You’ve probably heard about the importance of having a healthy gut. But what is gut health, what makes a gut healthy vs. unhealthy? Read on to find out–plus some tips to improve gut health.
What is gut health?
Gut health refers to the balance of trillions of microorganisms living in the digestive or gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Collectively, the population of these microorganisms is called the gut microbiome.
Many people think the gut only refers to the small and large intestines. But microbes live throughout the entire GI tract–a long tube that spans from the mouth to the rectum–and all of these microorganisms are hard at work as soon as you put food in your mouth.
Humans have between 300 and 500 different species of bacteria living in our guts–some beneficial, and some potentially harmful. Having an optimal balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria makes for good gut health. And maintaining this balance is essential for overall health, well-being, and longevity.
Why is a healthy gut important?
A healthy gut is essential for your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, digest foods properly, and regulate the immune system. It also helps the body fight off infection and disease. A healthy gut can reduce inflammation, improve mood, and even help manage or reverse certain chronic illnesses.
Good gut bacteria strengthen the gut wall, activate immune functions of cells, and balance the pH of the gut. These functions help protect the body from infections from pathogens and potentially harmful bacteria. 70-80% of the body’s immune system is found in the gut. Furthermore, the bacteria in the gut are responsible for generating about 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin, a feel-good chemical that affects both mood and digestion. So if you have poor gut health, your immune system and hormones won’t work properly–and your health will suffer.
Studies show that healthy gut microbiota have a positive impact on the communications between the intestines and brain–and unhealthy microbiota have a negative impact on those communications. This can be a contributing factor in other health issues like obesity and heart disease, as well as depression and anxiety–which makes sense once you understand the gut-brain axis.
What is the gut-brain axis?
The gut and brain share circuitry through something called the gut-brain axis (GBA). The GBA allows for bidirectional communication between microbiota in the gut and the brain via nerve cells and the production of special compounds, such as bile acids and neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. It’s a complex system that affects every other system in the body.
Studies show there are nearly 500 million neurons in the human gut, which connect to the brain via nerves. The largest is the vagus nerve, and it plays significant roles in human health–especially relating to stress. One study found that psychological stress can damage the vagus nerve and lead to the development of GI disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). So stress is important to consider when improving your gut health, and your gut health is important to consider with respect to your mental health.
Serotonin and other neurotransmitters play a large part in regulating our emotions, mood, and nervous system activation, or the “fight or flight” response. These chemical messengers are produced both in the brain and gut, affecting many aspects of digestion, including blood flow, bowel movements, nutrient absorption, and the overall composition of the gut microbiome.
The intriguing question is: does the brain control the gut or does the gut control the brain? The answer may be more nuanced than you’d think. You’ve experienced “butterflies” in your stomach after seeing someone you liked, or when anticipating a nerve-wracking event. You’ve also probably had a “gut feeling” about people or situations, which you couldn’t explain in words or rational thought.
These are all examples of the gut-brain connection. The brain informs the gut, and vice versa. So it’s crucial to support your gut health in order to support your mental health and overall well-being.
Most common gut health issues
Overuse of antibiotics, poor diet, poor dental hygiene, stress and anxiety, and a lack of exercise can all cause the bacterial balance in your gut to get out of whack.
Some of the most common gut health issues include:
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). There are two different chronic diseases of the GI tract that constitute IBD: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both of these conditions are autoimmune and cause inflammation in the intestines. IBD affects 3.1 million U.S. adults. While there’s no cure for IBD, healthy lifestyle practices can help alleviate symptoms.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD involves chronic acid reflux, meaning stomach acid repeatedly flows back into the tube connecting your mouth and stomach. This reflux can irritate your food pipe and cause heartburn and other unpleasant symptoms, such as trouble swallowing.
Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that damages your small intestine and keeps it from absorbing nutrients from the food you eat, due to a sensitivity to gluten. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye, as well as prepared foods like bread and pasta. When you have Celiac disease, gluten causes your immune system to damage the tubules that line your small intestine (causing intestinal permeability, sometimes referred to as “leaky gut,”) which can lead to malnourishment, joint pain, anemia, and even cancer. There’s no cure for celiac disease, but for most people, following a strict gluten-free diet can help manage symptoms.
Leaky gut. Leaky gut, or increased intestinal permeability, allows partially digested food, toxins, and bugs to penetrate the tissues beneath the gut lining and blood stream, causing inflammation and suboptimal changes in gut bacteria.
