Did you know gut health affects more than just the way your body processes food? All those good bacteria in your belly can affect stress levels, immune function, sleep patterns, and body weight as well.
For years improving gut health has been the number one course of action toward fixing many chronic diseases, rebuilding your stomach lining, and restoring microbiome balance.
If you want to learn how to improve gut health naturally, this guide has you covered.
What Is Your Gut, Exactly
The gut, or gastrointestinal tract (GIT), includes everything from your mouth to your anus. Most times, the term “gut” refers to the stomach, large intestine, and small intestine. When we eat, our GIT absorbs nutrients and energy from our food and expels the leftover waste. There are millions of microscopic organisms at work inside all of us. They helping to move the process along. The trick is in keeping them happy to keep you feeling- and looking- your best.
How do you do this? By eating right and staying active. Let’s talk about gut health and ten easy ways to keep yours in tip-top shape.
How to Tell if Your Gut Is Unhealthy
As our bodies age, one of the most significant changes is in the way the digestive system processes food. Food starts to move more slowly through the GIT. This can result in several complications. Nausea, heartburn, constipation, and ulcers are just a few.
What Is The Gut Microbiota?
At the moment we’re born, humans begin to develop an intricate community of trillions of microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. These live in our digestive tracts. But don’t be alarmed. This gut flora is good bacteria that work in a symbiotic relationship with our bodies.
These gut microbes work hard to do a lot of things our bodies couldn’t on their own, things like:
- Extracting nutrition and energy from food
- Maintaining metabolism
- Developing and regulating the immune system
- Protecting the GIT from microorganisms that can cause disease
We start to experience gut issues when this friendly relationship gets knocked out of balance. This imbalance is called dysbiosis.
Signs Of A Gut In Distress
There are both internal and external indicators that your gut isn’t functioning at its best. Physically, some red flags to look out for are:
- Stomach pain
- Sleep problems
- Food sensitivities
- Irritable bowel syndrome
Your appearance can change when your gut flora is out of whack, too. Visibly you might start to notice a little belly pooch, extra weight all over, or unexplained weight loss. Skin irritations like acne and eczema are also indicators.
You may have heard the term leaky gut. While this doesn’t medically refer to any specific gut disorder, it can be the side effect of a bigger problem. Leaky gut is also called increased intestinal permeability.
It occurs when small cracks or holes in your intestinal lining allow harmful substances to leach into your bloodstream. This permeability causes inflammation and pain and upsets the microbiota balance. Many people find drinking bone broth is an effective way to heal a leaky gut.
What Things Are Bad For Your Gut?
What you ingest can be detrimental to the diversity and genetic composition of your gut flora. A high-fat, low-fiber diet can kill some types of good gut bacteria. Some other factors that can negatively affect your gut health are:
- Processed or refined foods
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Lack of diversity in your diet
- Cigarette smoking
- Lack of physical activity
- Excess stress
- Lack of sleep
- Taking antibiotics for an infection
Some foods to avoid if you’re experiencing gut discomfort are:
- Red meat
- Fried foods
- Citrus fruits
- Vegetables in the cabbage family
- Spicy foods
- Anything with fructose
1. Eat Whole Foods
What our gut craves is a diet high in whole foods, not processed foods. Whole foods are ones that come straight from nature with little to no processing or refining. They’re high in nutrients and healthy fats and are easier for your GIT to process. It’s best if you eat a variety of whole foods to maintain a diverse gut microbiome. Healthy whole foods are usually thought of as fruits and vegetables and include animal products. Here are some examples of healthy whole foods:
- Beans and legumes
- Leafy greens
- Skinless chicken breast
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains
You can find prebiotics in whole foods with plant fibers and natural sugars. They aren’t easily digestible by the human body, but that’s the point. Instead, they serve as nourishment for the good bacteria. Prebiotic foods include:
- Peanut butter
2. Get More Sleep.
Like our bodies, our gut flora follows a Circadian rhythm, the natural sleep-wake cycle. When you don’t get enough sleep, you don’ t just feel tired and cranky. The health and diversity of the gut microbiota suffers, too. Lack of sleep can also increase toxins and inflammation in your gut. One study found that after being partially deprived of sleep for only two nights, the microbiome composition of the participants was significantly altered.
Many sleep-inducing transmitters in the brain- like melatonin, serotonin, and dopamine- are also produced and distributed by the gut microbiota. Breathing exercises and meditation can help regulate stress and keep these neurotransmitters pumping. Getting enough rest doesn’t just make you feel better; it makes your body function better.
3. Avoid Artificial Sweeteners And Sugar
A diet high in added sugars can increase your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health, and cavities. As for your gut, some bacteria thrive on sugars. Excess bacteria can throw off the balance in your microbiome.
Studies have found that regular consumption of non-caloric artificial sweeteners (NAS) can alter the balance of your gut microbiota. It can even cause glucose intolerance. These include things like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin.
Avoid diet sodas and other “zero-calorie” beverages. Artificial sweeteners may also be hiding in supposedly healthy yogurts, granola, and protein bars. Always check the label first.
4. Exercise Regularly.
It’s a no-brainer that exercise can help you lose weight and stay in shape. Like sleep, exercise can increase the health and diversity of your gut flora. While studies have found that athletes have a healthier gut microbiome, you don’t have to be a pro to get your gut in shape. Even a little change can lead to a greater diversity of gut flora.
