What's Causing Your Gut Inflammation? These Common Triggers Might Be to Blame

You have more control over gut inflammation than you think.

<p>Fabian Montano/Getty Images</p>

Fabian Montano/Getty Images

Most of us are aware of gut health, but it’s probably not something we think too much about until it becomes a problem. Then one day something starts feeling off—maybe you’re constantly bloated, constipated, or struggling with another form of digestive discomfort—and gut health suddenly has to come to the forefront of your mind. Or it’s possible you may experience other, seemingly unrelated symptoms, such as bad breath, breakouts, fatigue, or headaches and wonder if somehow it could be connected to poor gut health.

“Numerous studies have shown that the gut microbiome is a powerful driver behind the body’s inflammatory status and gut dysbiosis—a broad term that describes an imbalance of the gut microbiota—is thought to trigger inflammatory responses that can lead to chronic gut inflammation,” says Jordyn Gottlieb, MS, expert in nutrition science and food and agricultural policy, and contributor for January AI and Eden’s.

Related:8 Everyday Ways to Improve Your Gut Health Naturally

What is gut inflammation?

“Gut inflammation is an immunological state that occurs when the body senses an irritant somewhere along the digestive tract and signals to the immune system to repair it, resulting in swelling, pain, and impaired functions,” Gottlieb explains.

But gut inflammation isn’t just one thing—it’s an umbrella term that covers a wide range of issues, diseases, and syndromes associated with a disturbed digestive system including IBS, IBD, and leaky gut syndrome.

“Symptoms [of gut inflammatory issues] often start out with stomach aches, digestive pain, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, bloating, and cramping,” she says. “But longer-lasting, chronic inflammation can lead to problems that extend beyond the digestive tract.”

Gut inflammation can stem from several factors, and since gut health is such a complex and multifunctional thing—affected by and affecting so many other facets of our health—it can be tricky to pinpoint the source of gut issues and find solutions without some knowledge. Here are five common causes of gut inflammation and the best ways to keep it at bay and prevent flare-ups.

Related:Your Gut Health and Mental Health Are Closely Linked—Here’s How to Boost Them Both

Common Causes of Gut Inflammation

Routinely eating inflammatory foods and drinking alcohol.

While most of us enjoy foods and drinks that aren’t the most nutritious for our bodies, at least on occasion (and we should!), if the food you eat regularly doesn’t support a thriving, diverse, and healthy microbiome, then gut inflammation often isn’t far behind.

If gut inflammation is an issue, it's smartest to limit (or better, avoid) certain things that trigger inflammation, disrupt the ratio of good-to-bad gut bacteria, and send our systems on a metabolic roller coaster. This includes drinking alcohol and highly processed, sugary drinks, says Chris Damman, MD, MA, clinical associate professor of gastroenterology and medicine at the University of Washington, and the chief medical and scientific officer of Supergut.

“Some foods that might adversely impact gut health, but not necessarily be associated with an increase in gut inflammation include processed meats, baked goods containing refined sugars, sugary drinks, and alcohol,” he says. “Baked goods containing refined sugars and sugary drinks (including diet drinks without sugar) have been linked to imbalances in the gut microbiome and dysregulation of blood sugar.”

Related:5 Foods to Avoid for a Happy, Healthy Gut Microbiome

Neglecting gut-healthy foods and nutrients, like fiber.

Your gut health is impacted just as much by what you don’t put into your body. A diet lacking in certain things your body craves will have its consequences. Fiber, antioxidants, prebiotics, and probiotics are a few of the best things to eat regularly for a happy gut microbiome.

When it comes to keeping gut inflammation at bay, don’t approach nutrition from a mindset of deprivation, because the idea of depriving yourself of the foods and cocktails is a huge bummer. Instead, think about it in terms of what you can add to your diet. Experts strongly suggest prioritizing adding more fiber into your diet. “Increased fiber intake helps produce gut-healthy short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and other bioactives that promote metabolic and immune health, which is important not only for optimal blood glucose regulation, but also for appetite suppression, immunity enhancement, reduced intestinal inflammation, and other beneficial effects,” Gottlieb says.

How can you up your fiber intake?

Focus on eating lots of veggies, such as acorn and butternut squashes, kale, broccoli, carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, and asparagus. Fruits are also packed with gut-beneficial fiber. Some of the best high-fiber fruits include avocados, raspberries, blackberries, pears, kiwi, pomegranate, oranges, and tangerines. Beans and legumes are excellent sources of fiber, too. Enjoy chickpeas (hello, hummus!), lentils, and edamame as well as nutrient-dense beans like kidney, pinto, navy, and black beans. Whole grains such as bulgur, quinoa, buckwheat, and whole oats are another essential fiber-filled food group for reduced gut inflammation.

If all of this has you worried about your grocery bill (good-quality produce can be pricey, for example), know there are affordable ways to integrate more gut-beneficial foods into your everyday meals. Wendy Lopez, MS, RD, and Jessica Jones MS, RD, cohosts of The Food Heaven Podcast, recommend stocking up on canned tomatoes, which are inexpensive and a great way to reduce gut inflammation.

“We already know tomatoes, particularly canned, are rich in the anti-inflammatory antioxidant lycopene, which gives tomatoes their beautiful red hue,” they say. “Lycopene has been shown in hundreds of studies to have a positive impact on breast cancer, heart disease, and prostate cancer, plus, a recent small animal study also suggests tomatoes are great for gut health.”

Related:7 Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Eat Every Day for Long-Term Health

Sleep deprivation and unchecked stress.

“Beyond [what you eat], lifestyle factors can impact the gut,” Dr. Damman says. The two big culprits here are sleep and stress. “Poor sleep and high stress can lead to changes in the tight junctions that stitch the cells of the gut together. Opening of tight junctions causes shifts in gut fluid balance and looser stools.”

Related:These Are the Best Stress-Relieving Foods You Can Eat—and They're All Good for Your Gut, Too

Being too sedentary.

Dr. Damman also recommends getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day. Regular exercise has been shown to help boost good gut bacteria, diversify the microbiome, and improve the relationship between types of bacteria in the gut. Research has found that moderate exercise, in particular, benefits gut health by decreasing intestinal permeability (making it harder for harmful pathogens to enter the bloodstream), which helps reduce systemic inflammation. And even more simply, moving your body regularly helps keep your whole system moving regularly, if you catch our drift. Whether it’s walking, jumping rope, dancing, gardening, or yoga, finding a movement practice or exercise routine you can stick to consistently is an underrated habit for keeping gut inflammation under control.

Related:4 Types of Exercise That Help Reduce Inflammation

When to Visit the Doctor

If you're dealing with chronic inflammatory gut issues such as diarrhea, constipation, excessive gas, pain, or excessive bloating that simply won’t go away even after adopting these gut-healthy lifestyle changes, Lopez and Jones recommend making an appointment with a gastroenterologist or your primary care doctor to make sure it isn’t something more serious.

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