A healthy gut is key to mental and physical health. And while you might think of your gut as a place for food to go in and waste products to come out, it’s more than a dumping ground. It’s where you absorb the nutrients from food.
In addition, 70% of your immune system lies in your gut and a diverse and robust gut microbiome helps maximize its function. The bacteria that reside in your gut also produce vitamins, like vitamin K, which are important for health. Experts even refer to the gut as the “second brain,” since it produces some of the same neurotransmitters that the brain does.
So, it’s not hard to see why gut health matters. Is your gut as healthy as it should be? Let’s look at some ways to help your gut achieve a healthier balance.
Add Fermented Foods to Your Diet
Fermented foods contain gut-friendly bacteria that help maintain a healthy gut balance. Yogurt and sauerkraut are two examples of foods with beneficial bacteria that can help keep your digestive system in balance. Yogurt is made by fermenting milk with either Lactobacillus bulgaricus or Streptococcus thermophilus cultures (both strains of friendly bacteria). But yogurt isn’t your only option. Fermented vegetables (like fresh sauerkraut) are a healthy addition to your plate and seed your gut with beneficial bacteria. Fermented foods are also an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, and they are easy to digest.
Add More Fiber to Your Plate
The fiber in foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains helps keep your digestive tract healthy. They do this by providing a steady supply of food for beneficial bacteria in our gut. So how much fiber should you eat? The Institute of Medicine recommends 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. You can get this amount by eating whole grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.
If you’re having trouble meeting those targets due to finicky digestive issues or food intolerances, you can buy products such as Metamucil capsules to boost your daily intake. But it’s best to get fiber naturally from food sources since they contain additional nutrients.
Avoid Taking Antibiotics Unless You Need Them
Some people mistakenly believe that taking an antibiotic will shorten the course of a viral infection. Sometimes healthcare providers even prescribe antibiotics for viruses. However, antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. Even worse, they damage the gut microbiome, destroying good bacteria. It can take many months, and some say years, for your gut to recover from a single course of antibiotics. Sometimes you need them, but make sure you’re taking them appropriately and consider eating more probiotic foods while you are.
Consider Taking Probiotics
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can help keep your gut in balance. It’s best to get probiotics from fermented foods, but if you can’t do this, a probiotic supplement may be helpful in some cases. However, it’s unclear what the optimal composition of bacteria should be in a probiotic. Talk to your healthcare provider before starting a probiotic and choose it carefully. It should contain at least a billion colony-forming units and contain species of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria.
Eliminate Ultra-Processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods are those made in factories and don’t contain many whole foods. As sciencealert.com points out, these are foods you’d struggle to create in your kitchen. They include soft drinks, candy bars, packaged breakfast cereal, and fast-food restaurant meals. Processed foods can have a negative effect on the gut. They’re filled with preservatives and additives harmful to gut health. Plus, they lack fiber, the food that beneficial bacteria need to thrive. Around 60% of what people eat is ultra-processed and this might explain why obesity and chronic health problems are so common.
Stress can trigger the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In fact, studies show stress is the most common cause of IBS flare-ups. Stress can disrupt the normal peristaltic movements that move food through your intestinal tract and cause tummy upset. Find ways to manage stress, such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and walks in nature. Make these activities part of your daily routine to help restore calm to your digestive tract.
Stay Physically Active
Exercise isn’t just beneficial for your heart. Some research shows that exercise improves gut microbiome diversity, a marker of gut health. The key is to be consistent with your workouts. Strike a balance between more intense exercise and lower intensity workouts to give your body a chance to recover. Research shows exercise independently affects the gut microbiome. So, keep moving and keep your workouts balanced.
Know Your Food Sensitivities
Up to 20% of the population has one or more food sensitivities that affect gut health. The most common food intolerances are to gluten and dairy, but other foods such as eggs, soy, and nuts can also cause problems for some people.
Food sensitivities are different from food allergies. The gold standard test for food allergies is an IgG blood test done at home or at a doctor’s office. It measures antibodies against specific foods that may cause an allergic reaction, but blood tests won’t detect food sensitivities.
An elimination diet is the way to determine whether you have food sensitivities. To do one, you eliminate all possible offenders from your diet and add them back in one by one. By eliminating all offenders from your diet for two weeks and reintroducing them one at a time, you can see how your body responds to each food. When the symptoms reappear with a certain food, you know that’s the culprit. Once you know which foods are causing problems, you can remove them from your diet.
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
Avoid artificial sweeteners that come in little blue, pink, and yellow packs. There’s evidence that they can disrupt the gut microbiome. Plus, they can worsen symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome or other digestive issues. Instead of using artificial sweeteners in your coffee or tea, add cinnamon or Stevia, a natural sweetener made from a South American plant called stevia rebaudiana. Stevia is sweeter than sugar and doesn’t appear to disrupt the gut microbiome or trigger digestive problems.
The gut microbiome is an incredibly complex ecosystem and can be affected by many factors but these habits for improving gut health are backed by science. Hopefully, they’ll help you keep your gut as healthy as possible.
- “The 8 Most Common Food Intolerances – Healthline.” 25 Jan. 2018, healthline.com/nutrition/common-food-intolerances.
- John GK, Mullin GE. The Gut Microbiome and Obesity. Curr Oncol Rep. 2016 Jul;18(7):45. doi: 10.1007/s11912-016-0528-7. PMID: 27255389.
- com. “Ultra-Processed Foods Are Trashing The Planet, Scientists Warn”
- Singh RK, Chang HW, Yan D, Lee KM, Ucmak D, Wong K, Abrouk M, Farahnik B, Nakamura M, Zhu TH, Bhutani T, Liao W. Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health. J Transl Med. 2017 Apr 8;15(1):73. doi: 10.1186/s12967-017-1175-y. PMID: 28388917; PMCID: PMC5385025.