Between the billion-dollar probiotic-supplement push, probiotic additives in food (probiotic chips!), and recent studies linking gut health to everything from mental well-being to cancer, the gut—those 25 feet of intestines sitting inside your core—seems to be the seat of all good health.
Despite what manufacturers would have you believe, getting your insides in shape isn’t as simple as ingesting a bunch of products.
Everything you eat—and plenty of things that you do (even sleep)—can affect the microbes in your gut. Down a fiber-filled salad and they produce helpful waste products that speed digestion along.
Narrowly miss a car crash on your way home and your body unleashes hormones with a cascade of effects that can alter the microbes’ environment and cause digestive distress. Microbes are like the office managers of your gut, involved in all that happens inside you in a day.
Nothing goes well if you piss them off. If your gut isn’t happy, nobody’s happy. It gets grumpy—in the form of gas, bloating, constipation, general discomfort—and nothing good flows from there.
Experts are beginning to see that gut trouble tends to spring from a fairly simple concept: an imbalance of helpful and unhelpful bacteria. “The gut contains over a trillion different bacterial organisms, which play a much bigger role in how your body functions than we used to think,” says Kara Gross Margolis, M.D., an associate professor at Columbia University Medical Center and spokesperson for the American Gastroenterological Association.
Here are six top triggers that can make a healthy gut go awry:
Morning Coffee (and Nothing Else)
Breakfast has come under fire lately for not being “the most important meal of the day,” as some want you to think. But your gut begs to differ, says Jack Gilbert, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California San Diego and cofounder of the American Gut Project, an investigation into the human microbiome.
For your intestines, morning food is critical. “The bacteria in your intestine have their own circadian rhythm,” he says. This makes their balance shift dramatically throughout the day. For example, microbes that produce tryptophan to help you feel sleepy flourish in the evening.
A fiber-filled breakfast feeds the bacteria you require during waking hours, causing them to multiply and release chemicals you need to power through the day. “When you disrupt their circadian rhythm, it can lead to the production of chemicals that can make you feel sluggish,” says Gilbert.
Not enough fiber
Eggs first thing, turkey-and-cheese sandwich for lunch, sushi for dinner; sure, this sounds like a healthy diet.
But where’s the fiber (as in fruits, vegetables, beans)? You should get 38 grams daily; all those foods have almost none. “Good bacteria eat fiber—it’s like their candy—and when they consume it, they produce short-chain fatty acids, which prevent inflammation and help nerve endings in your intestine move things along,” says Gilbert. Without it, expect an intestinal traffic jam. Constipation can bring on bloating, since it gives waste more time to ferment and produce gas.
You may also be missing out on microbes that help regulate mood. Not only does your gut produce 95 percent of your body’s serotonin, but brand-new research links depression and lower amounts of two types of gut bacteria. Scientists don’t yet know exactly how to feed these two and are sticking to the “eat more fiber” mantra, since it’s a good idea no matter what.
When you fill up on sugar and unhealthy fats—doughnuts, say, or a double cheeseburger—you’re feeding your unhelpful bacteria. They then excrete chemicals that lead to inflammation, which can trigger diarrhea, bloating, and constipation.
A steady diet of those fats also messes with a key job of your gut wall. Normally, that wall is lined with a layer of mucus. All that unhealthy fat may thin this protective layer, allowing bacteria to sit right up against the lining of your intestines, according to Gilbert. That unleashes your immune system and sets you up for chronic problems like heart disease and diabetes.
Eating too fast
Gas can be caused by the food you eat and the air you swallow if you eat quickly. Some starches and sugars—often good-for-you ones, like those in beans, broccoli, and onions—are poorly digested. So they make it to the colon without being fully broken down. The bacteria there get something to eat but are also more likely to produce gas (more so in some people than others).
Of course, gum chewing and carbonated drinks can cause gas as well. If you’re really puffed up, consider an OTC gas-relief product. They’re thought to reduce the surface tension of air bubbles in your system so they’ll dissolve.
“When you’re anxious or nervous, you may breathe more rapidly and swallow more air, distending your intestines and making you feel bloated and gassy,” says Men’s Health advisor Felice Schnoll-Sussman, M.D. “Plus, you may clench your abs, which can affect bowel motility.” Break the tension with whatever it takes—a few deep breaths, a step away from your desk, a set of pushups.
Too little sleep
Miss a good night’s sleep and you might wind up constipated or bloated in the morning. Your digestive system needs a solid snooze as much as you do. “When you don’t rest for long enough through the night, your body might not have enough time to digest the food you ate throughout the day,” says Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. Don’t hinder your gut from working its third shift.
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