Leaky gut probably isn’t a diagnosis you’ll receive at a conventional doctor’s office. But it’s real, and research shows it’s associated with a whole host of medical conditions, including autoimmune diseases (such as lupus, type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and Grave’s disease), chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, and even depression and anxiety.
Signs of poor gut health
Some of the more obvious poor gut health symptoms include bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. Less obvious symptoms may include:
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Brain fog
- Frequent headaches
- Skin rashes or allergies
- Sugar cravings
- Hormone imbalances
- Underactive thyroid (hypothyroid) symptoms
- Unexplained weight gain or loss
- Food intolerances
If you have any of the above symptoms, don’t despair. While genes and environmental factors lay the foundation for your gut microbiome, you can improve your gut health–and more simply than you may think…with a healthy lifestyle.
How to improve gut health
One of the simplest ways to improve your gut health is staying hydrated. Studies show that drinking more water–warm water, in particular–can ease digestive issues and promote a healthier balance of gut bacteria. Avoiding caffeinated or alcoholic beverages may also help, as these things can irritate your gut and cause inflammation.
Another great way to improve gut health is through stress management. As you learned above, the gut and brain are intimately connected. So it’s probably no surprise that high levels of chronic stress wreak havoc on your gut. When you’re stressed, your body suppresses digestion and conserves its energy to trigger the “fight or flight” response. If this keeps happening for a long period of time–even on a subtle level–it can lead to digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as well as lower populations of Lactobacillus, a good gut bacteria. Meditation, deep breathing, and other stress relieving activities can help you relax and improve your gut health.
But perhaps the biggest influence on gut health is diet. You can dramatically improve your gut health by avoiding processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods.
Best gut health foods
Some of the best foods for gut health include:
- Fiber, such as whole grains, beans and legumes, and whole fruits and veggies.
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kefir, and pickles.
- Greens, such as kale, spinach, dandelion greens, broccoli, asparagus, and seaweed.
- Roughage, such as Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, and flaxseed.
- Fresh fruits like bananas, apples, pears, and kiwis.
Eating a diet that includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and fiber can improve your gut health by allowing good bacteria in your gut to thrive. Just make sure you’re getting enough fiber. 97% of Americans get at least the recommended amount of protein, and yet 97% of Americans don’t get the recommended 40 grams of fiber they need each day. Fiber is the most important nutrient for gut health because it feeds the good gut bacteria so they can thrive. It also helps keep your bowels functioning regularly.
Another important food for gut health is fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut. Fermented foods are loaded with vitamins, iron, and fiber, as well as healthy gut bacteria called probiotics. Eating those good bacteria adds more beneficial bacteria to your gut, helping to balance your microbiome. Eat small portions of fermented foods daily and use them to replace salt, soy sauce, or other sources of sodium when possible. Consuming too much sodium can feed bad gut bacteria and cause inflammation, so limit your salt intake.
In most cases, eating a healthy diet is enough to support gut health without supplements. However, if you’re eating well and still notice symptoms of poor gut health, try adding probiotics and prebiotics.
Supplemental probiotics and prebiotics for gut health
Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria and/or yeasts that live in your body naturally. These good organisms help to keep bad ones in check–plus they improve digestion. So probiotics are crucial if you want to improve your gut health.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, are special plant fibers that help good bacteria grow in your gut. They’re naturally contained in many fruits and vegetables–especially those with complex carbohydrates, such as resistant starch (potatoes) and fiber (carrots, beets, or broccoli, to name a few). Complex carbs pass through the digestive system to become food for the bacteria and other microbes in the gut, as they aren’t digestible by humans. So they also help with digestion, as well as feeding the good bacteria in your gut. Many probiotic supplements also contain prebiotics to ensure you’re getting enough of both.
When you make it a priority to eat lots of fresh produce, fermented veggies, and a balanced diet overall, you’ll be well on your way to improving your gut health. Add in 7-8 hours of sleep per night, stress reduction, and plenty of water, and you’ll be feeling better for years to come.
Carrie Solomon is a freelance health writer, web copywriter, and passionate wellness enthusiast. She’s on a mission to help wellness-focused companies everywhere educate, engage, and inspire their audiences to make the world a healthier, happier place. Learn more about her at copybycarrie.com or on LinkedIn.