Your gut is home to a teeming city of bacteria---there are millions of them! Believe it or not, these bacteria can play a significant role in how the rest of your body functions. Your gut bacteria affect your immune system, communicate with your brain about different body processes, and can even make certain diseases better or worse. So, it's in your best interest to keep these little guys happy.
There are products on the market that claim to improve the health of your gut bacteria, also called your gut microbiome. But there is no need to buy special products or spend a lot of money. Learning how to improve your gut health naturally can help you feel empowered to make food and lifestyle decisions throughout the day to make your belly bacteria happy and boost your overall wellbeing.
Does My Gut Need Help?
How do you know if your gut health is good or bad? Those bacteria do send signals, but you still have to do a bit of detective work to find out if your gut bacteria are A-okay.
Notice Health Changes
Since your gut affects so many different body systems, the symptoms of a balanced or unbalanced gut microbiome can be far-reaching. When your gut bacteria get out of balance (a condition called dysbiosis), your body reacts with a myriad of complaints. These symptoms include:
- Aggravation of arthritis, migraines, and autoimmune disorders
- Anxiety and depression
- Brain fog
- Mood changes
- Weakened immune system
Some research has found that dysbiosis can even speed along the development of disorders like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and lupus. So if you're managing one of these conditions and suddenly notice changes to your health, you may want to reach out to your healthcare provider to investigate.
Evaluate Your Poop
Ok, gut health detectives, time to look at your poop. You may have noticed over your years of life that some days your bowel movements (BMs) look different than other days.
While stool consistency changes here and there even in a healthy gut, BMs that are overly loose or hard too often can signal dysbiosis in your gut, kind of like a report card. Keep track of your BMs and let your healthcare provider know what you've noticed if you're concerned.
How to Improve Your Gut Health Naturally
Now that you understand the impact that those belly bacteria can have on your overall well-being, you may feel inspired to get that gut in good shape. The good news is that you can change your gut microbiome for the better! Simple lifestyle changes and better food choices can make a real difference.
The food and drinks you put in your body provide energy for your body to function and they feed your gut, too. In general, the more diverse your diet, the better. When you eat, your food travels through your esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine---in that order.
A lot of the food you eat never makes it to your large intestine. It gets absorbed in the stomach or small intestine. The large intestine helps to absorb more water, minerals, and additional nutrients from your food. So the more foods you eat that can make it to your large intestine, the happier and healthier your gut will be.
So how do optimize this digestion process? When choosing your menu, or perusing the aisles at your local market, take a glance at your cart and make sure you have a rainbow of colors and that your fresh food outweighs your processed foods. Fresh foods - like whole grains, fruits and vegetables - that come in an array of colors can benefit your body in different ways.
Colorful plant-based foods contain phytonutrients. These powerful antioxidants provide color to foods (like bright red raspberries or deep purple eggplant) and also help to boost your overall health and well-being.
In addition to grains, fruits, and veggies, some other foods may help you improve gut health naturally. Try to include these gut-helpers in your diet:
- Fermented foods: Foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha all feed your gut with yummy probiotics - one of your gut bacteria's favorite dishes.
- Fiber: This nutrient is another of your good bacteria's favorites. They break fiber down into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which have a ton of health-boosting effects.
- Plant-based food: Your gut bacteria don't love meat. Too much meat can create a hostile environment for them. Try to incorporate plant-based choices into each meal. Fruits and veggies for the win!
- Polyphenols: Polyphenols are mixtures of elements that are found in plants and can slow bad bacteria growth and help good bacteria grow instead. You can find polyphenols in fruits and veggies, as well as dark chocolate and red wine. (You're welcome!)
- Prebiotics: Different from probiotics which are live organisms, prebiotics describe any food product that can't be digested by our body and so are only used by your gut bacteria. You can find prebiotics in fruits, vegetables, some nuts, and whole grains.
- Whole grains: Foods like bread can be highly processed. If, however, your carbs include whole grains, that means your gut bacteria will have more to work with and can keep you healthier.
- Yogurt: Yogurts with live cultures (like Activia) are filled with probiotics.
Your gut bacteria adore exercise. Whether you look forward to working out or you make any excuse you can think of to get out of it, your gut just loves it. Researchers have discovered that people who exercise frequently not only have better kinds of gut bacteria but more gut bacteria in general. However, moderation is the key. Strangely, for elite athletes or those who exercise a lot more than average, their guts can lose a bit of their absorption power and let some nutrients escape.
A 2019 study found that marathon runners produced more of a bacteria called Veillonella which eats lactate. When you exercise, your body makes lactate which usually signals muscle fatigue. But when you have Veillonella running around in your gut, lactate serves as just more fuel.
If stress dominates your day-to-day, your gut bacteria know about it. Stress releases hormones like cortisol to tell your body to prepare for survival---that something big is happening. When your gut senses this, it allows bad bacteria to grow and holds back the good bacteria.
These bad bacteria can cause unhealthy food cravings, change your mood, and even depress your immune system. Try to find ways to decrease stress in your life to keep your gut from getting stressed out too.
Should You Improve Gut Health for Weight Loss?
Lots of supplement companies tell you that you can lose weight by managing your gut health. And in theory, they are right. Your gut releases many of the hunger hormones that decide how big your appetite is, how full you feel, and what foods you dream about.
Research on this topic is still coming out, but it looks like some people have an easier time losing weight than others based on which bacteria populate their gut. Be wary of products that tell you they can help you lose weight by fixing your gut, though. More studies are needed to prove this is true. On top of that, many products that make these claim are labelled as supplements by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Supplements are not held to the same standards for quality and effectiveness as medications.
Just ten years ago, many medical professionals rolled their eyes at the idea of gut health having any kind of impact on the body other than digestion. In the time since, study after study has shown that your gut really is connected to other important systems in your body. Keep your eyes out for news on this - much more gut health information is comin' round the bend.