Why Gut Health Is Key (and How To Improve Yours)
You may have noticed in recent years that the topic of gut health seems to come up a lot more in conversation and health news. Why is that? Over the past decade, scientists have been learning that your gastrointestinal (GI) system—of which your gut is a key part—does a lot more than just move food through your body. And that the health of your gut can impact everything from your mood to your immunity. Here’s what you need to know and how you can keep your gut healthy.
Gut Health 101: What It Is and Why It’s Important
Your body is full of trillions of microorganisms that make up your microbiome. Many of these microorganisms are bacteria. Some are harmful and associated with disease, while others are beneficial and key to your health. The ‘gut microbiome’ refers to the bacteria that live in the part of your GI tract where digestion happens—your large and small intestines—where, at any given time, we have between 300 and 500 different species of bacteria living.
While everyone’s microbiome is unique, a general indicator of a healthy one is having a diversity of bacteria. In unhealthy people, scientists have observed much less diversity although they don’t know for certain which comes first—the bacteria or the disease.
Inflammation, which studies point to as the root of many diseases, is kept in check in the gut. When the balance of your microbiome gets out of whack, inflammatory bacteria can take charge and, via metabolites, spread inflammation throughout your body. This can affect your brain, heart, and immune system function as well as your skin, weight, and ability to absorb nutrients.
Having a healthy gut, on the other hand, has been linked to a stronger immune system, reduced symptoms of depression, lower risks of heart disease and certain cancers, as well as reduced symptoms of arthritis.
So how do we keep our gut healthy? As with many other aspects of health, it largely boils down to the foods we eat and the lifestyle choices we make. Other factors like medication and emotional stress could also play a role.
Common Signs of An Unhealthy Gut
To start improving your gut health, it’s helpful to first look at what might be wreaking havoc on your microbiome. While there are many different symptoms that could point to an unhealthy gut, here are the most common.
Signs of an upset stomach can include gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn. When your gut is in balance, these symptoms should reduce, since your gut will have an easier time digesting and eliminating your food.
- Poor sleep (or constant fatigue)
Serotonin, the sleep and mood hormone, is mainly produced in the gut. An imbalance in your gut can impair serotonin production and affect the quality of your sleep.
- Weight changes
Poor gut health can affect your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar, and store fat. Decreased nutrient absorption can result in the urge to overeat and unintentional weight gain. On the other hand, a bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine could cause weight loss.
- Skin irritation
When your gut is inflamed, certain bacteria and toxins can leak out into the body, which could irritate your skin.
- Autoimmune conditions
As mentioned earlier, research suggests that an unhealthy gut can lead to an inflammatory response in the body and affect your immune function. This could make you more susceptible to autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease where the body attacks itself rather than harmful invaders.
- Food intolerances
It’s theorized that food intolerances can result from an imbalance in the gut. When you’re intolerant to a certain food, you may experience symptoms like bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and nausea.
- A high-sugar diet
Sugar, often linked to inflammation in the body, can decrease the amount of good bacteria in the gut. This can cause more sugar cravings, making the situation worse.
How to Improve Your Gut Health
You don’t necessarily have to keep your gut under a daily microscope, but following some general health practices—from keeping a balanced diet to getting a good night’s sleep—can go a long way. Your healthcare practitioner can also give gut health recommendations. Here are some common lifestyle choices that research shows can improve gut health.
1. Stress less
Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your whole body, including your gut. Some ways to reduce stress can include exercise, meditation, yoga, connecting with friends or family, and decreasing caffeine consumption.
2. Get enough sleep
Having a good pre-bed routine can be as important as the sleep itself. Your pre-bed routine could include minimizing screen time and exercise. In terms of the ideal amount of sleep to log, the National Sleep Foundation has recommendations based on your age.
3. Avoid smoking
Studies have found that smoking can increase the amount of potentially harmful bacteria in your gut, while decreasing the amount of good bacteria. It’s also been shown to affect heart and lung health, as well as increase your risk of cancer.
4. Drink enough water
Water helps everything from digestion to carrying nutrients to your cells. And it can help maintain the balance of good bacteria in your gut. Drinking at least four to six cups a day is recommended.
5. Take a probiotic or prebiotic
Probiotics are live, good bacteria that can come in pill form or from foods like yogurt. Though the science is still out on the extent of the pills efficacy, there seems to be a general consensus that adding a probiotic can be a good idea to help restore your gut’s balance. Prebiotics are the food that probiotics can eat and are usually fiber-rich. Having prebiotics in your gut can help promote the growth of the good bacteria.
6. Exercise regularly
Working out may help increase gut health by growing the diversity of good bacteria in your gut. How much should you exercise? For general adults, the recommendation is at least 150 minutes a week or 20 minutes per day.
7. Change your diet
Minimize the amount of foods in your diet that are processed or high in sugar or fat—all of which can lead to increased inflammation in the body. When it comes to gut-healthy foods, diversity is key. Here’s what studies show are best for your gut:
- Fiber-rich foods like legumes, beans, peas, oats, bananas, asparagus, and berries
- Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha, tempeh, miso, and kefir
- Garlic and onion which may also help minimize the risks of certain cancers as well as boost the immune system
- Collagen-rich or collagen-boosting foods like salmon, bone broth, mushrooms, egg whites, and cashews
Gut health can be key to helping everything from your brain to your immune system function properly. To keep your gut microbiome healthy, a key place to start is with a balanced diet as well as healthy lifestyle practices. Even though we can’t see our gut, there are many symptoms that can help let us know when ours is out of balance and needs some attention.
If you are concerned about the potential effects of your medications on your gut health, talk to an Alto pharmacist. Our team of patient care pharmacists are ready to help whenever health questions come up. Reach out any time via text, phone call (1-800-874-5881), or in-app messaging.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.