Gut health refers to a healthy balance of the microorganisms living in your digestive tract. They exist in large colonies of billions and billions of bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. All of them must work together to support your body functions, promoting a healthy digestion and nutrient absorption, preventing inflammation and disease development, as well as influencing all other daily operations of your body. This is achieved through a healthy balance between your good and bad bacteria that are completely unique to you and your DNA, also called your gut microbiome. [This article, “8 Tips to Improve and Maintain Your Gut Health” was originally published in NewsHealthWatch]
The Gut Microbiome
The overall collection of all microbes in your gut is known as your gut microbiome. It’s completely unique from individual to individual as it depends on myriad factors, stemming from the day of your birth and being influenced by every aspect of your life. From the food you eat and the climate you live in, to the environmental factors and whether you have a pet.
The human microbiome has been a topic of research for quite some time now, with the groundbreaking Human Microbiome Project starting in 2007. It was a somewhat natural follow-up to the Human Genome Project from the 1990s that had the goal of sequencing and mapping all the genes in the human body. Even before its completion in 2003, it became painfully obvious that with only 20 000 protein-coding genes in the human body, there’s plenty more that need to be taken account to decode all complex processes and daily operations.
These other genes had to be explored by analyzing the gut and figuring out what kind of influence they have on the human body and whether they can impair or improve all of the body functions. That’s when the Human Microbiome Project started, with the goal of not only discovering all the different microbes and their genes in the human body, but also their role in gut health and longevity, as well as how they can be regulated, managed, and supported to prevent disease and improve life quality.
Gut to Brain Connection
The gut-brain axis has quickly become an important area of research as the powerful connection between the two couldn’t have been neglected. The signaling between the brain neurons and microbes in your gut seems to be bidirectional, with one influencing the other just as much from both ends. There are multiple studies that showcase how your gut health directly influences your mood as well as how your neurons can have a strong influence on the health of your gut microbiome.
Knowing more about this connection could potentially make us realize how improving and maintaining good gut health needs to come to the top of the list of our health priorities, focusing on implementing healthy habits and routines that can support our gut health and with it, the health of our brain and nervous system.
Gut Health and the Immune System
Another important are of the human body that’s directly connected to the state of your gut health is your immune system. In fact, a large part of your immune system is actually found in your gut as certain cells of your gut lining produce and excrete antibodies directly in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Through those same channels, harmful bacteria can have a negative effect on your immune system and cause inflammation that turns against the body and causes cancer and other disease-causing alterations.
And since no one specific species has been connected to the development of cancer or other diseases, experts can agree how complex the human microbiome actually is, and how difficult is to decode its incredibly powerful influence on the health and wellbeing of your entire body.
The Causes of Poor Gut Health
Your gut health can be observed from two different areas: how to support and improve its function and how to impair it. Some very important causes of poor gut health can be directly influenced by changes in your lifestyle and it’s therefore important to know their role and how it can be reversed.
When your gut is unhealthy, it refers to an imbalance in your microbiota, with the harmful bacteria and other microorganisms overpowering the good. Each and every species in your body plays a different role in your gut health and requires different nutrients to grow and thrive, so when these nutrients and environmental factors aren’t there, they die and create space for the harmful microbes to grow and overpopulate your GI tract.
The most common causes of poor gut health include a diet that’s overprocessed and lacking in a variety of nutrients, not enough dietary fiber or prebiotics whose role is to feed the beneficial gut microbes, the use of alcohol, cigarettes, and other inflammatory agents, the use of antibiotics, lack of physical exercise, sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality, and the so-called silent killer, stress.
Even though there are some other factors that can have a strong impact on your gut health that aren’t actually in your control, such as environmental factors, it’s important to focus on the ones you can change and help support the balance of your gut microbiome through your daily actions. Here are eight tips to improve and maintain gut health.
Clean Your Diet
Even though it might seem like an obvious tip for improving your gut health, cleaning up your diet from overprocessed foods, trans fats, and sugar-filled ingredients is still the number one thing you can do for your health. Overconsumption of sugars and fast foods has been linked to an increase in inflammation and disease development in every possible study, with experts constantly alerting about their dangers and harmful effects on your overall health.
Not only are they harmful to your digestive tract and its function, but they are constantly linked to cancer development, heart disease, cognitive decline, and even infertility. The Western diet and lifestyle have contributed to the growing rate of life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, colon cancer, and overall obesity.
In addition to limiting your use of these harmful foods, it’s also important to add more nutrient-rich and nutrient-diverse foods into your diet. These include different types of whole foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and complex carbohydrates which can all be minimally processed or eaten raw to keep their optimal levels of vitamins, minerals, and other powerful plant compounds.
Some of these powerful foods are even considered superfoods, containing incredibly high levels of health-promoting compounds such as antioxidants whose role is to fight free radicals and their oxidative damage which has been linked to increase inflammation and a variety of diseases.
