As research discovers more and more about gut health, we realize that its healthy balance helps keep us in balance - our physical health, our immunity, and even our mental health. Gut health refers to the gut flora that live in the digestive tract. You may have also heard it referred to by several other different types of names, such as the “gut microbiome” or the microorganisms of the digestive tract. These microorganisms include over 100 trillion different types of viruses, bacteria, and yeasts, and keeping the gut flora in homeostasis is crucial. Some of these bacteria, viruses, and yeasts are essential to our daily living, some are beneficial, and some are harmful, so keeping the gut healthy is imperative. Read on to learn how to tell if you might have an unhealthy gut, ways to remedy a gut that may be in imbalance, and certain natural foods and supplements to take to bring things back into balance.
How to Tell if Your Gut Is Unhealthy
If your gut is unhealthy, it may be giving you potential warning signs that something is wrong. One of the first signs will be an upset stomach. This doesn’t refer to nausea or vomiting, but other types of GI disturbances, such as gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea, although it’s unlikely to have constipation and diarrhea occur comorbidly. Patients usually have one symptom or other, although both can occur at different times. Persistent heartburn or acid reflux can also occur. These GI disturbances will occur because the gut is unhealthy, and it’s having a difficult time processing food and eliminating waste. When the gut is in balance, it doesn’t struggle to perform these essential functions. A diet high in sugar (particularly high-fructose corn syrup) keeps the gut in an imbalanced state. Combined with a diet that’s also high in processed foods (the two often go hand in hand), this reduces the amount of “good” bacteria in your gut, leaving a lot of room for “bad” bacteria to grow. When this happens, the body struggles to process food correctly. In fact, your body will become so imbalanced that, because of the imbalance of the gut flora, this will cause increased sugar cravings, which will cause you to eat even more sugar. This vicious cycle will continue until you decide to break it. A continued imbalance of gut health will lead to increased inflammation. Increased inflammation (and sugar intake) has been directly correlated with cancer.
If you find that you’ve suddenly gained or lost weight unintentionally, this may also indicate a problem with your gut health. Weight loss may be caused by malabsorption, the inability to absorb nutrients, while weight gain could be caused by insulin resistance. Feeling tired or fatigued constantly is also linked to poor gut health. Much of the body’s serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps regulate wakefulness) is produced in the gut, and if the gut is affected, sleep may be also.
Other signs of an unhealthy gut can include food intolerances, autoimmune conditions, and skin irritations such as eczema.
Natural Ways to Get a Healthy Gut
There are some lifestyle changes you can make - other than diet, which we’ll cover below - to work toward getting a healthier gut. Some of these may sound very common sense, but you may not have thought of them before. One of the top things that can cause inflammation is high stress. If your stress levels are too high, this can by proxy cause your gut to be unhealthy. Unfortunately, saying “lower your stress” is easier said than done. Try some natural ways to try to lower stress, such as meditation, yoga, essential oils, massage, or decreasing caffeine intake.
Getting enough sleep is also essential. A healthy adult should be getting between seven and eight hours of sleep every night. Staying hydrated and drinking plenty of water is also important. Drinking enough water can help the mucosal lining of the intestines, which promotes a healthy gut.
Take a daily probiotic or prebiotic. A prebiotic promotes the growth of “good” bacteria in the gut, while a probiotic is “good” bacteria itself. It’s a good idea to ask your healthcare provider which one is a better option for you, and which is recommended because not all prebiotics and probiotics are created equal.
Eliminate or severely cut back on high-sugar and processed foods, as well as fast food. Getting rid of these foods will improve your gut health exponentially. Additionally, adding as many plant-based foods to the diet as possible will also help.
Natural Foods to Help Maintain a Healthy Gut
While you now know it’s best to stay away from foods that are high in sugar content, processed foods, and fast foods, what foods should you be adding to your diet to promote a healthy gut?
Fermented foods are the number one choice to maintain a healthy gut because they help prevent gut inflammation and are a natural source of probiotics. You want to eat fermented foods in addition to any prebiotic or probiotic supplement you’re taking. Supplements are adequate for providing benefits, but it’s always best to have the nutrient from the food source if possible. Some examples of fermented foods include:
- Fermented vegetables
Similarly to adding foods that are rich in probiotics, you want to add foods that are rich in prebiotics as well. Some of the most prebiotic-rich foods include choices such as:
- Whole grains
- Jerusalem artichoke
There are some other things to try to bulk up gut health as well. Tea is known to improve digestive health, especially blends that have ginger or are a green tea type. However, tea in most forms has antioxidants, which can help reduce stress levels and promote overall health. The small amount of caffeine in green tea is not overpowering, but can be a good jump start in the morning to get the bowels gently moving if constipation is a side effect of poor gut health.
Other Methods to Improve Gut Health
There are some other things you can do - or not do - to help improve your overall gut health. Collagen-rich foods, such as bone broth and salmon, can help overall health and gut health. Collagen is also widely available as a supplement, but just like with other foods, it’s best to get the nutrient from the source if possible for the maximum benefit.
Don’t take antibiotics unnecessarily or unless you have to. Obviously, you must take antibiotics to combat a bacterial infection when your doctor prescribes them (and you should always finish a regimen as prescribed), but taking antibiotics unnecessarily can damage the gut flora, sometimes even up to six months after use.
If you smoke, there’s no better time than the present to quit. Not only does smoking affect the heart and lungs, but it also affects gut health. If you’re struggling with quitting, your physician can help get you started on the road to recovery. Not only does smoking contribute to poor gut health, but it can also contribute to other GI problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
If you need more information on how to keep your gut healthy, or would like to be evaluated by a physician, request an appointment at GI Associates and Endoscopy Center today. Our team of physicians has three separate locations for your convenience, and we provide the best in comprehensive care to all of our patients.