Gut health refers to the health of the digestive tract, or gut, the organ that digests and absorbs nutrients from food to provide fuel for your body. But your digestive tract does so much more. It also plays a vital role in maintaining mental and physical health. That’s why you want your gut to thrive and flourish. Most doctors believe gut health is integral to overall health, specifically in terms of disease prevention.
It’s estimated that 80% of diseases can be linked back to an imbalance in gut bacteria—a condition called dysbiosis. When the gut is unbalanced, the wrong types of bacteria multiply and crowd out beneficial species. The result is inflammation, which can damage other parts of your body. That’s not what you want. Let’s look at some ways to heal your gut and keep it healthy.
Identify Food Sensitivities
Many people have unique sensitivities to food. Yet food sensitivities are distinct from food allergies. Food allergies are caused by an overactive immune response to a particular protein in a food and are often genetic. Food sensitivities are caused by an intolerance to food due to a lack of enzymes your body needs to digest that food. For example, lactose intolerance causes digestive issues when you consume dairy products. It’s caused by low levels of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose in dairy foods.
To improve your digestive health, identify foods that trigger symptoms and cut them out of your diet. You can do this by keeping a food journal. Write down everything you eat, and how you feel after eating each food and look for patterns. Do some foods cause digestive upset, brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, or other symptoms? Take note of that. Another approach is to do an elimination diet. This is where you cut out all the foods that could trigger symptoms and add them back in one at a time to see if each triggers symptoms.
Be aware that certain types of foods are more likely to trigger symptoms. For example, sugar alcohols are a common culprit. These sweeteners in some sugar-free candies, beverages, and other products are poorly digested and may cause gas, bloating, and stomach cramps. They often end in -ol, for example, maltitol, xylitol, erythritol, mannitol, and sorbitol.
Add More Fermented Foods to Your Diet
Fermented foods, such as kimchi and sauerkraut, are an abundant source of probiotic microorganisms that help maintain a healthy balance in your gut. Fermented foods have been around for thousands of years, and used for food and medicine throughout history and people still enjoy them today. You can buy these foods or make fermented foods at home to seed your gut with gut-friendly bacteria to create a healthier gut balance. Examples of fermented foods include:
- Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage)
- Kimchi (spicy pickled vegetables)
- Kefir (a yogurt-like drink made from milk)
- Tempeh (fermented soybeans)
- Miso (a soybean paste used in soups and sauces)
- Fermented vegetables
Even a few spoonfuls of fermented foods daily can help restore intestinal balance.
Consume More Prebiotic Foods
The term “prebiotic” refers to a food that contains non-digestible fiber that promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut. These bacteria help maintain intestinal health and regulate the portion of your immune system that lies in your gut. Prebiotics are foods that contain fiber and promote the growth of good bacteria in your gut and are abundant in fiber-rich foods like plants, fruits, and vegetables. Studies show that prebiotics help promote gut health.
Prebiotics help stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria, which is crucial for maintaining good digestive health. Not all foods are equal when it comes to prebiotic activity–some are better than others. Here’s a list of some of the best sources:
Be cautious about adding prebiotic foods to your diet if you have irritable bowel syndrome. (IBS) Some studies show that prebiotics may worsen symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In one study, researchers found that participants who consumed prebiotics for 3 weeks had increased abdominal pain and bloating compared with those who didn’t consume anything during that period.
Find Better Ways to Manage Stress
Stress is a natural part of life, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it run your life (or your gut).
When you feel stressed, your body releases cortisol and other hormones that can trigger inflammation and disrupt the gut barrier and gut microbiome. The American Heart Association estimates that stress is responsible for one in every seven deaths in America! To help manage stress and reduce your risk of heart disease and other health problems, try these tips:
- Get enough sleep—this is important because lack of sleep increases cortisol levels in the body.
- Exercise regularly—exercise helps release endorphins into the brain and improves mood.
- Meditate—you can meditate anywhere (even while walking).
- Write in a gratitude journal
- Talk about what’s bothering you—if there’s something stressing you, talk about it with someone close to you (or even a stranger). Sometimes just voicing the problem out loud can help you feel better!
Stress affects every aspect of functioning and is also a gut disrupter. Make sure you have a way to manage it that works for you.
Check Your Medications
Sometimes, medications are necessary for managing your health. However, they can also disrupt your gut ecosystem.
Antibiotics kill both bad and good bacteria in the gut, which may affect how well you absorb nutrients from food. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies and poor overall health. In addition, some medications can cause stomach upset or diarrhea, which can also be detrimental to health and well-being.
One study found that more than 1,000 medications disrupt the gut microbiome. These include medications that people commonly take, including statins (used to treat elevated cholesterol), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), proton pump inhibitors (used to treat acid reflux), and others.
If you’re concerned about the effect of your medications on your overall health and gut health, discuss these concerns with your doctor or pharmacist.
The Bottom Line
Gut health is an important factor in overall well-being and happiness. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to improve your gut health through diet and lifestyle changes. However, if digestive symptoms persist, see your healthcare provider.
“Effects of Common Medication on Gut Health – Global Gut Health Check.” globalguthealthcheck.pantheryx.com/medications-gut-health/.
“The gut microbiota shapes intestinal immune responses during health and disease” by June L. Round and Sarkis K. Mazmanian, May 2009, Nature Reviews Immunology.
“Prebiotics in irritable bowel syndrome and other functional bowel disorders in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials” by Bridgette Wilson, Megan Rossi, Eirini Dimidi and Kevin Whelan, 4 April 2019, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.