In a recent post, we discussed what gut health is — and now it’s time to dive deeper and answer more questions, including “Why does it matter?”
When it comes to gut health, we are referring to more than the stomach and the GI (gastrointestinal tract). We’re also talking about the gut microbiome. The gut microbiome is made up of 300 to 500 different species of microorganisms living in your intestines — many of which are beneficial to the body and necessary for gut function.
A growing body of research suggests that the gut not only makes sure we absorb essential vitamins and nutrients, but also is connected to many other functions in the body that are important for overall health. This includes the immune system and even mental health. We also continue to learn more about the role of the GI tract in the development of other conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. In this post, we’re taking a look at what causes an unhealthy gut, and what you can do to promote a healthy one.
Some things that can contribute to an unhealthy gut biome include:
A healthy gut flora is one that is rich and diverse. A lack of gut bacteria diversity can limit the function of the gut and how well it responds to and interacts with the rest of the body. A diet that contains a wide range of whole foods, including fruits and vegetables, can lead to a more diverse gut flora, whereas diets heavy in meat, dairy, and eggs can lead to changes in microflora — changes that may cause more inflammation and health problems. This is because the foods you eat provide different nutrients that help bacteria grow. The wider variety of nutrients, the more diverse and healthy the gut.
Many of us have heard of probiotics for a healthy gut, but prebiotics are important, too? Prebiotics are a type of fiber that can pass through the body undigested and promote healthy gut bacteria. There are many foods that are high in prebiotics, including asparagus, bananas, beans, garlic, lentils, nuts, and oats. In addition to promoting metabolic and digestive health, prebiotic fiber has also been linked to reduced inflammation, a lower incidence of colorectal cancer, and reduced insulin and cholesterol levels.
We’ve all been there: the stresses of life can leave us feeling frazzled. And for many of us, a go-to remedy is pouring a glass of wine, opening a cold beer, or mixing up a favorite cocktail. Unfortunately, excessive alcohol consumption can cause harmful physical effects — especially in our gut. Too much alcohol can cause inflammation in the gut, which can cause a decrease in healthy digestive enzymes, a thinning of the gut lining, unhealthy bacterial overgrowth, and even increased cravings for excess sugar.
(Concerned about your alcohol consumption? Read “That Second Glass of Wine: Is It Self-Care or Something Else?”)
When necessary, antibiotics are an important and effective way to treat infections and diseases caused by bacteria. But it’s important to let your doctor know (especially if they are new to you) if you’ve recently been on antibiotics, or have been prescribed them in the past. Antibiotics work by killing bacteria, which means healthy bacteria as well. Too many antibiotics can disrupt a healthy gut ecosystem, leading to more dangerous bacteria flourishing uncontrolled. This can cause serious infections in the gut, such as C. difficile colitis.
We know that regular body movement is good for us in so many different ways, but did you know that it positively impacts the gut as well? Regular exercise has been linked to higher levels of healthy gut bacteria.
Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of lung cancer, but research also shows that smoking cigarettes is a leading risk factor for certain types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn’s disease. In fact, people who smoke cigarettes are twice as likely to get Crohn’s disease as people who don’t smoke. Quitting smoking can not only reduce your risk for this type of IBD, but also increase diversity of gut flora after only a few months.
High stress levels have been linked to reduced blood flow, which can alter the gut bacteria and reduce gut flora diversity. Stress has also been shown to reduce lactobacilli, which are bacteria that promote a healthy gut. So if you were looking for another reason to break out the yoga mat or download that meditation app, here it is!
Creating a plan to increase your gut health is something that you and your primary care provider should do together. Always talk to a doctor before adding supplements to your diet or making drastic changes in what you regularly eat. In general, there are some things you can do that may help improve your gut function.
Eating a diet that is high in whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans and lentils can improve your gut health (and overall health). Eating yogurt can also be good for the microbiome, because yogurt contains live cultures. Other common fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi can also boost gut health. But it’s important to remember to go with what feels good for your body.
Recent studies have shown that regular movement has been associated with higher levels of butyrate, a fatty acid that helps promote a healthy gut.
(Thinking about getting more active? Read “Tips on Restarting a Fitness Routine or Starting a New One.”)
One of the simplest ways to change your gut health on your own is to remove highly processed foods from your diet. Foods that are highly processed are high in sugar and fat, and contain large amounts of preservatives that can contribute to many gut issues.
Continuing to eat food that you have intolerance to can lead to digestive discomfort and gut health issues. If you notice symptoms such as bloating, nausea, diarrhea, or cramping after you eat, try keeping a food journal to see whether symptoms occur only after eating certain foods. This can help you determine which foods are causing problems.
High levels of stress can impact many functions in the body, including gastrointestinal movement, which can lead to constipation and other digestive issues. Finding ways to keep stress levels low, such as mediation, yoga, and exercise, can help reduce stress-related gastrointestinal conditions.
Staying hydrated has been shown to improve the mucosal lining of the intestines, which protects the gut from pathogens and harmful proteins. Staying hydrated is one of the simplest ways to promote a healthy gut.
It’s important to remember that when it comes to cleansing, the body is an incredible machine. Do your research (and talk to a healthcare provider) before believing promises made by the makers of cleanses. From juice cleanses to health supplements, make sure you’re not overpaying for something the body already does really well — all on its own. Some cleanses may cause nutrient deficiencies or other health concerns.
Although having a bowel movement every day is considered normal, it’s not always a key indicator of gut health. Many doctors follow the three-and-three rule — that going anywhere from three times a day to three times a week is considered having normal, healthy bowel movements.
Recently, gluten has been a very controversial topic — it has been vilified by many bloggers and influencers alike. But is gluten really all that bad for you? Although it’s always important to listen to your body, research shows that unless you have a gluten intolerance, gluten is a great source of folic acid, fiber, selenium, and vitamin B12, among other essential nutrients. In fact, celiac disease — which is the well known autoimmune condition associated with gluten intolerance — occurs only in one percent of the population. Which means that the vast majority of people do not have it and can tolerate gluten.
Although the primary job of your gut is to aid in digestion, recent studies have shown that your gut is linked to many other functions, including supporting the immune system and mental health.
At Carbon Health, we’re here to partner with you, whether you're experiencing uncomfortable symptoms or simply want to create a plan for better gut health. And remember, you don't need to wait until you’re having stomach trouble to speak to our providers. Book an appointment for an in-person or virtual visit today.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.