Your gut does more than digest the food you eat. In fact, recent research suggests that your gut microbiome governs everything from your immune system to your mental health status.
“There’s a huge link between our brains and our gut,” says Sarah Hutchinson, RDN, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health. “Whenever one is doing poorly, the other tends to follow suit. In fact, people who have gastrointestinal issues also tend to suffer from increased anxiety, poor sleep and depression.”
Tips To Support A Healthier Microbiome
Everything from your genetics to your daily diet can impact gut health—and it turns out, there are a variety of things you can do to improve the health of your microbiome:
- Eat probiotics. While probiotic supplements get a lot of media attention, Hutchinson says it’s best to eat probiotic-rich foods rather than pop a pill. Good options include yogurt (opt for plain over flavored varieties, which are often loaded with sugar), kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut. “There’s actually research to suggest that taking probiotics in pill form could be harmful,” Hutchinson says. “Too much bacteria in the small intestine, good or bad, could lead to small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), for example.”
- Stay hydrated. If you’re not getting enough fluid, your body has to work a lot harder to move food through the intestines. So one of the best things you can do to support your gut is to ensure you’re drinking enough water each day (aim to drink about half your body weight in ounces). A bonus: Drinking water helps keep your tissues and organs healthy and lubricated.
- Load up on fiber. Fiber-rich foods not only help keep things moving through your intestinal tract, but they’re also good sources of prebiotics, which help feed the good bacteria (probiotics) in your gut. To get your daily fiber quota (35 milligrams for men; 25 milligrams for women), eat foods like beans, cruciferous vegetables, pears and berries.
- Avoid ultra-processed foods. You already know that processed foods aren’t good for your health, but “ultra-processed foods” that boast huge amounts of added sugars and sodium can seriously compromise your gut health. “There’s research to suggest that diets high in added sugars, like the kind we get from soda, can feed bacteria and potentially send signals to our brain to crave more of those types of foods,” Hutchinson says.
- Take steps to reduce stress. When we’re stressed, our brain sounds an alarm that prompts our bodies to prepare for battle. And since there’s a strong connection between the brain and the gut, you might suffer from a “nervous stomach” during times of stress. To minimize the hit, try meditation, exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy and other stress-reduction strategies.
- Pay attention to medications. Medications like antibiotics, antidepressants and narcotics can be tough on your gut. If you take prescription or over-the-counter medications, talk to your doctor about the effects of the drug on your microbiome, and how you can best support your gut during treatment.
- Eat a variety of food. In general, the more types of bacteria you have in your gut, the healthier your microflora. Eating a wide variety of foods, including a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, can help populate your gut with multiple strains of beneficial bacteria.
When Should You See A Doctor About Gut Concerns
Your body needs a balance of bacteria in the gut to digest and absorb nutrients. Unfortunately, when gut bacteria are imbalanced, it can lead to all sorts of woes ranging from diarrhea and gas to anxiety and depression.
Any changes in bowel habits that last more than a few weeks should get checked out, says Hutchinson. Among the symptoms that require further investigation:
- Bathroom trips that are interfering with daily life
- Gas or bloating
- Loss of appetite
- Pain with bowel movements
- Unexplained fatigue
- Unintentional weight loss
Remember, too, that there’s a direct line of communication between your gut and your brain. So in addition to gastrointestinal symptoms, an imbalance in gut bacteria can cause symptoms like irritability, depression and brain fog.
Poor gut health can sometimes be worsened by over-the-counter products and supplements. It’s best to ask your provider before taking anything to avoid covering up gut problems that may need medical attention.
“If you feel like your gastrointestinal health is compromised, and it’s impacting your life, reach out to your primary care provider,” Hutchinson says.
Reviewed by Sarah Hutchinson, a registered dietitian for the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.