How to improve gut health
When it comes to your overall wellbeing and performing at your best, the last thing you’d probably think of is the health of your gut.
But there are many reasons why you should put your gut health first if you want top physical and mental health, better immunity and more.
Inside your body are around 40 trillion bacteria, which mostly reside in your intestines1. Collectively, they are known as your gut microbiota which is a huge part of your health.
It helps to produce different hormones and vitamins, control immunity, and even neurobehavioral traits2. The gut microbiota in your body has been compared to an entirely separate organ because of just how many human processes it’s responsible for.
In this article, we take a look at how you can improve gut health and enhance overall health. First, let’s discover the signs that show your gut health is poor.
Signs of an unhealthy gut
The foods you eat and the lifestyle you follow can all influence the health of your gut. In fact, many aspects of modern life can all harm your gut microbiota and, in turn, affect your overall wellbeing. These aspects include:
- Eating processed food
- Inadequate sleep
- Taking antibiotics
- Consuming high-sugar foods
- High stress levels
An unhealthy gut might present itself in many ways but these are the most common indications:
If you bloat or experience gas, constipation or diarrhea, your gut might be trying to tell you something. Chronic gastrointestinal discomfort is a sign of comprised gut health but it could also be a food intolerance to dairy, gluten or soy. Discover which foods make your body feel good or bad and eliminate the ones that might be causing problems.
If you’re struggling to get your 7-8 hours every night, wake up feeling unrefreshed, or find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, this could signal gut issues.
Also known as reflux, heartburn is when stomach acid travels up towards your throat and you feel a burning feeling in your chest. Frequent bouts of heartburn could signal health issues in the gut and possibly an imbalance of ‘good’ bacteria in the gut. Some foods like orange juice, chocolate and alcohol can also trigger acid reflux so be sure to take note of what you’re eating too.
We know the gut plays a part in bolstering immunity, so if you’re constantly catching colds or the flu your immune response could be poor. This could be a sign of an unhealthy gut.
Research has shown that people who had lower levels of gut bacteria (triggered by antibiotics), had a lower immune response to a flu vaccine compared to those who had normal gut bacteria3.
If you experience any of these, you might want to try reinforcing your gut health. Here are 8 ways to do just that.
How to improve gut health
- Diversify your diet
Because there are so many different species of bacteria in your intestine, they all require different nutrients for growth. Diet is one of the main influences on our gut health, because our microbes depend on what we feed them.
Having a varied diet can lead to a diverse microbiome and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria – a sign of good gut health. Generally, the more diverse bacteria you have, the more benefits they may be able to contribute to4.
Foods like beans, legumes and fruit can all contribute to better gut health because of their fiber content. Foods that contain the fiber prebiotics can enhance gut health as this fiber feeds the beneficial bacteria in your intestine5. Prebiotics are primarily complex carbs used by the bacteria in your gut as fuel. Prebiotic-rich foods include asparagus, oats and bananas6.
Research has found that consuming a fruit and vegetable-rich diet can also inhibit the growth of disease-causing bacteria7.
- Try eating fermented foods
Fermented foods are defined as ‘foods or beverages produced through controlled microbial growth’8. They are rich in lactobacilli, a bacteria that works to reduce the number of disease-causing bacteria species in your gut9.
Fermented foods that contain a wide variety of bacteria are more likely to offer better health benefits. If you’re not sure, check the label of the food and look for statements like ‘live bacteria’, ‘fermented’ or ‘probiotics.’
Try adding foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, miso and kefir to boost your friendly bacteria and enhance its function in your gut.
- Boost hydration
Loading up on water throughout the day is beneficial in many ways. We all know being hydrated is crucial for maximum performance and feeling well.
For gut health, it’s critical for benefitting the mucosal lining of the intestines, helping your digestive system work effectively. Water helps your body break down food, preventing bloating and constipation.
A common misconception about drinking water during or after meals is that it can interfere with digestion and ‘dilute the digestive juices’ however this is false.
- Eat less sugar and artificial sweeteners
Overeating sugary or artificially sweetened foods is known to cause gut dysbiosis, which is an imbalance of gut microbes10.
Studies on humans also show that people who consume artificial sweeteners have different profiles of bacteria in their digestive tracts but it’s not clear if or how artificial sweeteners may cause these variations17 18.
More human studies are needed to determine its effect in people but it’s not a bad call to reduce your sugar intake.
- Limit stress
We all experience stress from time to time but too much of it can seriously impact your health – including wreaking havoc on your digestion19. There are several different ways stress can affect your gut health, depending on the period of time you’re experiencing pressure.
Short-term stress can affect your appetite and eventually slow down your digestion. Whereas long-term or chronic stress can trigger gastrointestinal issues and lead to serious conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.
The gut-brain connection is very real. There’s a reason the phrase ‘gut-wrenching’ exists!
- Exercise more
Studies have demonstrated that your gut bacteria changes after exercise. Just six weeks of exercise can improve diversity in your gut and your overall digestive health20, however stopping exercise causes reversion, showing that it needs to be done regularly to get the full benefit.
You should aim to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week, with strength training done on at least two of these days21. Check out our guide to the best compound exercises to see which strength moves you should be adding to your workout routine.
- Eat polyphenol-rich foods
More research is determining the positive effect of dietary polyphenols on gut health22.
Found in plant compounds and a type of antioxidant, polyphenols have numerous health benefits including reducing inflammation, boosting immunity and lowering blood pressure23.
Polyphenols almost act as prebiotics in the gut, feeding the healthy bacteria and encouraging more growth of the bacteria you do want in your gut24. Good sources of polyphenols include dark chocolate, red wine, almonds and blueberries.
Polyphenols can also increase the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are the main source of energy for your colon and are crucial for the proper metabolism of nutrients like fat and carbs25.
Research has also shown short-chain fatty acids play a role in regulating fat metabolism by increasing fat burning and decreasing fat storage26.
- Try probiotic supplements
Probiotics are the good bacteria in your gut, which work to maintain digestive health and support your immune system27.
If you can’t get enough probiotics from your food or you feel like your gut health needs an extra boost, you could try a probiotic supplement. In the gut, probiotic fibers can help balance your gut, ensuring it’s running smoothly and it’s at its healthiest28.
While research is still ongoing, probiotics may also benefit your weight loss efforts29. One study, which involved over 200 people with obesity, looked at how taking a probiotic can help with decreasing belly fat. The participants took Lactobacillus gasseri daily and lost an average of approximately 8.5 % of their belly fat over 12 weeks30.
The bottom line
Maintaining top gut health is very important when it comes to performing at your best. A healthy gut brings benefits to your immune system, heart health, brain health, weight and of course digestion – it may even help prevent some autoimmune diseases.
But beating poor gut health is not as simple as eating more vegetables – there are many factors you need to consider if you want optimal digestion and total-body wellbeing. Everything from exercising regularly to drinking more water could be the answer to your poor gut health.
If you feel like your gut health could do with a boost, try a few of these methods to bring it back to its best.