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When your gut is feeling great, you never think about it—but when it isn’t, it’s hard to think about anything else. The group of microorganisms that live in and make up your gastrointestinal tract plays a role in almost every aspect of your health from preventing chronic illnesses and supporting brain health, to keeping your immune system humming. So it’s no wonder that when it’s out of whack, you feel lousy. It’s best to speak with your doctor if you’re having serious discomfort, but we chatted with experts to determine how to improve your gut health when you need a little extra support. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is the gut?
The human gut is far more complex than even experts used to realize—it encompasses a vast array of internal organs involved in the process of digestion to absorb nutrients from food and expel waste, explains Rushabh Modi, M.D., board-certified physician in both internal medicine and gastroenterology and hepatology and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Typically, this refers to the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small bowel, and colon with the pancreas and liver being critical as supportive organs that help make digestive enzymes,” he says.
In addition to absorbing and transporting nutrients to all tissues in the body, the gut is vital for maintaining fluid and salt status and expelling waste, explains Dr. Modi. “Many vital nutrients and vitamins such as B12 and iron have specialized transporters that only exist in the gut as well,” he adds. Iron, for example, needs stomach acid to be absorbed effectively—and B12 requires certain receptors in the stomach and mid intestines also to be absorbed. “It's hard to get these nutrients in other ways and they are essential for normal physiological functioning,” Dr. Modi adds.
The gut is also one of the body’s primary disease-fighting systems. “The acid in the stomach kills the bacteria and virus that can be accidentally consumed by the food we eat, and the digestive tract is an important way to introduce antigens to mount immune function and protection in the body,” says Christine Lee, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic. “The digestive tract also digests the foods consumed and extracts the important nutrients to be taken into the body for essential use.”
Emerging research has even uncovered a link between poor gut health and several neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autism, and depression. One such study by the Université de Genève found that individuals with Alzheimer’s have different types of bacteria growing in their gut than those who do not have the disease.
How to improve your gut health
The good news is that there are simple steps you can take to support your gut health. Here are some of the strategies doctors recommend.
Eat a wide range of healthy foods
A diet made up of several different food types can lead to a more diverse microbiome that is made up of more species, according to a review published in the journal Molecular Metabolism. This, Dr. Lee explains, strengthens our microbiome and enhances its resiliency.
The best foods for gut health are fruits, vegetables, legumes (like lentils), nuts, seeds, and whole grains, especially those highest in fiber, which help your digestive tract work properly. Women should aim for 25 grams of fiber per day and men should aim for 38 grams per day, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
And cut back on unhealthy foods. “The more grease, fat, and salt you eat, the worse your gut health will be,” says Scott David Lippe, M.D., chief of gastroenterology at Bergen Regional Medical Center in Paramus, NJ, and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Rutgers Medical School. This is something to keep in mind especially when you’re out to dinner, as restaurants tend to load up on salt, grease, and fat because they taste good.
Pay attention to how food makes you feel
Important as it is to eat a wide variety of foods, there are times it’s smart to avoid certain foods. That includes if a food makes you feel extra bloated, causes discomfort, or overall doesn’t make you feel good. Food journaling is a great way to pinpoint what those foods are, and it can help you identify allergies, discover causes of underlying issues, and uncover eating habits that may be causing GI distress.
For example, greasy or fried foods can cause GI issues for many people. “The more grease, fat, and salt you eat, the worse your gut health will be,” says Scott David Lippe, M.D., chief of gastroenterology at Bergen Regional Medical Center in Paramus, NJ, and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Rutgers Medical School. This is something to keep in mind especially when you’re out to dinner, as restaurants tend to load up on salt, grease, and fat because they taste good.
Dairy can also often cause gas, distention, or looser stools after drinking milk or eating cheese. This is someone due to a dairy allergy, sensitivity, or you may be lactose intolerant. “This affects a significant number of adults, especially those who do not have northern European ancestry,” says Dr. Lippe. If you suspect dairy may be causing some issues for you, consider working with a doctor or registered dietitian to determine if it’s something you need to avoid. If cutting out dairy is not something you’re willing to do, you can also try taking lactose tablets before you consume any foods containing dairy.
