Your Guide to Gut Health
Gut health has been a topic of conversation in the healthcare field for many years, recently gaining even more momentum as new studies emerge and build public awareness around the importance of digestive health. In addition to helping you absorb nutrients from food, the digestive system serves as a key indicator of your overall health, affecting everything from mental clarity to heart function. If you’re looking for practical ways to boost your immune system, beat the brain fog and improve your overall well-being, we’ve got you covered with 5 easy ways to improve your gut health. But first, let’s learn a bit more about why gut health is important.
Understanding Your Microbiome
You’ll often hear experts refer to your microbiota and microbiome, but what do those terms really mean? To put it simply, microbiota, also called gut flora, refers to the community of microorganisms within the gastrointestinal tract. Microbiome, on the other hand, refers to the genetic makeup of these microorganisms and the diversity of good bacteria, fungi and even viruses that give you a good gut feeling.
A diverse community of gut flora creates a microbiome that aids in digestive function, nutrient absorption and the prevention of illness. When you take a broadspectrum antibiotic, for example, your microbiome changes as good bacteria are wiped out along with the bad, creating an imbalance. While antibiotics are a crucial tool in medicine, knowing how they may affect your microbiome is just 1 example of how you can improve your gut health game.
Gut Feelings: Understanding the Gut-brain Axis
Ever get the feeling of butterflies in your tummy when you’re excited, or a sinking feeling when you get bad news? There’s a scientific explanation for this gut instinct, and it’s often referred to as the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis uses neurotransmitters to communicate with your nervous system, producing serotonin and dopamine. Because of this communication system, you might experience poor gut health as brain fog, anxiety and trouble with mood regulation, while gut-healthy habits can lead to feeling safe, happy and well. This explains why the sympathetic nervous system response and parasympathetic nervous system response are often described as fight-or-flight versus rest-and-digest, respectively.
Your Gut Barrier and Immune System
The majority of your body’s immune system is centralized to the gut. Its large surface area, resilient barrier and diverse microbiome help keep harmful viruses and bacteria at bay while regulating inflammatory responses. It’s one of the reasons maintaining your gut health is so important to maintaining your overall well-being. When we encounter bacteria and viruses in our daily lives, a healthy gut can help stop them in their tracks.
Maintaining the integrity of the intestinal barrier is crucial for preventing inflammation and feeling your best. There are many things you can do to promote a healthy gut barrier, from staying hydrated to enjoying plenty of fiber-rich foods.
5 Simple Steps to Improving Your Gut Health
So, how does one take care of the gut? While there’s a lot you can do to keep your digestive system happy, these 5 gut-healthy habits are key:
1. Eat More Fiber
Fiber is the portion of plant-derived foods that can’t be fully broken down by your body, but rather acts as a prebiotic to support the growth of good bacteria in the gut. Balancing your refined carbohydrate intake with fiber helps to slow down digestion, keeping opportunistic flora in check, stabilizing blood sugar levels and helping you feel fuller for longer. As a result, fiber plays an important role in weight management and lowers your risk of developing chronic conditions, like bowel diseases, heart disease and diabetes. You can add fiber into your diet by incorporating whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes.
2. Incorporate Probiotic and Fermented Foods
You can support a healthy microbiome by eating foods that contain probiotics. Gut-healthy probiotic foods include yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha and tempeh. When you're trying to identify a probiotic food, look for names like “L. Bulgaricus” (Lactobacillus bulgaricus) on the label. These strains mean the food likely contains live and active cultures. You can also add a probiotic supplement. Meet with a registered dietitian to discuss which supplements may be right for you.
3. Eat a Variety of Foods
Recent research has shown that the variety of probiotic bacteria in your gut may be more important than quantity, and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends aiming for a variety of different foods to get the fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants you need.
4. Get Moving
Movement improves blood flow throughout the body, including the digestive system. This increased blood flow supports a process called peristalsis, which is the way the body moves food through the digestive tract. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of physical activity along with 2 days of strength training per week. Make sure you talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen.
5. Manage Stress
It’s common to experience heartburn or lower intestinal disruptions during stressful events. Understanding the gut-brain axis puts the power of stress into perspective. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system., and constant stress can keep your body in a state of fight-or-flight instead of rest-and-digest.
Reduce stress around meals by taking deep breaths before the first bite, removing distractions like your phone and stepping away from your desk for lunch. You can also use our recipe library and meal planning tips to keep mealtime from adding more stress to your daily life. For more information on how to improve your gut health, schedule a Telenutrition appointment with our registered dietitians.
Disclaimer: This information is educational only and is not meant to provide healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.