People who exercise regularly are less likely to overeat and less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. That’s a win-win for your GIT! Studies have found that aerobic exercise is most beneficial for your microbiota. The reason is that cardio activities like running and cycling use oxygen to create fuel. Meanwhile strength exercises- like weightlifting and yoga- rely on the body’s glycogen stores.
5. Eat More Foods High In Fiber
Foods high in fiber can, quite literally, keep things moving along in your gut. Since they aid in elimination, these foods keep your bowel movements regular. They also maintain healthy colon cells. Dietary fiber with prebiotics can help to restore an imbalance in your gut microbiota.
Experts recommend that women consume 25 grams of fiber daily, and men 38 grams. But if you’re not getting enough fiber in your diet currently, don’t ramp it up all at once. A fiber overload can cause stomach issues in itself.
Here are some tasty gut superfoods that are high in fiber (and just so happen to be whole foods as well):
- Legumes (like lentils, chickpeas, and kidney beans)
- Whole grains (like barley, bran, and bulgur)
- Raspberries and blackberries
6. Avoid Alcoholic Beverages
When you drink alcohol in excess, your body has difficulty creating the digestive enzymes to break it down. This, in turn, makes it harder to digest the food that you eat, resulting in gas, bloating, and loose stools. It decreases your body’s ability to absorb minerals and vitamins.
The bacteria in your gut helps to metabolize alcohol. People who drink in excess may experience an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. This can throw off the microbiome balance. Drinking excess alcohol can also cause inflammation in your gut. Leaky gut syndrome could be a result.
If you do have a drink once in a while, opt for red wine. Red wine contains polyphenols– also found in blueberries and dark chocolate- beneficial for gut bacteria. When you consume alcohol, never do it on an empty stomach.
7. Check For Food Intolerances
Your chronic abdominal pain may stem from something as manageable as food intolerance. Food intolerances, or food sensitivities, happen when your GIT has trouble digesting certain foods. Common signs may include gas, bloating, diarrhea, headaches, and rashes. Dairy, gluten, and soy are three of the most common intolerances.
Checking for food intolerances can be quickly done with an at-home blood test or one administered by your doctor. Another option is to practice an elimination diet. On this diet you eliminate potential problem foods for a few weeks. Then gradually reintroduce them. This can help you to pinpoint the culprit if problems start to arise.
8. Add Fermented Foods To Your Diet
Fermentation is an anaerobic food preparation process in which live microorganisms like yeast and bacteria are used to break down the foods. Historically this was done to preserve foods and eliminate toxins, but today it’s also done to impart flavor. And, of course, for the abundant health benefits.
The live microorganisms in fermented foods can prevent the invasion of harmful bacteria into the gut and improve the immune system. People have used fermented foods to treat gut-associated diseases for many years. Fermentation can increase the health benefits of many foods. Popular fermented foods include:
- Miso and tempeh
- Sourdough bread
Most (but not all) fermented foods contain probiotics. Probiotics are foods that add live beneficial bacteria to your gut flora. They can help to improve digestion and metabolism, support immune function, and even boost your mood. Yogurt is one of the best sources of probiotics.
Apple cider vinegar is made by fermenting apples; however, it doesn’t always contain probiotics. You’ll see many claims about the benefits of apple cider vinegar for gut health. But there is no scientific evidence backing this claim thus far. However, ACV is packed with antioxidants and live bacteria. These can be good for your gut flora and help with inflammation.
9. Take Gut-Friendly Supplements
If your diet is lacking, try supplements to get your daily dose in. Today there are a variety of prebiotic and probiotic supplements in the form of easy-to-swallow capsules. These can help to maintain the microbiota balance in your gut, improve immune function, and boost energy.
There are many other natural, plant-based supplements you can take to regulate your gut health, too. These can all have different effects on your body. Use discretion when choosing what to fit into your daily repertoire:
- Licorice root
- Collagen protein
- Zinc carnosine
- Psyllium (this acts as an excellent natural laxative for constipation)
10: Drink Enough Water
Water can help to break down the food that you eat. It moves through your system quickly, softening stool, and making it easier to poop. It also helps with digestion and maintains microbiome balance. Before you search for miracle drinks to help with constipation, try drinking eight ounces of water eight times a day.
Low water intake can result in dehydration. Dehydration, in turn, can cause low energy levels, decrease cognitive ability, and facilitate headaches. Alkaline water is ideal for gut health because it has gut cleansing and detoxifying properties. It also helps with probiotic growth.
A Happier Gut, A Healthier YOU
When you follow these ten recommendations, you may find that weight loss is only one of the benefits of a healthy gut. Here are some ways a healthy gut will improve the whole you:
- Elevate your mental health. Studies have shown that diet and GIT disorders can affect depression and anxiety. A poor diet can make it even worse. Since your brain is in constant communication with your gut microbiota, a happier gut means a happier you.
- Feel more energized. Your energy levels will be elevated and more consistent when your gut is in sync with the rest of your body. And since the gut is the main producer of serotonin, you’ll get better sleep, too.
- Achieve a healthy weight. Since the gut microbiota helps process food, a healthy gut makes it easier to shed excess calories. Plus, when you’re working toward a healthier gut, you’re eating more nutritious foods.
- Lower your risk of disease. When your gut bacteria is in symbiosis with your body, you have a lower risk of allergies, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and even cancer. This means today and in the future.
Switching over to a healthier lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight. Give it time. Make a few small changes each week. Soon you’ll be seeing positive changes inside and out. And that minuscule microsystem that lives in your gut will thank you!