How to Improve Your Gut Health
What is Gut Health?
We have all heard the old adage, ‘you are what you eat,’ but many of us would be surprised to learn how true that really is. Our gut is an incredibly intricate and complex system within our bodies that has a significant influence on our wider health – so much so, in fact, there is a growing amount of research still being conducted throughout the medical world to determine the extent of that influence. Studies have shown a clear distinction between our overall gut health and physical conditions, such as endocrine disorders and autoimmune health, as well as our mood and mental health, especially in the realms of anxiety, memory and cognitive ability.
The term ‘gut health’ itself describes a well-kept balance of the microorganisms present within our digestive tract, which can be largely determined by our diets and lifestyles. The human body is made up of roughly 30 trillion cells and only 10% of that number are human cells, the rest are bacteria and other microbes. The environment and variety of these microorganisms is known as the gut microbiome, and at any one time, we will find hundreds of different varieties of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microscopic organisms present. While many might think this is a bad thing that could lead to illness, the opposite is true; this variety is crucial to maintaining a healthy body.
In this article, we will explore why this is so important, and how to maintain and improve your gut health.
Why is Gut Health Important?
It is common knowledge that our bodies crave nutrients, energy and other forms of ‘fuel’ from the food and drink we consume, but it is our gut that receives this and works to break it down in order for it to be utilised throughout the body. In doing so, our food choices, amongst other things are responsible for feeding your ‘good’ forms of bacteria, offseting the introduction of any ‘bad’ bacteria present – hence the need for balance mentioned above.
Signs of an unhealthy gut
With this information, it is likely you are feeling a new significance towards the foods in your diet, and how they may be affecting your gut health. For example, a diet that is filled with processed foods and high in sugar will eradicate a significant portion of your good bacteria. In fact, there is actually a range of signs and symptoms you may already be experiencing that are indicative of an unbalanced gut. These include:
1. Stomach Upset
Regular feelings of bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and even heartburn can be indicators that your gut is out of balance, as you are having difficulty both processing your food and eliminating waste.
Furthermore, consuming foods and beverages that contain a great deal of refined sugar, have been identified to suggest this can lead to an increase in inflammation throughout the body, which also can prove to be a precursor for more serious conditions, including cancer and diabetes.
3. Skin Irritation
When inflammation is present within the gut itself, we can develop what is known as a ‘leaky gut’, in which a number of molecules can actually leach into the body, leading to a range of health problems including skin irritations and conditions like eczema.
4. Noticeable Weight Gain or Weight Loss
If you have noticed a significant weight loss or gain without making any real changes in your lifestyle, such as exercise or diet, it could be due to an imbalanced gut. Again, if your gut is not functioning properly, your body will not be able to regulate blood sugar levels absorb nutrients, or store fat in the ways they are intended.
5. Insomnia & Chronic Fatigue
The body relies on the balance of hormones such as serotonin and melatonin to induce a relaxed mood ready for sleep, which are primarily produced in the gut. Without adequate production of these hormones, your sleep patterns can become interrupted and lead to fatigue, loss of focus and concentration during the day as well as reducing your ability to store memories . Getting good sleep has never been more important for our brains and bodies to thrive.
6. Autoimmune Conditions
New research is coming to light in medical literature surrounding the gut’s affect on our immune system. When out of balance and experiencing inflammation, our immune systems’ required functions are compromised, leading to conditions where the body actually attacks healthy tissue, creating further breakdown, more inflammation and eventually chronic disease.
How to improve your gut health?
There are many ways we can all improve our gut health and therefore our longer term health outcomes, energy levels, vitality etc without upending our entire lifestyle.
1. Improve the quality of your water
Consider this for a moment. All municipal water supplies utilise a range of detergents e.g. chlorine to kill microbes in the water, to keep us safe from harmful pathogens and water borne diseases like cholera. Your gut microbiome is precious and can be severely damaged by toxins such as chlorine. Ensure your drinking water is filtered and balanced with a range of natural minerals and electrolytes as you find in the zazen Alkaline Water System.
Did you know: If you are a drinker of Kombucha, the scoby necessary to create Kombucha and it’s goodness which supports gut health, will die when it is put into chlorinated tap water!
2. Remove Dairy from Your Diet
Those who experience noticeable distention, gas, or looser stools after consuming a range of dairy products, such as milk, yohgurt and cheese will find a relief from these symptoms once they remove these foods. There have been studies conducted that found bacterial diversity is reduced for some people in response to the consumption of these products.
