The digestive system is like a rainforest with diverse flora—only in this case we’re talking about trillions of microbiomes, i.e., bacteria, viruses and fungi. When all is good, these microbiomes help keep our body functioning well by regulating body weight, encouraging regular bowels, decreasing inflammation and boosting immunity, among other benefits.
However, when something’s out of whack, we might begin to experience abdominal pain, heartburn, constipation, bloating, loose stools, vomiting or nausea. These gut issues happen to anyone at some time, but if they persist or worsen, then you might be dealing with some gastrointestinal problems.
There are an estimated 70 million Americans who suffer from digestive diseases, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). So, if you’re wondering how you can improve your gut health or get back to having a healthy gut, read on to find out.
How to Improve Your Gut Health
In an ideal world, the stomach, intestines, esophagus and other organs in the body work together so we can eat and digest food comfortably. But when something in this network breaks down, such as an imbalance in the good bacteria and bad bacteria in the gut, then we experience symptoms associated with an unhealthy gut.
To alleviate these symptoms or improve your gut health, follow these tips.
Eat More of the Right Types of Food
Certain foods and food groups have been proven to promote a healthy gut. In general, health experts recommend “eating the rainbow,” i.e., a wide variety of foods that are high in nutrients and fiber but low in refined ingredients and saturated fats, to encourage diversity of microbiota in the digestive system. These include:
- Fiber-rich food: Low fiber intake can reduce good bacteria and increase bad bacteria in the gut. So, it’s recommended to incorporate foods high in fiber to your diet, such as:
- Vegetables, including leafy greens, broccoli, beans, beet, sweet potatoes and carrots
- Whole grains, such as oats, wheat, brown rice and barley
- Fruits, such as bananas, cherries, cranberries and mangoes
- Seeds and nuts, such as walnuts and fennel
If you’re not used to eating fiber-rich foods, introduce high-fiber items gradually into your diet and monitor how your body reacts to them. Switching to a fiber-rich diet suddenly or consuming excess amounts of these foods can cause bloating.
- Fermented foods: A Stanford University study found that fermented foods, such as yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi, miso and tempeh, increased the diversity of microbiomes in the gut. So, find several fermented foods you like and consume those daily.
- Fish: A 2021 study from Norway found that people who ate more fish, such as cod and salmon, saw levels of Bacteroidetes drop compared to those who skipped fish. Bacteroidetes are associated with type 2 diabetes. In addition, other studies found that fish consumption resulted in greater microbiome diversity and proliferation of more good bacteria in the gut.
Watch What You Drink
Consuming fiber-rich food is not enough; you’ll also need water to help fiber do its job. Otherwise, you’ll get constipation. A glass of water with every meal should do the trick. Alternatively, you can drink milk, herbal teas and other non-caffeinated drinks instead. Avoid caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, cola, etc.) because they can give you heartburn, but if you really can’t do without, stick to one to two cups a day only.
Drinking too much alcohol is also linked to gastritis, which can lead to ulcers, heartburn, bacterial infections and chronic discomfort. This kind of inflammation can alter the balance of microbiota in your gut.
Steer Clear of Triggers
Gut problems are stirred up by different foods in different people. For some, symptoms appear when they eat acidic foods; for others, fizzy drinks. Whatever your trigger might be, it’s best to steer clear of them.
Other foods that typically result in a disturbed gut include:
- Fatty foods, such as fried foods, burgers and chips
- Spicy foods
- Garlic, onion and other milder but flavorful foods
- Artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers, such as polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose
If you want to track your progress or change some bad behavior, you could start a food diary. It’s a handy tool to help you identify possible trigger foods and spot any unhealthy eating habits.
Get Dirty … Literally!
Digging in the dirt and playing with animals can strengthen our microbiome and help build a healthy gut. So, go outside more often and don’t be afraid to get dirty … within reason.
The butterflies in your stomach when you’re feeling anxious or excited are real…. Well, sort of.
You see, neurotransmitters travel from the gut to the brain and vice versa through the “brain-gut axis.” And, according to early research results, there appears to be a link between mental health and gut health. In short, mood and stress levels can affect bacteria in your gut and can lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and similar disorders. People with IBS are also more prone to develop anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.
Get Enough Sleep
A lack of sleep can lead to obesity, which in turn, can cause digestive system disorders. So, getting your fair share of zzz’s each night is a must for a healthy gut. Otherwise, you might suffer from bloating, constipation, nausea and other digestive issues.
Aside from reducing stress, exercise has the potential to change the makeup of the microbiome in the gut. According to a 2019 review, “Researchers found longer workouts and high-intensity aerobic training, in particular, contributed most to gut bacteria diversity and function in relation to overall wellness.”
In addition, the study also observed that lean people are more likely to benefit from exercise than those who are overweight or obese. Again, obesity can lead to problems in the digestive system, so always strive to maintain a healthy body weight.
Watch Out for Medications
Antibiotics have been known to alter the bacteria in the gut. Although they’re prescribed to eradicate harmful bacteria, they can also kill other bacteria in the process, especially if they’re taken unnecessarily. Some health care providers have observed patients on antibiotics experience issues with motility, become susceptible to infection, or develop allergies.
Also avoid unnecessary intake or overuse of over-the-counter painkillers and medication for diabetes, acid reflux and psychiatric conditions.
Avoid Unhealthy Habits
In general, habits that are bad for your health, especially for the heart, brain and lungs, also have a negative effect on gut health. Drinking excessive alcohol and smoking cigarettes, for instance, can hurt the gut’s microbiota.
Start Working Toward a Healthy Gut Today
Each one of us has a unique microbiome, which is influenced by a variety of factors including genetics, food intake and bad habits. But, we all desire to have a healthy gut, one that contributes to our general health and well-being, as well as a longer life.
To achieve this, we have to ensure that our digestive tract has a diverse community of microbiomes. “A healthy microbiome has 250 to 300 different species of bacteria,” says Hannah Wastyk, co-founder and CEO of Interface Biosciences and former Stanford University researcher. “Low would be 70 to 80 species.”
So, follow the tips we shared in this article, and you’ll be on your way to enjoying life with a healthy gut. Remember to consult your doctor for specific or chronic gut problems.