It’s one of those health topics you probably hear about all the time, but may seem a little vague or even abstract: “gut health.” From supplements in the grocery store to television commercials promoting probiotic-rich foods (we’ll get to those in a second!), it may seem like everyone is suddenly obsessed with helping you fix the state of your gut. But what is gut health and why is it such a big deal?
Getting to know your gut
Believe it or not, your ‘gut’ isn’t one single entity. In fact, your gut (also known as your gastrointestinal system, gastrointestinal tract, digestive system, and/or digestive tract) includes all the parts of your body that are critical to digestion, including your mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, colon, and rectum. While all these body parts play an integral part in the digestive process, when we talk about “gut health,” we’re often referring to the state of the “gut microbiome,” the trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that populate the gut. When your gut is in good shape, all these microorganisms live in harmony — some are considered “helpful” and others are pathogenic (promote disease), but in a healthy gut, all these players balance out and digestion runs smoothly.
“Gut health is the wellbeing of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which involves how we break down food, absorb nutrients, absorb water, and pass stool,” says One Medical Boston provider, Mike Richardson, MD. “Our gut microbiome is made up of several different microorganisms that live in our GI. The organisms can help, hurt, or be pretty neutral depending on how they interact with our body.”
While all these microorganisms can co-exist peacefully in a healthy gut, they can start to cause trouble, like diarrhea and abdominal pain, when something throws the system off. Gut health disturbances can have a variety of causes, such as food poisoning, antibiotic use, or a simple change in your diet. Sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint the cause, but seeking advice from a healthcare professional can help you get your gut health back on track.
How do you know if your gut health needs help?
Everyone experiences some level of digestive discomfort at one point or another, but if you’re regularly experiencing certain signs and symptoms, it might be time to take steps to nurture your gut and improve the state of your microbiome.
“Our GI tract likes to run like a well oiled machine, so if you find that your bowel movement routine is off, it may be a sign that something is askew,” Richardson says. “Several bowel movements a day, constipation, watery stool, bloating, and cramping can be signals that your gut health may need some attention.”
Some of the most common symptoms of a gut health problems include:
- Abdominal pain
- Loose stools
- Nausea or vomiting
More serious symptoms, like unexplained weight loss, fever, pain in the throat or chest when swallowing food, or blood in the stool could suggest a more serious underlying GI problem, so be sure to check in with your primary care provider right away and seek help. “If you start to notice blood in your stool, your next step should be to contact your primary care provider as blood may be indicative of a more serious health concern,” Richardson says. Even if you do not have serious symptoms, checking in with your primary care provider is not a bad idea when you are noticing changes in your gut health that are abnormal for you.
How to improve the state of your gut health
If you’re not experiencing serious symptoms, but feel like your digestive tract could use a little TLC, there are several steps you can take to improve your gut health:
1. Get a good night’s rest every night
You probably already know that sleep is a major contributor to your overall picture of wellness, but perhaps you didn’t know what a massive impact it can have on your gut.
“One of the best ways to help your gut is to get a good night's rest,” Richardson says. “Sleep deprivation can lead to significant psychological and physical stress on the body, and your upset gut may be your body's way of saying that this stress is too much.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation guidelines, adults should aim for between 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. If you’re struggling to make that happen, check out these tips for getting a more restful night, naturally.
2. Eat the right foods
The types of foods you regularly eat can make a big difference in how your gut feels and behaves. It’s important to know, however, that there’s no one-size-fits-all diet for gut health: every person is different and the type of foods that trigger gut symptoms for one person may not cause issues for another. That said, experts recommend avoiding fried foods, alcohol, and caffeine as much as possible if you are experiencing digestive trouble, as these are known to exacerbate issues like bloating, constipation, and heartburn.
“Fiber is also your friend, as it will help with the consistency of your stool and make it easier to pass,” Richardson says. “Fiber has several other benefits too, like reducing your risk of diabetes and lowering cholesterol.
3. Consider taking a probiotic
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that can be beneficial for gut health. They’re naturally found in the body, they can also be found in a variety of foods and supplements. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, probiotics may help alleviate certain gut symptoms by promoting a healthy balance of microorganisms. While there are plenty of probiotic supplements on the market, however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any specific health claims on probiotics, and the amounts of probiotics that studies have shown to be beneficial have varied depending on the strain and condition being treated.
If you’re wary of trying a supplement but are curious to see if probiotics have a positive effect on your digestion, you may want to consider integrating fermented foods into your diet, as these contain naturally occurring probiotics. Foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles are all probiotic-rich options. Be sure to look for words like “raw,” “lacto-fermented,” or “unpasteurized” on the package, and check for the phrase “live active cultures” on yogurt cartons.
4. Make exercise an everyday habit
Everyday movement is essential for overall good health, but exercise can have a specific positive influence on your digestive health. Research has shown that working out can enhance the number of good microbial species in your gut and enrich the diversity of the microorganisms in the digestive tract.
Everyone has different needs and preferences when it comes to establishing a workout routine, but some experts say that just 15 minutes of daily, dedicated movement can make a big difference in overall health. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive recommendation, stick to the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which advocate for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (think brisk walking) a week for adults and two or more sessions of muscle-strengthening moves.
5. Get your stress under control
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress can wreak havoc on a number of body parts and systems, including gut health. Stress has been shown to affect how quickly food moves through the body, can result in either diarrhea or constipation, and it can even induce muscle spasms in the bowel. Luckily, there are a long list of strategies and techniques to tame stress, including yoga, breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, and more. Here are just a few ideas to get started.
If you’re looking for more tips to promote better gut health or you feel you need more expert help to get your symptoms under control, book an appointment with your primary care provider.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.
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