The gut plays an important, though often overlooked, role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. There’s a direct connection between your gut microbiome and management of digestive diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Furthermore, research indicates that poor gut health can exacerbate depression and anxiety. In short: Actively working toward improving your gut health can potentially help with your overall physical and mental well being.
May 29 marks World Digestive Health Day, and this year’s focus is the gut microbiome. To help build awareness about the gut’s all-important functions, we put together advice on how to improve your gut health.
What is your gut microbiome?
Your body plays host to trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, to name a few. While the thought of these things living inside you may cause you to momentarily cringe, the truth is your body couldn’t function without its microbiome.
The gut is no different: Millions of microbes live in your intestines—largely concentrated in the large intestine—and affect everything from digestion to your mental well-being.
A healthy gut microbiome boasts myriad benefits, including:
- Aiding in digestion
- Contributing to a healthy metabolism
- Helping produce vitamins (like K and B) that help immune function
Preliminary studies have also shown a possible connection between a healthy gut and heart health. That’s why the gut microbiome is considered by many experts to be an extra organ of sorts, an essential part of a healthy body.
In turn, an unbalanced gut can contribute to significant health problems: According to a study produced by researchers from the University of Parma in northern Italy, an altered microbiome “may be associated with the development and clinical course of several gastrointestinal diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease” and others, including some cancers.
Additionally, poor gut health can exacerbate obesity, anxiety, depression, inflammation, and type 2 diabetes.
How can you tell if your gut is healthy?
Everyone’s gut is different and can be affected by diet, age, environmental factors, overreliance on certain medications (such as antibiotics), and, according to many medical experts, genetics.
Here are some signs of bad gut health:
- Digestive discomfort, e.g. upset stomach, bloating, loose stool, loss of appetite
- Autoimmune or digestive diseases, e.g. Crohn’s disease
- Unexplained weight fluctuations
- Depression and anxiety (which is present in more than 50 percent of patients with irritable bowel syndrome)
How you can improve your gut health
Before making any major changes, you should talk to a gastroenterologist about your symptoms and concerns. They’ll help determine the most suitable approach to fixing your gut health. That said, there are strategies you can employ to improve your microbiome.
One of the most effective ways you can improve your gut health is by changing your diet.
Significantly reduce sugar, meat, and processed foods in your diet, and add in the following:
- Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, or tempeh
- Yogurt or kefir
- High fiber foods such as chia seeds, lentils, broccoli, and avocado
- Prebiotic-rich foods such as bananas, spinach, almonds, oats, and asparagus
If you’ve been diagnosed with IBD and are on a low FODMAP (fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols) diet, you may need to avoid fermented foods, so talk to your doctor about low FODMAP-friendly options that will promote good gut health.
If you’re on a gut health diet and you still feel imbalanced, you may need to take probiotics to promote the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut.
It’s important to talk to your doctor about what your specific supplementary needs are; not every pre- or probiotic will be suitable for you.