It’s pretty well known that the gastrointestinal tract is important to the body. After all, it not only digests food, it also converts it into the energy and nutrients our body needs to function. Up to 80% of our immune system lives in the gut, which is important to maintain optimal health and righting illness or disease. In recent years, scientists have discovered that our gut may play an even more important role in overall health than initially thought. Our gut is home to 300 to 500 different species of bacteria that have connections to everything from digestive health to mental health, autoimmune diseases, skin conditions, and even cancer.
Signs of an Unhealthy Gut
There are several signs that you may have an unhealthy gut. These include:
- Upset stomach - Things like gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn can all be signs that you have an unhealthy gut.
- High-sugar diet - Processed foods and added sugars can decrease the number of good bacteria in your system, which can lead to inflammation.
- Unexpected weight changes - Changes to your weight without changing your diet can mean that your gut has trouble absorbing nutrients, storing fat, regulating blood sugar, or you may be at risk for a small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
- Issues with sleep or fatigue - An unhealthy gut can lead to insomnia, which can lead to fatigue from being unable to sleep.
- Skin irritation - Inflammation from poor diet or food allergies can “leak” out onto the skin, which can cause skin conditions such as eczema.
- Autoimmune conditions - An unhealthy gut can lead to inflammation and alter proper functioning of the immune system.
- Food intolerances - Poor quality bacteria in the gut can lead to difficulty digesting certain foods and setting off symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and nausea.
What Can You Do to Improve Gut Health?
Improving and maintaining good gut health may require some lifestyle changes, especially if you’re not in the best of gut health to start with. For instance, studies have shown that if you prioritize getting 7-8 hours of sleep at night, it can have a positive impact on your gut health.
Other ways to improve your gut health revolve around making sure you have a well-balanced diet. Staying hydrated and changing your diet are a beginning, and it is important to check for any food intolerances you may have. Consuming pre- and pro-biotic rich foods and supplementing with a prebiotic or probiotic, will promote the growth of healthy bacteria throughout the gastrointestinal tract.
The Brain-Gut Connection
While we know gut health affects your mental health, the opposite is also true. If you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach when you were nervous or just had a “gut feeling” about something, this is your enteric nervous system so your brain can talk to your gut. The enteric nervous system, or ENS, comprises two thin layers of over 100 million nerve cells that line the entire gastrointestinal tract.
Things like anxiety and depression can trigger issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, pain, and upset stomach. While is not recent information, we newly found out that that it may work the other way around too. Studies from the John Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology “are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes.”
One way to improve your gut health with the power of your brain is to lower your stress levels. Chronic high stress levels can have a drastic effect on your entire body, including your gut. In order to decrease stress, there are a few things you can try. Mindful meditation decreases inflammation in the stomach. Practicing yoga can not only de-stress you but ease gastrointestinal symptoms too. Quitting smoking will not only reduce heart disease and respiratory issues, it is also good for your gut. Taking pre-biotics and pro-biotics, which add healthy bacteria to your gut, improve normal gut function.
Foods That Are Good for Your Gut
A good diet is a key component in keeping your gut healthy. These foods will help keep the bacteria in your stomach healthy and working properly.
- Grass-Fed Yogurt - Yogurt contains several probiotics, or healthy bacteria, that are great for your gut. Be aware that they can have a high sugar content; always opt for a low-fat, plain yogurt.
- Grass-Fed Kefir - This is a probiotic yogurt drink made from fermented milk packed with good bacteria.
- Organic Miso - Made from fermented soybeans, barley and rice, these foods contain helpful bacteria and enzymes.
- Sauerkraut - This fermented chopped cabbage is a significant source for probiotics, fiber, and vitamins.
- Kimchi - Like Sauerkraut, this is a substantial source of probiotics, fiber, and vitamins.
- Organic Sourdough - More digestible than regular bread, sourdough allows the gut to release its energy more slowly.
- Almonds - They have great probiotic properties including high in fiber, fatty acids and polyphenols.
- Olive Oil - Like almonds, olive oil has fatty acids and polyphenols. Studies have shown that it can help decrease inflammation.
- Kombucha - Not only are liquids known to be good for your gut health, but this drink is also full of probiotics.
- Organic Vegetables and fruits - These are powerful sources of fiber which the bacteria in your gut enjoy.
- Roquefort Cheese - When eaten in moderation, it is a good source of probiotics.
- Garlic - This has antibacterial and antifungal properties that can help keep bad bacteria under control.
- Ginger - It triggers the stomach to produce acid and encourages food to move through your gut.
Your gut health plays an important role in how the rest of your body operates. It affects everything from how your stomach digests and processes proteins to your mental health. Changing your diet and lifestyle can improve your gut health and effectively allow the bacteria in your GI tract to take care of the rest of your body.