There’s no doubt that you’ve been hearing all about gut health in recent years. What people used to think of as just a normal part of digestion has recently evolved into much more than that. If you’re wondering what exactly your gut does, why it is such an important part of your overall health, and what you can do to improve it, keep reading to discover all of this and more!
What Makes up “Gut Health”?
Gut health refers to the overall balance of microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts. This is also known as the microbiome, which is made up of both beneficial and harmful forms of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms. In a healthy gut, this balance is favorable and does not cause harm to the body. However, it is, unfortunately, becoming more and more common for the balance of bacteria to become altered, with more harmful bacteria taking over and causing a variety of negative health effects.
The tricky thing about gut health is that it can be easily ignored or have certain symptoms be accepted as “normal”. To help you identify whether your gut is in balance or not, here are
5 signs and symptoms to look for that may indicate that your gut health is out of balance:
- Your bowel movements aren’t regular. Infrequent bowel movements are easy to brush off as “normal” for you, but passing a stool every day is super important to make sure your body is eliminating toxins and keeping things moving. In addition, it’s important that they are “normal” stools and are adequate enough to be eliminating proper waste. You can refer to the Bristol stool chart to determine what most of your bowel movements look like and discover if they are ideal or not.
- Digestive distress, such as the frequent upset stomach, heartburn, gas, and bloating, which all indicate that the gut is having difficulty digesting food and eliminating waste.
- Skin issues, such as eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, and acne. These can all be linked back to the gut (though they can also be caused by other things, so a thorough health evaluation is warranted).
- Food intolerances or sensitivities. These can also be signs of dysbiosis or imbalanced gut bacteria.
- Weakened immunity and/or autoimmune disorders. Our gut bacteria plays a huge role in the strength of our immune system, and research has shown that an unhealthy gut can lead to a weakened immune system and even the development of autoimmune conditions such as IBS, psoriasis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and multiple sclerosis.
How does the Gut Impact the Whole Body?
While the most well known function of the gut is to digest food, absorb nutrients, and eliminate waste, gut health has been linked to playing a role in much more than just digestion. This has to do with the fact that the bacteria that reside in the digestive tract is involved in many bodily processes. When this bacteria and overall microbiome becomes imbalanced, a condition known as “leaky gut” or increased intestinal permeability can occur. This is when the gut lining becomes loose and unwanted particles like toxins, undigested food, and harmful bacteria can leak through and cause inflammation and a variety of other problems.
Other conditions that are linked to the gut include:
- Weight, and likelihood of developing obesity
- Heart health, including the development of chronic heart failure (CHF) and coronary artery disease)
- Blood sugar balance and the development of Diabetes
- Brain health, including conditions like Autism and Alzheimers disease
- The immune system, which involves the chances of becoming sick with both short term illnesses as well as chronic conditions like autoimmune disease
- Cancer risk
- Psychiatric disorders such as depression
- Liver & kidney disease, including the development of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis and chronic kidney disease
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What Leads to an Unhealthy Gut?
You may be wondering how the gut becomes imbalanced in the first place which leads to all of these conditions. There are many contributing factors, such as:
- High sugar diet. Added sugars decrease the amount of good bacteria in the gut and contributes to inflammation in the gut and whole body.
- Lack of pre and probiotics in the diet. Probiotics are a type of live, beneficial bacteria that are found in many fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha which help balance out the proportion of healthy and harmful bacteria in the microbiome. Prebiotics are a type of indigestible carbohydrates, also known as dietary fiber, which serves as fuel to allow probiotics to do their job properly. Food examples of prebiotics include garlic, apples, asparagus, and unripe bananas. Both can also be taken in supplement form.
- Repeated exposure to toxins, which can include pollution as well as chemicals both in our normal household items as well as our food supply and more.
- Overuse of antibiotics. Antibiotics help in killing harmful bacteria, but they can unfortunately lead to a depletion of good bacteria as well. Unfortunately, the use of antibiotics is on the rise and are often used for conditions that don’t necessarily warrant their use.
- Stress, both physical and mental, which can alter the balance of gut bacteria.
How to Improve your Gut Health
If you feel that your gut health may need a boost, here are 6 basic steps you can take to improve your gut health today*:
- Eat a diet rich in fiber and probiotics. Focus on whole foods first, with supplements being secondary. Foods rich in fiber include beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, & veggies and foods rich in probiotics include yogurts, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, tempeh, and kombucha. Try to eat a variety of these foods as often as possible.
- Reduce or eliminate processed foods, artificial sweeteners, and foods high in sugar. These can contribute to inflammation of the gut and interfere with digestion. They really have no role in a healthy gut.
- Manage your stress. Stress can cause a wide variety of conditions, and poor gut health is definitely one of them. Managing stress can be much easier said than done, but be thinking about what you can do to give yourself more self-care and boundaries so that your needs are taken care of.
- Prioritize getting enough sleep. Adults need between 7-9 hours/night, even if you think you can operate on less. Sleep is when the body, including the gut, restores itself.
- Eat slower. Chew food thoroughly and aim to take at least 20 mins for larger meals, ideally without distractions when eating. This helps promote better digestion and absorption of nutrients.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Hydrating supports proper digestion and elimination. Aim to drink at least half your body weight in ounces per day (ie: 150 lb person would need 75oz, or about 9 cups of fluid per day) to help keep things moving through your digestive tract.
*Please note that these are general guidelines. If you have been diagnosed with or suspect you have a more serious gut-related condition, please reach out to a trusted healthcare provider for more personalized and detailed support.
The gut is part of a much larger, interconnected system in the body that plays an important role in many aspects of health. By first evaluating where your body is at when it comes to gut health and then taking action to implement new or different positive gut-health habits, you can help make sure your gut is in ideal condition to begin experiencing health benefits asap!