With sayings, such as ‘you are what you eat’ passing down from generation to generation, there’s no denying that most of us understand that the gastrointestinal tract is important to our overall health and wellness. After all, it transports the food you eat from your mouth to your stomach and then converts it into nutrients and energy, before removing the remaining waste back out of your body. It’s quite mind-blowing but more importantly, it’s absolutely imperative for survival. New research has linked the gastrointestinal tract to a variety of aspects of health that seem to have nothing to do with digestion, including emotional stress, mental illnesses, immunity and chronic illnesses, such as cancer and type 2 diabetes. It looks like the saying ‘you are what you eat’ has officially been proven to be true, so it’s time to boost your gut health to achieve overall health and wellness.
- 1 What is Gut Health and Why is it Important?
- 2 The Risks of an Unhealthy Gut
- 3 What Harms Your Gut Health?
- 4 Signs Your Gut Health Needs Some Improving
- 5 Ways to Improve Your Gut Health
What is Gut Health and Why is it Important?
Gut health is simply the health of your entire digestive system – from your esophagus to your bowel. It encompasses all of the parts responsible for transporting and processing the food you eat to turn them into nutrients and energy to help your body maintain overall health and wellness. However, gut health doesn’t just affect your physical health, as it was once thought to be. Research has confirmed that it’s also linked to numerous aspects of your mental and emotional health, and can affect everything from immunity to your mental health, emotional stress and chronic illnesses, including cancer and diabetes.
Your gastrointestinal tract contains trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that enter the bloodstream and get transported as nutrients to different parts of your body. When your digestive system isn’t healthy, it is unable to function properly and deliver the healthy nutrients needed. As a result, your body doesn’t receive the healthy bacteria needed to fight off infectious bacteria, viruses and fungi.
The Risks of an Unhealthy Gut
Amongst the trillion of bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract is healthy and unhealthy bacteria. For example, some bacteria promote inflammation and others fight it off. A healthy gut is able to keep both types in check but when your gut isn’t working as it should, the inflammatory bacteria can take over and spread to other parts of your body. The same can be said for many other types of bacteria, which play a major role in other conditions, including mental illnesses, chronic illnesses, and neurological conditions, like dementia and schizophrenia. An unbalanced microbiome can also affect your weight, skin health, and many other aspects of your health.
In fact, studies found that if you have too much of a specific type of bad bacteria in your gut, you’re more likely to develop certain conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative colitis and IBS.
Other studies found that your gut balance affects your emotions and the way your brain processes information, suggesting that it can play a role in conditions such as autism, anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
There have been studies done that have confirmed an unhealthy gut microbiome that disrupts signals from the brain that tell your body when you’re feeling hungry or full, leading to weight gain and obesity.
Here is a quick look at the potential health risks associated with an unhealthy gut:
- Low immune function
- Heart Disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Some cancers
- Weight gain and obesity
- Crohn’s Disease
- Chronic pain
- Hormonal imbalance
- Skin conditions, such as acne or psoriasis
What Harms Your Gut Health?
Research has found that there are a variety of lifestyle, diet and environmental factors that can affect gut health. So, it isn’t just ‘you are what you eat’; it’s also about how you. However, there’s no denying that diet plays a major role as it directly impacts your gastrointestinal health.
Some things that may be harming your gut health include:
- Poor sleep quality
- Alcohol consumption
- Lack of physical activity
- High-stress levels
- Poor diet or not a diverse diet
- Lack of prebiotics in your diet
- Bad habits, such as smoking cigarettes
- Antibiotic use
Signs Your Gut Health Needs Some Improving
It’s typically easy to tell when your gut health is out of balance, as you will likely experience diarrhea, gas, bloating, stomach aches, heartburn or nausea. You may also experience chronic issues, such as unintentional weight gain, fatigue, sleep difficulties, skin irritation, allergies, and food intolerances. Depending on the severity of your gut microbiome imbalance, these issues may be able to work themselves out with a little bit of time so your microbiome finds balance again. However, if you’re experiencing long-term symptoms, it may be time to make some necessary lifestyle and diet changes to give your gut health the boost it needs to function properly.
