The gastrointestinal tract was once taught fairly simply. Foods are ingested, absorbed and digested for energy and nutrients, then excreted from the body.
As research has evolved, though, gut health has become quite a complex, yet astonishing topic of conversation. In fact, the digestive tract houses an intricate gut microbiome that can impact the entire body for better or for worse.
Find out the importance of gut health and how to improve gut health naturally with diet, exercise, and other lifestyle factors.
The human microbiome is composed of trillions of bacteria, archaea, viruses, and microbes that reside both in and on the body.
Housed bacteria has a tremendous impact on health, primarily by boosting the immune system and fighting against harmful, foreign invaders. But when it comes to the microbiota of the gut, it is quite diverse compared to other body sites.
If the gut bacteria become imbalanced, a number of health issues and concerns are at risk. These include, but are not limited to:
• Gastrointestinal (GI) distress, including gas, bloating, and changes in bowel patterns
• Heart disease
• Sleep disturbances
• Certain types of cancer such as colorectal cancer
• Autoimmune diseases
• Neuromuscular diseases
• Skin conditions
• Compromised mental health, as there is a link between gut health, anxiety, and depression
Taken together, microbiota is an integral component of overall health and offers beneficial interactions on the entire body.
People likely do not realize they are compromising their gut health simply from the food they eat. Common culprits for gut issues may include the following foods.
Highly Processed Foods
Highly processed foods tend to be laden in sugar, salt, saturated and trans fats. A high intake of these foods can cause inflammation in the body and promote the growth of harmful bacteria.
Limiting sweet treats, salty chips, and other fried and convenient snack foods are the groundwork for naturally restoring gut health. Reducing these foods can likewise improve overall health.
A high-intake of animal meats has been linked to heart disease and other health conditions. Research suggests the link may be related to gut microbes breaking down carnitine, a compound in red meat.
Carnitine contains a trimethylamine structure, one of the small compounds formed following meat consumption. Trimethylamine is further digested to form trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), which is linked to plaque build-up in arteries. This is known as atherosclerosis.
The gut bacteria may aid in the production of TMAO from carnitine. This could make avid animal meat consumers more prone in the development of atherosclerosis.
High FODMAP Foods
FODMAP foods are a group of sugars that are not completely digested or absorbed in the digestive tract. It is an acronym standing for:
FODMAPS are often tolerated fine in healthy individuals. However, they can cause digestive distress in those with irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive conditions.
Some high FODMAP foods include:
• Wheat products
• Onions and garlic
• Lentils, beans, and chickpeas
• Milk and other lactose products
• Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols
• Fruit juices
• Agave, honey, and several sweeteners
People following a low FODMAP diet may further benefit from an elimination diet. This process cuts out then slowly reintroduces foods that may be causing gut issues.
Common Food Aversions
People with food aversions or sensitivities are encouraged to identify and pinpoint their triggers. Doing so helps tailor dietary needs and restore gut health.
People with lactose intolerance are deficient in lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose in milk and other dairy products. Eliminating lactose is endorsed for those with lactose intolerance to reduce GI distress.
Too much alcohol can wreak havoc on the entire body, the gut included. Initial consequences of a nightly bender can lead to dehydration and digestive distress. Regular alcohol abuse can cause an imbalance of gut flora and intestinal environment.
Alcohol may also be trigger leaky gut, a condition in which tight junctions lining the intestinal wall do not work properly. While much more is still to be known about leaky gut, people may experience the following symptoms:
• Abdominal pain
• Bloating and gas
• Skin issues
• Anxiety and depression
• Joint pain
The best foods for gut health are ones that flourish and nourish healthy bacteria. Nutrients found in plants and proper hydration are helpful, too.
Prebiotics are indigestible carbohydrates and fibers obtained from plants. Prebiotics can be thought of as fertilizer in the gut, acting as a food source for probiotics described below.
The prebiotic and fiber content of asparagus, bananas, oatmeal, legumes, and other plant-based foods are beneficial for gut health.
Probiotics are live, "good" bacteria cultures that control the growth of harmful bacteria and balance the microbiome. That being said, one of the best ways to restore healthy gut flora is by including probiotics in the diet.
Exposing this good gut bacteria may alleviate symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease and reduce diarrhea. It may also prevent foodborne illnesses, allergies, and colds.
Primary types of probiotics include the strains Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Saccharomyces. They are commonly found in fermented foods such as:
• Soft cheeses
Taking probiotic supplements may be warranted if not consuming probiotics from food sources. Certain health conditions affecting the digestive tract warrant taking a probiotic, too.
Fruits & Veggies
In addition to being high-fiber foods, plants are also rich in phytochemicals. Or, simply defined as chemicals sourced from plants.
These plant compounds have anti-inflammatory properties. This is of benefit as chronic inflammation may contribute to inflammatory disorders like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
These plant compounds often function as antioxidants, too. Antioxidants defend and inhibit the process of oxidation that can produce harmful free radicals. Ultimately, antioxidants help protect from cell damage and chronic diseases.
Water plays a large role in the absorption and digestion of nutrients obtained from foods. And especially in conjunction with adequate fiber, adequate water intake helps to keep bowels regular and reduce constipation risk.
As a general reference, drink at least 64 ounces of water on a daily basis. Consuming foods with a high water content, including watermelon and cucumber, can increase both fluid and fiber intake as well.
In addition to following a healthy gut diet plan, there are lifestyle factors that can improve gut health. These include using antibiotics with caution, exercising regularly, and managing stress.
Use Antibiotics with Caution
Antibiotics treat and prevent bacterial infections by killing off harmful bacteria in the body. However, antibiotics cannot differentiate good versus bad bacteria in the body, thus killing off both.
Whereas antibiotics can be lifesaving, they can also harm and kill beneficial gut bacteria. What's more, it may take a year's time to replenish.
It is important to use antibiotics with caution and only take them as advised by your primary care provider and pharmacist.
The benefits of exercise for overall health are well-known. There is even ongoing evidence it can positively impact gut health and its integrity.
The link between physical activity and gut health was newly addressed in 2014 in a study published in Gut. The research implied a beneficial impact of exercise on gut microbiota, while more data continues to prove the relationship.
Stress can either cause digestive processes to slow down or become heightened. This can lead to constipation or bowel urgency related to the respective GI response.
Furthermore, dealing with GI issues can further increase stress and only exacerbate these digestive consequences. While some may experience the repercussions of stress more than others, managing stress can help promote a healthy gut.
Reduce aggravated symptoms with stress-reduction strategies, including practicing yoga, exercising, dancing, listening to music, and getting out in nature.
There is much left to be explored and known about gut health. But to sum it up, aim to adopt these gut-boosting tips:
• Increase probiotic-rich foods in the diet is essential for restoring gut flora.
• Complement probiotics with prebiotics cultivates healthy gut bacteria.
• Stay hydrated to keep bowels regular and reduces constipation risk.
• Reduce alcohol intake to lessen the risk of digestive distress and leaky gut syndrome.
• Identify food aversions to allow the opportunity to eliminate gastrointestinal triggers and restore gut health.
• Limit highly processed foods to reduce the risk of inflammation and inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria.
• Use antibiotics cautiously, as they can deplete the healthy bacteria in the gut.
• Exercise regularly to positively impact gut health and its integrity.
• Manage stress to deter digestive consequences of constipation or bowel urgency.
If struggling with digestive issues or other health conditions, always consult with a doctor for professional and safe guidance.