3. Include a Variety of Healthy Foods in Your Diet
Studies have also found that diversity is key in your gut microbiome, providing strength and resilience. As you plan your diet, include a wide range of wholefoods such as seasonal fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and those high in fibre to encourage the proper function of your digestive tract. Similarly, reduce your intake of highly processed, sugar laden, and deep fried foods to avoid the annihilation of your good bacteria.
4. Try Probiotics
Probiotics are microorganisms that are essentially the food for the bacteria in your gut. They offer a range of benefits to your wider gut health, including improved gastrointestinal microflora, strengthening your immune system and even providing a viable treatment for symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
5. Manage Stress Levels
Stress is one of the most prevalent health issues of the modern age, affecting not only our mental health, but manifesting into physical issues with our gut health. If you are suffering from chronic stress, try adopting some stress management strategies. For some, this might include a regular exercise class, walking in nature, surfing or a more inner focus like meditation, yoga, or diaphragmatic breathing. There is a wealth of information out there today to help manage our stress levels and is easily accessible for both young and old.
6. Increase the Amount of Quality Sleep Every Night
Studies show there is a relationship between sleep quality and our gut microbiome. Imbalances in your gut microbiome can have a negative affect on your quality of sleep and eventually a negative impact on your gut microbiome. Consistently low levels of good sleep both in duration and quality can affect us on a range of levels, including our mental health, our very ability to think clearly and retain memories. Whilst we will all have our sweet spot for the amount of sleep that makes us feel fabulous, studies show we all need at least 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each day.
Types of Food That Support Good Gut Health
For those not aware, fermentation is the process of breaking down sugars present within foods by using bacteria and yeast. Although this might not sound appetising, there have been noted benefits on the gut microbiome by consuming some commonly fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha and sauerkraut.
Foods with Polyphenols
Plant-based molecules known as polyphenols are used as fuel for good bacteria in the gut, as well as reducing blood pressure. and inflammation in the body. Include portions of these foods containing polyphenols within your diet. Such foods include dark chocolate, red grapes, almonds, red onions, green tea, blueberries, and broccoli.
Spice it up
While they make our food taste even more delicious, spices such as ginger, garlic and turmeric are also proven to actually rid the damaging bacteria from your gut, without impacting the ‘good’ bacteria, improving overall balance.
Foods and Substances to Avoid For a Healthy Gut
We have extensively discussed why you should avoid excessive amounts of refined sugar and processed foods clogging up your diet, given the numerous adverse effects they will have on your gut. This includes highly processed vegetable and seed oils, excess levels of alcohol and soft drink. It is also important to recognise that taking antibiotics, unless completely necessary for a separate medical condition, will likely damage the microbiota in your gut.
Learn How to Improve Your Gut Health
Maintaining a healthy, balanced gut is an ongoing process, with conscious consideration for the foods you include within your diet and the lifestyle choices you make, including managing stress levels and the amount of sleep you receive. Before making any drastic changes, or if you have specific conditions that need treating, such as irritable bowel syndrome, always seek advice from a healthcare professional to learn more on how to improve your gut health.
Dix M, Sethi S, What’s an Unhealthy Gut? How Gut Health Affects You, Healthline (2020) https://www.healthline.com/health/gut-health
Hagen-Miller L, Scientists Focus on Gut Flora for Future Treatments of Autoimmune Diseases, Healthline (2017) https://www.healthline.com/health-news/gut-flora-treatment-for-autoimmune-diseases
Quigley EM. Gut bacteria in health and disease. Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 2013 Sep;9(9):560-9. PMID: 24729765; PMCID: PMC3983973.
Magnusson KR, Hauck L, Jeffrey BM, Elias V, Humphrey A, Nath R, Perrone A, Bermudez LE. Relationships between diet-related changes in the gut microbiome and cognitive flexibility. Neuroscience. 2015 Aug 6;300:128-40. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2015.05.016. Epub 2015 May 14. PMID: 25982560.
Rinninella E, Cintoni M, Raoul P, Lopetuso LR, Scaldaferri F, Pulcini G, Miggiano GAD, Gasbarrini A, Mele MC. Food Components and Dietary Habits: Keys for a Healthy Gut Microbiota Composition. Nutrients. 2019 Oct 7;11(10):2393. doi: 10.3390/nu11102393. PMID: 31591348; PMCID: PMC6835969.
