What’s in the gut?
Did you know your body is home to trillions of bacteria, many of which live in your gut? But don’t get grossed out: a healthy balance between good and bad bacteria in the gut—known as equilibrium—is crucial for your overall health. When your gut bacteria become unbalanced, you may experience digestive issues.
What role does the gut play in your overall health?
Your gut plays many roles in your overall health:
- Good bacteria and immune cells in the gut protect the body from illness-causes germs like harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi.
- Your gut communicates with your brain through your nerves and hormones, which is why it’s often called the “second brain.”
- It breaks down your food into nutrients the body can use. These nutrients enter the bloodstream, where they are transported throughout the body for nourishment.
The importance of gut health
Poor gut health is or may be linked to several health issues, including:
Chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Researchers have found a connection between too much of a specific kind of bad bacteria and conditions like ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Heart and kidney disease. Scientists are studying a possible connection between gut bacteria and kidney disease, cholesterol and heart disease.
Mental health and brain health. Research shows that the balance of gut bacteria can affect emotions and how the brain processes sensory information. Additionally, scientists are studying possible links between gut health and anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder and chronic pain.
Poor gut health can increase your risk of obesity. Researchers believe this is because the gut may influence fullness and hunger cues in the brain.
Signs of poor gut health
It’s normal to experience the following digestive issues from time to time:
- Abdominal pain
- Loose stools (diarrhea)
If these symptoms are persistent, you should get checked out by your primary care provider. If you have any of the following digestive symptoms, contact your health care provider immediately for an evaluation. These could signal a more serious digestive problem:
- Blood in your stool
- Black stool (a sign of bleeding in your gut)
- Jaundice (yellowing of your skin or eyes)
- Pain in your chest or throat when swallowing
- Severe stomach pain
- Severe vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
How to improve gut health naturally
Here are some tips to naturally improve your gut health:
Consume probiotics. Probiotics are good bacteria that boost gut health. There are many types of probiotics and each impacts the body differently. You can get probiotics through food sources like yogurt, aged cheeses, kefir, pickled vegetables and fermented vegetables like kimchi or sauerkraut. You could also try a probiotics supplement, though I recommend talking with your health care provider or dietitian before trying a supplement.
Eat prebiotics. Prebiotics serve as food sources for probiotics and support the growth of good gut bacteria. You can find prebiotics in fiber-rich foods like artichokes, asparagus, bananas, garlic, onions, leeks and soybeans.
Keep a food journal. Diet is a common cause of heartburn, constipation and bloating. If you frequently experience digestive issues, keep a log of what you eat and the symptoms you experience each day. You may find a link between certain foods and your symptoms.
Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep increases your risk of obesity, which can raise your risk of digestive system issues. Too little sleep can also spike your stress levels, which impacts gut health.
Move your body. Regular exercise will help you maintain a healthy body weight (or lose weight if you need to) and reduce stress, which helps prevent digestive issues.
Manage stress. Remember the gut-brain connection? Stress management can help relieve some digestive problems. Add calming, centering activities to your life, such as spending time in nature, connecting with loved ones, meditating, practicing yoga, reading, gardening, listening to relaxing music, enjoying a favorite hobby or talking with a counselor.
Avoid unnecessary antibiotics. Antibiotics can destroy both good and bad bacteria in the gut. While you may need antibiotics to heal or prevent a bacterial infection, such as after surgery, you don’t need antibiotics to treat viral illnesses like the common cold, the flu or COVID-19. If you’re prescribed an antibiotic, ask your health care provider why and how to mitigate your risk of health issues.
If you have persistent digestive health symptoms, talk to your primary care provider. Click here to find a provider near you.