by the enteric (intestinal) nervous system. “This is a huge network of nerves that intricately controls the workings of the gut,” Dr. Boxer explains. “It can affect and cause pain, constipation, diarrhea, and many other symptoms.”
It’s impossible to avoid stress entirely (and there are studies to suggest that some stress is good for you), but you should take time out of your day, even if only for a few minutes, to do something that relaxes you and reduces stress, Dr. Pimentel says. Play with your pet, read a book, watch a funny TV episode, or take a yoga class.
Commit to regular aerobic exercise.
You know cardio is great for your heart, and it’s also great for your gut. “Regular cardiovascular exercise can help keep your gut microbiome healthy and improve irregular bowel movements,” Dr. Boxer says. Make sure you’re moving several times a week and exercising to the point of sweating. No gym membership? No problem. Try climbing the stairs in your apartment building or the stands at your local high school football stadium. Grab a jump rope and head outside. Dance to your favorite upbeat songs for 20 minutes, or hit the road for a brisk walk that gets your heart rate up.
Log plenty of sleep.
How many times have you heard this piece of advice? It turns out there’s yet another reason to get the proper amount of shut-eye every night: Poor sleep can significantly impact your gut. “Sleep deprivation can lead to changes in your gut microbiome,” Dr. Boxer says, adding that sleep (or lack thereof) can also affect the foods you choose to eat the next day. Most people in a sleep-deprived state reach for chips and cookies over carrots and kale, because impulse control is lower, hunger and satiety cues get skewed, and the body craves quick calories for energy when under-slept. “If your sleep is dysregulated, this will in turn dysregulate your gut health.” The National Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults sleep for seven to nine hours every night, so make it a priority.
Hydrate all day long.
Staying hydrated helps everything from daily cognitive function to energy levels to metabolism. It matters for gut health, too, since hydration is a key factor in keeping you regular. “If your body is dehydrated, it will slow down elimination to retrieve more fluid from the stool, leading to constipation,” Nielsen says. Plus, if you’re eating more fiber, you’ll need to drink more water, as fiber needs water to do its job properly. How much water you need per day isn’t the same for everybody, but start with eight 8-ounce glasses a day as a general guideline. You can also check the color of your urine; if it’s pale yellow, consider yourself hydrated.
Don't take antibiotics unless you really need to.
There are certainly times when antibiotics are necessary, but you shouldn’t be taking them if you don’t really need them. (Many people run to the doctor for a prescription whenever they have a sniffle or sneeze, pressure the doctor for antibiotics, and often get their way).
“Antibiotics can affect the gut microbiome,” Dr. Boxer says, explaining that they can eliminate or change existing populations of microorganisms. If antibiotics are a necessity, he recommends eating probiotic-rich foods, like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, yogurt, and kombucha, or taking a probiotic supplement to help counter the damage the antibiotics might cause. While there are hundreds of these supplements on the market, Dr. Boxer says one isn’t necessarily better than another, but he recommends choosing a large name brand versus a small, expensive one online. For the best advice, ask your doctor which over-the-counter probiotic they suggest, or if simply eating more probiotic foods will do the trick.
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