Eat Fermented Foods
There are plenty of studies that showcase how fermented foods add to your microbial diversity and help improve and maintain good gut health. Foods such as kombucha, kefir, yogurt, natto, kimchi, and other fermented vegetables increase the number of beneficial microbes in your gut, lowering the overall inflammation and helping remodel your microbiome to achieve optimal balance.
Different fermented foods boost the numbers of different microbes, so it’s important to diversify your intake of these powerful ingredients and pair them up with your meals on a weekly, if not daily basis.
Include More Fiber-Rich Foods into Your Diet
Dietary fiber is one of the most important macronutrients for optimal gut health due to its prebiotic characteristic. Prebiotics are foods that feed the beneficial microbes in your gut, helping them grow and balance out their harmful relatives.
Fiber is a non-digestible product of carbohydrates with a role of pushing the food down your GI tract and promoting smoother digestion, better nutrient absorption, and the growth of beneficial bacteria. Foods that contain high levels of fiber include bananas, sweet potatoes, complex carbohydrates, Jerusalem artichokes, pears, lentils, beans, and chickpeas.
Learn About Supplements
Smart supplementation is key to optimal gut health as unfortunately, it’s impossible to get all the necessary nutrients our bodies need to thrive from food alone. Although there are some small areas around the world that can still grow and produce foods that are rich in nutrients, most of the world’s agricultural soil is becoming depleted of vitamins, minerals, and important proteins our bodies need to absorb and use.
Dietary supplements have thus become incredibly important in supporting gut health as well as the health of all other functions of the human body. Companies like Hello.Health use the latest research to formulate their vitamin and mineral products to best support your body, focusing on improving specific functions, from immune health and cardiovascular support to aiding your digestion and promoting reproductive health.
Checking your levels of vitamins and minerals can help you discover if you’re dealing with specific deficiencies so you can make smarter decisions on which supplements to include into your daily routine.
Focus on Hydration
Proper hydration is important for all body functions, from your hormone production and blood pressure levels to insulin regulation and digestion. After all, the human body is mostly made of water and its proper levels are crucial for the optimal function of organs and all cells.
The eight-cups-of-water-per-day rule is a sort of general idea of how much everyone should be drinking on the daily, but it depends from person to person, as well as the time of the year, body composition, and level of exercise. Keep all of these factors in mind when analyzing your daily consumption and stay hydrated year-round.
Improve Your Sleep Quality
Sleep deprivation has been linked to a variety of health issues, from obesity to heart disease, and gut health has become an area of research ever since it was discovered that it’s regulated by the circadian rhythm of the individual.
The research has shown how sleep and sleep cycles influence the metabolism and health of your gut microbiome, with sleep deprivation having strong detrimental effects on microbial diversity and your gut flora. It’s therefore important to focus on implementing good sleeping habits and improve the quality of your sleep.
Try keeping your bedtime and wake-up time around the same hour each day, minimize the exposure to blue-light emitting screens and tech gadgets at least two hours bedtime, abstain from heavy meals before sleep, and ensure your bedroom is dark and cool.
Manage Your Stress Levels
Even though it’s easier said than done, it’s important to implement good-feel routines into your daily life which will help lower and manage your stress hormones. Stress has been named the silent killer for a reason, with a plethora of negative effects on human health and wellbeing.
Its negative effect on gut health cannot be neglected, and it’s therefore important to implement stress-reducing tools into your lifestyle to minimize its impact. These tools can include everything from meditation and mindfulness to breathing exercises and self-care activities that help turn off your fight and flight mode and help you transition into rest and digest. This, in turn, reduces your inflammation and helps prevent disease development as well as improves the health of your GI tract.
Schedule Regular Exercise
That exercise is important for your overall health isn’t a novelty, but its role in your gut health has been only recently highlighted, with studies showcasing a larger bacterial diversity in those with a more active lifestyle.
It’s therefore important to add some form of exercise into your weekly schedule, not just for your muscle health, but also your GI tract. When it comes to working out, there’s no research that proves how one type is better for your gut health than other, so it’s best to find an activity you enjoy doing and can be consistent in. After all, it’s true what they say: the best type of exercise is the one you can continue doing over and over again.
The tools and resources for improving and maintain good gut health have become increasingly popular in recent years, thanks to a plethora of studies that showcase its importance in overall health and longevity. Fine tune your nutrition, schedule regular exercise, include dietary supplements to support your diet, focus on sleep quality, and work hard towards reducing your stress levels, and you’ll be on the right track for keeping your gut health at its optimal level.
How To Improve Your Gut Health, Forbes
The Gut Microbiome, Nature
Unlocking the Microbiome, The Guardian
Important Note: The information contained in this article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or medical advice, nor is it intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease or health condition. Before embarking on any diet or program of nutritional supplementation, it is advisable to consult your healthcare professional in order to determine its safety and probable efficacy in terms of your individual state of health.