What does it mean to have good gut health? For many of us, eating food is simply something that we do to feed our hunger and fuel our bodies. Some believe that if nothing is wrong with digestion or elimination, it’s reasonable to think that gut health is in tip-top shape. Unfortunately, this assumption is not necessarily true.
It’s practically impossible to maintain a healthy gut when sugar (in all its many forms), refined carbohydrates, and bad fats are found in most of the foods we eat. Processed foods are everywhere, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to eat “real” food (i.e. food that your grandmother would have recognized, or ingredients that she could have readily pronounced).
So, how do you know if your gut is in good shape, and how do you maintain a healthy one? While the thought of making changes to your current lifestyle may sound daunting, maintaining gut health is actually pretty straightforward. First, we’ll review some basics of digestion, and then we’ll jump into the pivotal role the gut microbiome plays with digestive health. Lastly, I’ll discuss simple and practical tips to support gut health.
When you eat food, it is first mechanically broken down by mastication (chewing), and then further broken down by enzymes (saliva, gastric, pancreatic). This two-step process breaks down the food into a substance that allows your small intestine to more efficiently extract and absorb nutrients. Part of the food that is not utilized is further broken down by bacteria and other microorganisms in your large intestine and then eliminated as stool.
This process occurs, for many of us, 2-3 times per day, and is something we don’t have to consciously think about. There may be an issue with digestion/elimination if you were to develop any of the following gastrointestinal symptoms:
- Mouth sores, geographic tongue
- Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
- Stomach pain
- Intestinal pain
- Abdominal bloating
- Diarrhea/loose stools
- Constipation (hard or infrequent stools)
- Blood in stool
If any of the above symptoms are present, then it’s safe to say that there is room for improvement. There is a varying degree of causes that may lead to these symptoms. Some of these causes are benign and can be taken care of immediately, while others are more severe and may a longer to correct. Some possible causes for why you may be experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms include the following:
- Food allergies or sensitivities
- Standard American diet
- Gastroenteritis (food poisoning)
- Medication use (antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors, steroids)
- Chronic stress
- Dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut flora)
- Parasitic infection
- Exposure to environmental toxins (heavy metals, glyphosate, pesticides)
- Gas production
- Malignancy (cancer)
- IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or IBD (irritable bowel disease)
- Celiac disease
Believe it or not, these are not all the possible symptoms you could be feeling, but they are some of the most common. If you have one or some of the conditions above, you’ll want to work with a functional/integrative medicine or naturopathic practitioner to help identify and treat the underlying cause or causes of your gut issues. Later, I will explain how to support a healthy gut, even if you are asymptomatic, with simple diet and lifestyle changes. But first, I’ll talk about the gut microbiome and how it plays a major role in your gut and overall health.
The Gut Microbiome
All along your digestive tract, starting in your mouth and ending at your anus, is a community of living microorganisms called microflora. There are literally trillions of bacteria that are found, predominately in the large intestine, that are responsible for many functions in the body. There are also yeasts, viruses, and protozoa that live in the gut, and all these microorganisms contribute in some way to digestive health. All these organisms are synergistically working in concert together, allowing your digestive tract to function optimally. Ideally, we want greater diversity among the microflora, just as a rain forest is rich and diverse with thousands of plants, animals, insects, tress, etc. Balance is also important for the microbiome.
The bacteria in the gut are responsible for the following:
- Assisting in breaking down foods to make nutrients readily available
- Helping to maintain the integrity of the mucosal layer
- Producing of vitamins like B12, Folate, and Vitamin K2
- Helping to support a healthy immune system
- Regulating the bidirectional information flow between the brain and the gut (This “Gut-Brain Axis” is very important and one of the reasons we have “gut instincts” or experience “butterflies in the stomach.”)
As you can see, these bacteria are vital not only for the health of the gut but also systemically in the body. That’s why it’s really important to make sure the “good” bugs are happy and thriving.
Maintaining a healthy microbiome is key to sound gut health, and this begins by avoiding medications that destroy the bacteria and other organisms. For example, the following medications can alter the flora of the gut microbiome:
- Birth control pills
- Acid blocking drugs (proton pump inhibitors, H2 blockers)
In general, it is thought that 25% of all medications have a deleterious effect on the gut microbiome. Additionally, there are chemicals in the environment, like pesticides, that can decrease the diversity of the gut microbiome and lead to a condition like dysbiosis (e.g. imbalance in the gut microbiome). Chronic stress has also been shown to adversely affect the bacteria and other organisms living in the gut.
6 Ways to Maintain a Healthy Gut
Below are my top 6 recommendations for improving and maintaining gut health. If you follow these tips daily, then you may notice an improvement in symptoms. If you don’t suffer from any digestive complaints, following these 6 tips will ensure that you’re supporting the gut microbiome, which ultimately lays the foundation for good gut health.
1. Eat organic foods as much as possible.
Pesticides, like Glyphosate, can disrupt the balance in the gut microbiome. Studies show when you switch from eating conventional fruits and vegetables to eating organic fruits and vegetables, that organophosphate pesticide levels quickly drop in the body. Or, at the very least, make sure you avoid the “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables, which are the most heavily sprayed, and buy organic varieties of these foods instead.
2. Say no to processed foods and drinks.
Folks, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of avoiding sugary processed foods and drinks, as these foods are terrible for the gut microbiome and contribute to inflammation. Instead, choose whole foods and cook at home whenever possible. Whole foods, like an apple, or a turnip, or celery, are high in antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients that support the gut microbiome. Reach for a pear instead of a bag of chips.
3. Eat fermented foods as often as you can.
Fermented foods contain live organisms (bacteria and yeasts) that help support the growth and diversity of the gut microbiome. Examples of some fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, beet kvass, pickled vegetables, kombucha, yogurt, and kefir. It’s best to learn how to make these foods at home as some store versions are pasteurized, which destroys the health-promoting bacteria and yeasts. I try to eat fermented foods at least once a day.
4. Take probiotics every day.
Probiotics are living organisms that help maintain and restore a healthy microbiome. You may have seen lactobacillus listed on the back of a yogurt bottle, and this is a classic example of a bacteria that is either naturally occurring or added into yogurt. Study after study has shown that probiotics improve digestion by decreasing abdominal pain and bloating while improving diarrhea and constipation. Some probiotics can even improve your mood, as they can have far-reaching impacts on the body.
5. RELAX and DE-STRESS as much as you can.
Chronic stress has been shown to negatively impact the gut microbiome partly due to the existence of the gut-brain axis. Some examples of calming activities include meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or whatever feels relaxing to you. Personally, I go for a walk in nature to help calm my nervous system. I also meditate every morning for 10 minutes. You may be surprised to learn how much chronic stress is negatively impacting your gut.
6. Get exercise.
Exercise has been shown to improve the diversity of the gut microbiome. This makes sense as blood flow is increased to the internal organs with physical activity. Exercise is also a great way to reduce stress, so I recommend any movement that you really enjoy even if it’s a daily walk in your neighborhood.
So, as you can see, the journey to better gut health isn’t very complicated or intimidating. Hopefully, this guide will help you get started, and soon you will see how just a few easy changes to your routine can significantly affect your health and your life.