Consider a probiotic
These teeny tiny microorganisms help support your metabolism and help rebalance your microbiota, says Douglas A. Drossman, M.D., gastroenterologist and professor emeritus of medicine and psychiatry, UNC Division of Gastroenterology at UNC School of Medicine. He recommends taking them if you’re experiencing symptoms of an unhealthy gut; however, there may be no benefit otherwise. There’s actually not a ton of research to support the gut benefits of probiotics, but these best probiotic supplements are a good place to start.
One review published in Therapeutic Advances in Gastroenterology, for instance, found that probiotics do positively impact the gut microbiota of individuals with certain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes, but did little to improve the gut microbiota of healthy people. “If you take antibiotics or have a diarrheal illness, then taking probiotics may be very helpful,” adds Dr. Lippe. However, he recommends first trying to get your fair share from probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
Incorporate more prebiotics into your diet
“Prebiotics are not bacteria but instead are the types of foods that good bacteria like to eat,” explains Dr. Milstein. “We need to feed the good bacteria and starve the bad bacteria.” He recommends filling up on good-bacteria foods like walnuts, berries, bananas, flax seed, legumes, artichokes, onions, garlic, chicory, dandelion greens, asparagus, leeks, and whole grains. “Nutrition is personalized, but putting some fruits and vegetables, and fiber on our plate at each meal helps gut health and thus brain health,” Dr. Milstein adds.
Monitor your vitamin D levels
Recent research published in Nature Communications has looked into the connection between gut bacteria and vitamin D levels and found that deficiencies in the nutrient play a key role in increasing one’s risk for certain diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Any form of disruption of the GI barrier is what’s commonly known as “leaky gut,” per Dr. Drossman, which he says can increase an individual’s risk for developing infectious, inflammatory, and functional GI diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. “Most people with leaky gut have very low vitamin D levels as well as very low levels of the two main omega 3s—EPA and DHA—in their body,” he says. He recommends that most people take at least 5,000 IUs (125 mcg) of vitamin D3 a day and consume enough fish oil (or the vegan equivalent) of 1,000 mg of DHA per day. Be sure to look for signs of vitamin D deficiency and talk to your doctor before taking any kind of supplement.
Manage your stress level
Being stressed not only takes a toll on your mental health, but it also affects your physical well-being. Chronic levels of high stress can directly impact your gut health, according to Dr. Drossman. This can show up as a loss of appetite, nausea, or even anxiety-induced diarrheaAlthough it’s not always possible to remove stressors in your life, adopting stress-management strategies, such as diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, or yoga can help, says Dr. Drossman. “It’s also a wise idea to consider visiting a mental health provider to determine if brain-gut therapies (cognitive-behavioral treatment, hypnosis, mindfulness) can be used,” he adds.
Get enough quality sleep each night
When you don’t get enough sleep, your whole body is affected, including your gut. In fact, new research is showing just how interconnected your gut microbiome and the quality of your sleep really are. One study by Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, found that poor sleep can have negative consequences on your gut microbiome for reasons that are not yet known, which can then manifest into a host of other health issues such as autoimmune diseases and mental conditions. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night.
8 Signs Your Gut Is Suffering
If your gut is unhealthy, chances are, you’re experiencing one or more of the following symptoms even mildly or infrequently:
“Since food digestion and waste production are the two most vital functions of the gut, when patients have problems in these areas, the gut can often be the source of the problem,” explains Dr. Modi. Acid reflux and heartburn are also associated with the gut, though you’ll feel the pain further away from the core of the problem. Bloating is also increasingly very common to the point that Dr. Modi notes that patients almost see it as a normal reaction to eating certain foods.
If you experience unexplainable weight loss, despite eating regular meals, this may indicate your body is not able to digest or absorb the nutrients in the foods you are consuming and indicate there is a problem in your digestive system, according to Dr. Lee.
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