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Professionals sometimes refer to our gut as the “second brain” of our bodies. Beyond just the physical sensations we have when trying to make a decision (aka the “gut feeling”), our gut has a large influence on our overall mental and physical well-being. But what exactly is our “gut” and how do we improve our gut health? As always with the human body, there are several factors that we must consider.
Our Gut and Our Gut Health
Many of us believe that our gut is simply our stomach. In reality, our gut refers to our entire gastrointestinal (GI) tract, from the mouth all the way to the anus. Food enters the gut the moment it enters our mouth, and it stays there until it exits the body many hours later. Our GI tract, however, does not function alone. There is an extensive network of nerves that make up the enteric nervous system. This refers to the millions of nerve cells and neurons that connect our GI tract (aka the gut) with our brain. Though it is fully capable of acting independently of the central nervous system, the two systems work together on a regular basis. (1)
The Importance of Gut Health
There is another factor besides the enteric nervous system that affects the health and functioning of your gut. This is known as your gut’s microbiome. Trillions of bacteria make up your microbiome, the majority of which are crucial to both the proper functioning of your immune system as well as your overall health. Scientists are still only just beginning to understand the full impact and importance of a healthy gut microbiome and our mental and physical health.
Our gut microbiome consists of more than 1000 species of bacteria. These bacteria have an influence on our metabolism, digestion, immune system, heart health, how we experience the five senses, our emotional and mental health, as well as our ability to maintain a healthy weight. An unhealthy gut could lead to a whole host of health problems, from obesity and metabolic syndrome to depression and anxiety. The list is truly quite extensive. Scientists have also found that gut bacteria produce many neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and GABA, which are essential for mood, anxiety, concentration, reward, and motivation. (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
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How To Improve Your Gut Health
There are so many factors that can affect your gut microbiome and therefore throw off your health. Lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise matter, as do medications, illnesses, water, environmental toxins, and so much more. For this reason, gut health is something we must always be striving to achieve – it is not a “one and done” type situation. Thankfully, just as there are several things that can negatively affect your gut health, there are also several things you can do regularly to improve and maintain it.
1. Eat More Fruits and Vegetables
Eating a diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and leafy green vegetables is just good practice in general. For your gut health, however, it is invaluable. These foods contain prebiotics, vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients that are important for digestion. Most importantly, they promote healthy bacteria in the gut while preventing the growth of disease-causing bacteria. This strengthens the gut microbiome and, in turn, the immune system. (7, 8, 9) Including nuts and seeds as another plant-based way to promote digestion and a healthy gut is also a fantastic idea. (10)
2. Eat Whole Grains
Eating grains has come under fire in recent years with the rise in popularity of the gluten-free diet and other grain-free movements. While that may be important and necessary for some people’s health, this is not the case for most people. Including plenty of whole grains in your diet promotes the growth of beneficial bacterial strains in your large intestine. Think foods such as brown rice, oats, barley, quinoa, rye, bulgur, buckwheat, whole wheat, organic corn, and couscous. (11, 12)
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3. Add Some Fermented Foods To Your Diet
Fermented foods are full of naturally occurring probiotics. These are specific strains of healthy bacteria that help to keep your gut microbiome in balance. (13) Fermented foods are chock-full of these healthy bacteria and are easy to incorporate into your daily diet. They can improve immunity, anxiety, and your metabolism. (14) Fermented foods to keep in your fridge include:
- Pickles (properly fermented ones)
- Yogurt (low or zero sugar)
- Unpasteurized cheese
If you are an otherwise healthy person, then including fermented foods regularly in your diet should be enough to support your probiotic needs. Sometimes, however, that is not enough. If you have just completed a round of antibiotics, smoke, are regularly exposed to certain chemicals, have a chronic illness, an autoimmune disorder, or simply have followed a poor diet for a long period of time, then purchasing a probiotic will likely be necessary, even if just temporarily. If you travel frequently, a traveler’s probiotic might also help you while your gut adjusts to different water, spices, foods, and environments. (15)
4. Variety Is Key
As previously mentioned, your microbiome is made up of thousands of species of bacteria. Each one of these bacteria species requires different nutrients and environmental factors to survive and thrive. The more diverse your diet, the more diverse of a microbiota your diet will support. (16) To do this, try recipes from other cultures that use ingredients that you wouldn’t normally use. Challenge yourself to try at least one new fruit or vegetable each week. Do your best to eat seasonally, which will then naturally vary your diet.
