Gut health is vital to our overall health. But many of us don’t pay it much attention until it causes us uncomfortable digestive issues like gas, bloating and constipation.
Part of our microbiome is housed in our gastrointestinal tract. According to the National Institute of Health Sciences, “the microbiome is the collection of all microbes, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their genes, that naturally live on our bodies and inside us.” And the health of our microbiome has a big impact on our overall health. It protects us against harmful bacteria or viruses, helps our immune system develop, and enables us to digest food to produce energy.
“When we’re thinking about gut health, we’re thinking about whole-body health. It impacts every single part of our body,” Maya Feller, a registered dietitian based in New York City, told TODAY. “It’s this huge microbiome — it’s an ecosystem that impacts the immune system, blood pressure, blood sugar, hormones ... your central nervous system.”
So how do you know if you have a healthy microbiome or if your gut health needs some work? Feller says there are some warning signs you can look for that signal an unhealthy balance of bacteria in the gut:
- Stomach discomfort: Watch for excessive gas and bloating, belching, indigestion, changes in digestion.
- Fatigue: Research shows the bacteria in the gut being more off balance, with more bad bugs than we want, for people who have chronic fatigue, said Feller.
- Allergies: Allergies that are worsening or new food sensitivities or allergies, like anaphalaxic reaction or skin irritations.
3 ways to improve your gut health
Everyone’s gut is unique, but we all should take steps to support the body so that we maintain a healthy balance of good bacteria and bad bacteria. In order to keep your gut health in check, Feller recommends focusing on these three building blocks of a healthy gastrointestinal tract:
- Fiber: In general, aim for a minimum of 25 grams of fiber a day, said Feller. Aim to eat several fiber-rich foods throughout the day to meet your quota. Some fiber-rich foods include: 1 cup bran flakes (10g fiber), 1 cup beet greens (6g fiber), 1 cup quinoa (6g fiber), 1 ounce serving of almonds (3g fiber) or 2 cups of raspberries (16g fiber).
- Polyphenols: Eating foods rich in these plant-based compounds, when combined with fiber, help to populate the good bugs in the gut, said Feller. Think: frozen blueberries, pinto beans, black beans.
- Water: “Hydration is important for every single thing in the body. It helps to form saliva — that’s step one in digestion,” said Feller. “It’s also really important for breaking down food and our whole digestive process, as well as the brain making neurotransmitters and hormones.” Feller recommends a minimum of 2 liters of water every day — “if you can drink more, go for it,” she said.
“When we move it helps to get our digestive system moving,” said Feller. “Walking, lifting weights, whatever it is the person can really engage in on a regular and consistent basis.”
High-intensity exercise has been getting a lot of attention recently, but low-intensity exercise may be your best bet when it comes to gut health. High-intensity exercise can put stress on the body that actually slows your digestion, while low-intensity exercise like walking can get things moving again.
But the most important thing is to incorporate movement throughout your day. “Try to find movement you can do that is sustainable,” suggests Feller. “If you are in an urban center, get off the subway/bus a few stops before your regular stop. I tell a number of patients to walk the nice portion of the commute, carry the vacuum up and down stairs, don’t hire someone to rake leaves…”
The physical effects that stress has on the body is well researched. We know that stress can damage your heart and contribute to high blood pressure, and it can also upset your gut health. “There’s a gut-brain connection,” says Feller. Just like the rest of the body, the stomach interacts with your nervous system and that flight or fight stress response can interrupt digestion or stop it altogether.
That’s why it’s important to make stress-reducing activities like exercise, meditation and breathing exercises a regular part of your routine. Another way to combat stress? Hug it out! Research shows that affection not only increases oxytocin production, it also reduces secretion of cortisol, the stress hormone.