Here is a quick recap of the signs and symptoms of an unhealthy gut:
- Digestive problems, such as diarrhea, gas, bloating, stomach aches, heartburn or nausea
- Skin issues, such as acne, psoriasis, eczema, and rosacea,
- Unintentional weight fluctuations
- Difficulties sleeping, including insomnia and fatigue
- Allergies and food intolerances
- Moodiness and difficulty concentrating
Ways to Improve Your Gut Health
Basically, all of the things you need to do for maintaining overall health and wellness is needed to improve your gut health. This includes staying hydrated, eating a balanced diet, getting enough quality sleep at night, exercising regularly and avoiding unhealthy habits, such as excessive alcohol use and smoking. There are also many additional lifestyle and diet changes you can make to improve your gut health.
Drinking enough water each day can increase the diversity of healthy bacteria in your gut, while also reducing the type of bacteria that is linked to causing gastrointestinal infections and symptoms. As a rule of thumb, aim to drink 8 glasses of water daily; more if you’re working out.
Physical activity has numerous health benefits, many of which will also help improve your gut health, such as weight loss and reduced stress. Studies also suggest that it can change the gut bacteria and improve overall gut health. Aim to get a minimum of 20 minutes of exercise on most days of the week, if not all.
Eat a Balanced Diet
Diet and your gut health are very closely linked, so this is certainly an area where a lot of your attention and effort should be when trying to improve your microbiome. You want to aim to eat a clean, nutritious diet that is free of processed foods, high-fat foods or foods that are high in sugar, as these food items promote the growth of harmful bacteria.
Additionally, you want to ensure you’re eating a diverse diet and one that includes food items that contain probiotics. This will encourage the growth of healthy bacteria. A high-fiber diet will also have a positive effect on your gut health.
Here are some gut-friendly suggestions:
- Eat 20 to 40 g of fiber a day (depending on your age and gender) with foods, such as legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts
- Add in some garlic, as it can help increase gut microbiome diverse and improve your gut health as a whole
- Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics, such as kimchi, yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut
- Limit dairy products
- Enjoy coffee, tea and wine (in moderation and without sugar)
Keep a Food Diary and Eliminate Triggers
Keeping a food diary is an excellent way to keep track of your gastrointestinal symptoms that are related to food and find specific triggers that are disrupting your gut health. Simply jot down the things you eat throughout the day and how you feel after each meal. Once you notice a potential theme, you can try eliminating different food items to see if doing so improves your symptoms. If not, just go back to the drawing board and try again with another food item.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Your body needs sleep to rest and repair, and not getting the recommended 7-8 hours of quality sleep can have serious impacts on your gut health. As a result, this can cause more sleep issues, and worse GI symptoms and the vicious cycle begins.
So, start prioritizing your sleep. Spray some lavender on your pillow below bed, turn off the tech, do some deep breathing exercises, sip on some chamomile tea and truly indulge in the nighttime experience.
Reduce Your Stress Levels
Chronic stress is linked to a vast array of health issues, including those that pertain to your gut. As such, it’s imperative that you reduce your stress levels to improve your gut health. Some simple ways to do this are:
- Journal your thoughts each day
- Go for a daily stroll
- Connect with friends and loved ones
- Do something you enjoy
- Take some deep breaths
- Eliminate or limit contact with people, places or things that don’t make you happy
- Invest in your self-care
- Practice yoga
- Snuggle with your spouse or pet
- Laugh more
Take a probiotic or prebiotic
Adding a probiotic or prebiotic supplement into your diet will help boost your gut health by providing it with the elements it needs to stay healthy and balanced. However, there is a difference between the two; probiotics are live, good bacteria and prebiotics help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Both can work wonders for your gut health but many experts suggest not taking probiotics if you have a weakened immune system.
Studies found that fasting periods that last anywhere from several hours to a full day support the health of the gut microbiome. Intermittent fasting also offers a plethora of additional health benefits, such as weight loss, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, improved brain health, reduced risk of cancer, and improved heart health.
If your gut isn’t healthy, it’s affecting a variety of aspects of your health – physically, mentally, neurologically and emotionally. Making some simple lifestyle and diet changes can make a drastic improvement in your gut microbiome to help you achieve and maintain overall health and wellness.