5. Move More
It’s not just all about what you eat – movement is surprisingly important for the health of your gut. Research shows that regular exercise actually increases your gut microbiome’s diversity. What’s more, regular exercise can reverse gut imbalances due to obesity. The earlier you start, the better. (17,18) It is important to note that those who do extreme amounts of exercise, for example, marathon runners or triathletes, may actually find the amount of training they do negatively impacts their gut. For these athletes, supporting their gut health through proper diet and supplementation will be key. (19)
6. Spend Time Outside and Don’t Be Afraid Of A Little Dirt
We spend so much time inside and are constantly worried about sterilizing our environment. While in certain places this is necessary to protect those with severely compromised immune systems, for most of us, this isn’t so. For babies, children, and adults alike, spending time outside and coming in contact with dirt and earth will expose us to important bacteria that enhance our immune systems and decrease things like allergies and intolerances. Studies even show that the specific microbes in the soil can increase feelings of happiness, and vitality, and improve cognitive function. (20, 21, 22)
7. Avoid over sanitizing
It can be tempting to use strong antimicrobial cleansing products. The problem with these is that they do not discriminate and can eliminate exposing to healthy microbes as well. Not only that, but some of these cleaning products can contribute to household air pollution, which can be bad for your health. (23) We actually need to be exposed to certain bacteria and germs from the time we are young in order to build a healthy immune system. For example, studies show that kids with pets have fewer allergies thanks to being exposed to important gut bacteria via their pets. (24) Babies whose parents suck on their pacifiers to clean them instead of boiling them also receive immune system stimulation thanks to their parents’ microbes to which they are exposed via the pacifier. (25)
The Bottom Line
Living a healthy, active lifestyle is the best way to promote gut health. If you focus on eating a diet with lots of fresh foods, very few processed and packaged foods, and you exercise regularly, you will have a healthy gut. Not only that, but your whole body will be better off, overall.
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- “Exploring the role of gut bacteria in digestion.” ANL. Jo Napolitano. August 19, 2010.
- “The New Era of Treatment for Obesity and Metabolic Disorders: Evidence and Expectations for Gut Microbiome Transplantation.” NCBI. Thilini N. Jayasinghe, et al. 2016.
- “Red Meat-Heart Disease Link Involves Gut Microbes.” NIH. April 22, 2013.
- “A psychology of the human brain–gut–microbiome axis.” NCBI. Andrew P. Allen, et al. April 2017.
- “Early gut bacteria regulate happiness.” Science Daily. Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre. June 12, 2012.
- “Impact of increasing fruit and vegetables and flavonoid intake on the human gut microbiota.” NCBI. Annett Klinder, et al. April 2016.
- “Effect of apple intake on fecal microbiota and metabolites in humans.” PubMed. Kenji Shinohara, et al. October 2010.
- “Prebiotic effect of fruit and vegetable shots containing Jerusalem artichoke inulin: a human intervention study.” PubMed. P Ramnani et al. July 2010.
- “Effects of almond and pistachio consumption on gut microbiota composition in a randomised cross-over human feeding study.” PubMed. Maria Ukhanova, et al. June 2014.
- “Whole-grain wheat breakfast cereal has a prebiotic effect on the human gut microbiota: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study.” PubMed. Adele Costabile, et al. January 2088.
- “Gut microbiome composition is linked to whole grain-induced immunological improvements.” PubMed. Inés Martínez, et al. February 2013.
- “Impact of probiotics on colonizing microbiota of the gut.” Pub Med. Mary Ellen Sanders. November 2011.
- “Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health.” PubMed. S Parvez, et al. June 2006.
- “Use of probiotics to correct dysbiosis of normal microbiota following disease or disruptive events: a systematic review.” NCBI. Lynne V McFarland. August 2014.
- “A healthy gastrointestinal microbiome is dependent on dietary diversity.” PubMed. Mark L Heiman and Frank L Greenway. March 2016.
- “Exercise and associated dietary extremes impact on gut microbial diversity.” PubMed. Siobhan F Clarke, et al. December 2014.
- “Exercise induction of gut microbiota modifications in obese, non-obese and hypertensive rats.” NCBI. Bernardo A Petriz, et al. June 2014.
- “Excessive exercise may damage the gut.” Science Daily. Wiley. June 7, 2017.
- “Early exposure to germs has lasting benefits.” Nature. Helen Thompson. March 22, 2012.
- “Exposure to farming in early life and development of asthma and allergy: a cross-sectional survey.” PubMed. J Riedler, et al. Octobr 2001.
- “Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: Potential role in regulation of emotional behavior.” NCBI. C.A. Lowry, et al. May 2077.
- “Household air pollution and its effects on health.” NCBI. Komalkirti Apte and Sundeep Salvi. October 2016.
- “House dust exposure mediates gut microbiome Lactobacillus enrichment and airway immune defense against allergens and virus infection.” PNAS. Kei E. Fujimura, et al. December 16, 2013
- “Pacifier Cleaning Practices and Risk of Allergy Development.” AAP. Bill Hesselmar et al. June 01, 2013.