The gastrointestinal system, also referred to as the gastrointestinal tract, digestive system, digestive tract, or gut, is a group of organs that includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum. The gut serves many essential roles in sustaining and protecting the overall health and wellness of our bodies, starting with the intake and absorption of nutrients and water. The gut manages the digestive process that provides the building blocks the body needs to live, to function, and to stay healthy.
Many facets of modern life such as high stress levels, too little sleep, eating processed and high-sugar foods, and taking antibiotics can all damage our gut microbiome. This in turn may affect other aspects of our health, such as the brain, heart, immune system, skin, weight, hormone levels, ability to absorb nutrients, and even lead to the development of cancer.
Signs of an unhealthy gut:
- A high sugar diet: eating processed foods and added sugar can decrease the number of good bacteria in your gut. An imbalanced gut can increase sugar cravings. High amounts of refined sugars, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, have been linked to increased inflammation in the body. Inflammation can be the precursor to several diseases and even cancers.
- Upset stomach: gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn all signs of an unhealthy gut. A balanced gut will have less difficulty processing food and eliminating waste.
- Unintentional weight gain: Gaining or losing weight without making changes to your diet or exercise habits may be a sign of an unhealthy gut. An imbalanced gut can impair your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar, and store fat. Weight loss may be caused by small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), while weight gain may be caused by insulin resistance or the urge to overeat due to decreased nutrient absorption.
- Sleep disturbances or constant fatigue: An unhealthy gut may contribute to sleep disturbances such as insomnia or poor sleep, and therefore lead to chronic fatigue. The majority of the body’s serotonin, a hormone that affects mood and sleep, is produced in the gut. So gut damage can impair your ability to sleep well. Some sleep disturbances have also been linked to risk for fibromyalgia.
- Skin irritation: Skin conditions like eczema may be related to a damaged gut. Inflammation in the gut caused by a poor diet or food allergies may cause increased “leaking” of certain proteins out into the body, which can in turn irritate the skin and cause conditions such as eczema.
- Autoimmune conditions: Medical researchers are continually finding new evidence of the impact of the gut on the immune system. It is thought that an unhealthy gut may increase systemic inflammation and alter the proper functioning of the immune system. This can lead to autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself rather than harmful invaders.
- Food intolerances: are the result of difficulty digesting certain foods (this is different than a food allergy, which is caused by an immune system reaction to certain foods). It is thought that food intolerances may be caused by poor quality of bacteria in the gut. This can lead to difficulty digesting the trigger foods and unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and nausea. There is some evidence that food allergies may also be related to gut health.
Ways to improve your gut health:
- Lower your stress level: high stress levels are hard on your body, including your gut. It is a good idea to walk, meditate, get a massage, purchase a diffuser (diffuse calming essential oils), spend time with friends and family that make you happy and laugh, decrease coffee intake, yoga, pets, spending time with nature, and working out is a great to relieve stress.
- Get enough sleep: Not getting enough or sufficient quality sleep can have serious impacts on your gut health, which can in turn contribute to more sleep issues. Try to prioritize getting at least 7–8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
- Eat slowly: Chewing your food thoroughly and eating your meals more slowly can help promote full digestion and absorption of nutrients. This may help you reduce digestive discomfort and maintain a healthy gut.
- Stay hydrated: Staying hydrated is a simple way to promote a healthy gut.
- Take prebiotic or probiotic: Adding a prebiotic or probiotic supplement to your diet may be a great way to improve your gut health. Prebiotics provide “food” meant to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, while probiotics are live good bacteria. People with bacterial overgrowth, such as SIBO, should not take probiotics. Not all probiotic supplements are high quality or will provide benefit. It is best to consult your healthcare provider when choosing a probiotic or prebiotic supplement to ensure the best health benefit.
- Check for food intolerances: If you have symptoms such as cramping, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, rashes, nausea, fatigue, and acid reflux, you may be suffering from a food intolerance. You can try eliminating common trigger foods to see if your symptoms improve. If you can identify a food or foods that are contributing to your symptoms, you may see a positive change in your digestive health by changing your eating habits.
- Change your diet: Reducing the amount of processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods that you eat can contribute to better gut health. Additionally, eating plenty of plant-based foods and lean protein can positively impact your gut. A diet high in fiber has been shown to contribute tremendously to a healthy gut microbiome.
Types of foods best for your gut:
- High-fiber foods such as legumes, beans, peas, oats, bananas, berries, asparagus, and leeks have shown a positive impact on gut health in numerous studies.
- Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, tempeh, miso, some pickles (unpasteurized), pickled vegetables (unpasteurized), and kefir are great dietary sources of probiotics. While the quality of these foods may vary.
- Collagen boosting foods such as bone broth and salmon may be beneficial to overall gut health.
A healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, heart health, brain health, improved mood, healthy sleep, and effective digestion, and it may help prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases. There are several lifestyles changes you can make to positively affect your gut health and your overall health as a result.