8 Simple Strategies to Improve Your Gut Health Today
Digestive diseases and disorders are more prevalent these days. In fact, recent studies show more people have celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease now than 50 years ago. What’s more, scientists have confirmed it’s not just due to improved methods of diagnosis. So why are these digestive problems on the rise?
No clear cause has emerged, but one leading theory is the hygiene hypothesis. In the quest to eliminate bacteria from our lives (think about all of the hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial soap on the market), our immune systems may be underdeveloped. So now, when the immune system encounters a safe food—take gluten, for example—it can mistakenly attack it as a foreign invader.
The widespread fear of bad germs means our digestive tracts also house fewer healthy bacteria. One main function of these good bugs is to provide a protective barrier, preventing true invaders from leaking through the digestive tract into the body.
The Microbiome in a Healthy Gut
Together, the beneficial bacteria and fungi that live in our gut are called the microbiome. In 2008, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), which mapped out the microbiomes of healthy volunteers. Through this research, we are learning how certain gut bacteria influence mood and behavior, may improve blood pressure, and can potentially reduce childhood allergies. Some gut microbes can actually regulate weight gain, so current studies are investigating how the microbiome influences obesity.
The gut is similar to a rainforest in its diversity as well as its fragility. Despite not knowing exactly what a healthy microbiome looks like, we do know that a microbiome with more diversity is better able to cope with stressors, such as illness and disease. A major shift in an individual’s microbiome can throw off the whole ecosystem. An imbalance in the microbiome, called dysbiosis, can result in chronic inflammation in the body. Obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease have all been linked to chronic inflammation.
The Gut-Brain Connection
The intestinal tract is also home to the enteric nervous system (ENS), the operating center for the digestive system. The same neurotransmitters in the brain are also found in the intestinal tract. The ENS can work independently, or in conjunction with the brain. You may have already experienced how the brain can cause digestive upset. For example, you receive devastating news and you immediately feel nauseous or have diarrhea. Now we know the gut can in turn upset the brain. This connection is known as the gut-brain axis. So if you or someone you know is experiencing digestive issues, what can you do?
8 Simple Strategies to Improve Gut Health
- Consume food and drinks that contain beneficial bacteria. Yogurt, miso soup, fermented vegetables, including kimchi and sauerkraut, or fermented soft cheeses, such as Gouda, contain live bacteria. So do beverages such as kefir, kombucha, or acidophilus milk.
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Both fruits and veggies contain soluble and insoluble fiber, which have been shown to contribute to intestinal health.
- Try a probiotic supplement for 4 to 6 months. Probiotic supplements are not all alike. Look for brands with more than three strains. Make sure to store them as directed and consume them before the expiration date for maximum effectiveness.
- If probiotics do not improve symptoms, map out your microbiome. For less than $100, you can have your own gut bacteria analyzed through the Human Food Project or uBiome.
- Manage stress. Send positive signals from the gut to the brain through cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, yoga, biofeedback, hypnosis, prayer, and/or journaling.
- One study showed gut bacteria diversity improves with exercise. Physical activity also helps manage weight and stress, and improves sleep, all of which may help the brain.
- Talk to your doctor. You may need additional testing to rule out inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
- Schedule an appointment with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) to individualize an eating plan just for you. You may be sensitive to fermentable starches and sugars and benefit from a low FODMAP diet. Or maybe a gluten-free or low-lactose diet would be beneficial. Find a dietitian in your area through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics national database.
It may sound far-fetched, but in the near future, we may consider fecal transplants to treat many common digestive disorders. Scientists are currently studying how transplanting the gut bacteria from a healthy microbiome into a person with dysbiosis can heal many digestive conditions. We still have much to learn about the how the microbiome influences both health and disease, but the moral of the story is this: Be appreciative of those friendly bugs that call your gut home.