Leonard J, Chavoustie CT, 10 ways to improve gut health, Medical News Today (2019) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325293#_noHeaderPrefixedContent
Robertson R, Why the Gut Microbiome Is Crucial for Your Health, Healthline (2017) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/gut-microbiome-and-health#section2
VicHealth, How to improve your gut health (2021) https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/be-healthy/how-to-improve-your-gut-health
Kubala J, Hodgson L, Healthy Food vs. Highly Processed Food: What to Know, Healthline (2021) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/junk-food-vs-healthy-food#1
Schultz A, Barbosa-da-Silva S, Aguila MB, Mandarim-de-Lacerda CA. Differences and similarities in hepatic lipogenesis, gluconeogenesis and oxidative imbalance in mice fed diets rich in fructose or sucrose. Food Funct. 2015 May;6(5):1684-91. doi: 10.1039/c5fo00251f. PMID: 25905791.
Brown K, DeCoffe D, Molcan E, Gibson DL. Diet-induced dysbiosis of the intestinal microbiota and the effects on immunity and disease. Nutrients. 2012 Aug;4(8):1095-119. doi: 10.3390/nu4081095. Epub 2012 Aug 21. Erratum in: Nutrients. 2012 Oct;4(11)1552-3. PMID: 23016134; PMCID: PMC3448089.
Aslam H, Marx W, Rocks T, Loughman A, Chandrasekaran V, Ruusunen A, Dawson SL, West M, Mullarkey E, Pasco JA, Jacka FN. The effects of dairy and dairy derivatives on the gut microbiota: a systematic literature review. Gut Microbes. 2020 Nov 9;12(1):1799533. doi: 10.1080/19490976.2020.1799533. PMID: 32835617; PMCID: PMC7524346.
Heiman ML, Greenway FL. A healthy gastrointestinal microbiome is dependent on dietary diversity. Mol Metab. 2016 Mar 5;5(5):317-320. doi: 10.1016/j.molmet.2016.02.005. PMID: 27110483; PMCID: PMC4837298.
Shi LH, Balakrishnan K, Thiagarajah K, Mohd Ismail NI, Yin OS. Beneficial Properties of Probiotics. Trop Life Sci Res. 2016 Aug;27(2):73-90. doi: 10.21315/tlsr2016.27.2.6. PMID: 27688852; PMCID: PMC5031164.
Madison A, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human-bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2019 Aug;28:105-110. doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2019.01.011. Epub 2019 Mar 25. PMID: 32395568; PMCID: PMC7213601.
Smith RP, Easson C, Lyle SM, Kapoor R, Donnelly CP, Davidson EJ, Parikh E, Lopez JV, Tartar JL. Gut microbiome diversity is associated with sleep physiology in humans. PLoS One. 2019 Oct 7;14(10):e0222394. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0222394. PMID: 31589627; PMCID: PMC6779243.
Alvaro E, Andrieux C, Rochet V, Rigottier-Gois L, Lepercq P, Sutren M, Galan P, Duval Y, Juste C, Doré J. Composition and metabolism of the intestinal microbiota in consumers and non-consumers of yogurt. Br J Nutr. 2007 Jan;97(1):126-33. doi: 10.1017/S0007114507243065. PMID: 17217568.
Dudek-Wicher RK, Junka A, Bartoszewicz M. The influence of antibiotics and dietary components on gut microbiota. Prz Gastroenterol. 2018;13(2):85-92. doi: 10.5114/pg.2018.76005. Epub 2018 May 25. PMID: 30002765; PMCID: PMC6040098.
Cardona F, Andrés-Lacueva C, Tulipani S, Tinahones FJ, Queipo-Ortuño MI. Benefits of polyphenols on gut microbiota and implications in human health. J Nutr Biochem. 2013 Aug;24(8):1415-22. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2013.05.001. PMID: 23849454.
Peterson CT, Rodionov DA, Iablokov SN, Pung MA, Chopra D, Mills PJ, Peterson SN. Prebiotic Potential of Culinary Spices Used to Support Digestion and Bioabsorption. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2019 Jun 2;2019:8973704. doi: 10.1155/2019/8973704. PMID: 31281405; PMCID: PMC6590564.