Here's What You Need to Know About Gut Health
Today, you can't walk down a grocery-store aisle without seeing a dairy-free section, a gluten-free section, or an organic section. Brands proudly label when their products exclude soy, lactose, or GMOs—and the list continues. Oddly, these types of health-focused products have emerged at a time when many consumers have seen a rise in gut (or digestive) issues. Bloating, stomachaches, and decreased energy are just a few of the many symptoms of an underperforming digestive track. So, what's going on? Why, in the midst of an era when we're shopping more mindfully and healthfully, is everyone dealing with a poor gut?
"First of all, there is more of an awareness," says Dr. Lisa Ganjhu, gastroenterologist and clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health. "People are realizing that what they thought was their normal gut health is actually not normal. They used to think it was okay to feel bloated because that's how they always felt. There's more of an education about it now." Stress is a leading cause of these digestive problems, Dr. Ganjhu says, right up there with additives and preservatives that are common ingredients in many foods today. And that's just the beginning. Adds Carla Oates, founder of The Beauty Chef, "More and more research points to the lack of microbial harmony in our modern-day diets and lifestyles. Stress, processed foods, pollutants in our environment, and lack of sleep have all impacted our gut microbiome in an adverse way."
The microbiome is key to healthy digestion and plays a huge role in our body's overall wellbeing. When it's compromised, gut health is compromised—which sets off the aforementioned list of uncomfortable symptoms. Here, we break down everything you need to know about the microbiome and its connection to your gut, starting with, well, what it is.
What is the gut microbiome?
"It's a mini ecosystem that's home to trillions of microorganisms (or bacteria) that populate our digestive tract," Oates says. "It helps process the food we eat, aiding digestion and assisting in the absorption and synthesis of nutrients." But the influence it can have on our health extends far beyond the gut wall. "When you're not digesting well—when you have gut upset—you can have joint pain, skin rashes, acne, depression, weight gain, even cardiac issues, which can all be due to changes in the microbiome," Dr. Ganjhu explains. Oates adds allergies, autoimmune conditions, reflux, bloating, fatigue, and headaches to this list. "What influences gut health above anything else is the community of bugs that reside there and how they behave—or don't," she says.
How does the microbiome become compromised?
Everyone is born with a uniquely specific set of bacteria, Dr. Ganjhu says. Throughout the course of our lives, factors such as stress, travel, lifestyle changes, pollutants, and over-exposure to antibiotics can "knock off" the microbiome, either temporarily or permanently. That's why, if you have digestive issues, probiotics (or beneficial bacteria that we consume) can be key to getting back on track. Probiotics digest the fiber we eat and produce short-chain fatty acids, which are important for immune, metabolic brain, and skin health, Oates says.
How do we get probiotics?
You can eat probiotics in the form of fermented foods (think yogurt, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha) or take supplements. In general, Dr. Ganjhu prefers eating probiotics, because the body knows how to handle them better, and, unlike ingesting supplements, you know you won't be getting ingredients you might not be aware of. But if your stomach can't handle dairy or the spices in kimchi, for example, supplements can be beneficial. It's just about finding the one that works best for you. Generally speaking, look for one that's labeled "broad spectrum," which means it has a variety of bacteria strains to ensure you're hitting all the marks.
Prebiotics are also necessary for proper gut health.
Think of prebiotics as the food necessary for probiotics to flourish. Some supplements contain both pre- and probiotics, but you should eat them in food, too. Oats, apples, dark chocolate, bananas, asparagus, spinach—many fiber-rich fruits and veggies, in fact—are rich with prebiotics and are fairly easy to work into your diet.
Too many raw veggies can be too much.
Crunchy, cruciferous veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower have a lot of nutrients, but Dr. Ganjhu says some people eat far too many, which can lead to stomach upsets. If you're trying to heal your gut, stay away from eating lots of raw food and instead eat warm, soothing soups and steamed or lightly sautéed vegetables, Oates says. Still noticing discomfort? Turn to foods that contain digestive-boosting enzymes, including dandelion, endive, chicory, lemon, grapefruit, and unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, Oates says. Home-cooked meals are key, too, she adds; when you eat out, you have far less control over the salt, sugar, and additives used in the cooking process. If possible, buy organic produce, which is free from herbicides and pesticides, two facts that might also be compromising your gut health.
You can still eat animal protein when healing your gut.
Simply be mindful of your portion size and frequency of consumption, says Oates. "To improve digestibility, slice meat finely and marinate it in herbs and spices or a dressing containing papaya, pineapple, or kiwifruit, which contain protein-digesting enzymes," she says, adding that slow-cooked or braised meats are easier to digest (so pull out your slow cooker!).
Bookmark the following foods to avoid.
This may sound obvious, but in order to heal your gut, avoid foods that you're allergic or sensitive to. "This includes foods that cause your skin to flare up, as well as gluten, which is a common gut irritant," Oates says. "Once your digestive system is stronger, you may be able to slowly re-introduce some of the foods that you have reacted to. But gluten might be an ingredient you want to reduce or avoid in the long-term. Refined sugars, preservatives, additives, MSG, alcohol, and burned food can all contribute to toxin overload and inflammation, which damages the gut wall."
You may also want to adhere to a low-FODMAP diet, Dr. Ganjhu says. High FODMAP foods are those that contain a type of carbohydrate that's difficult to digest, and are found in various vegetables, fruits, legumes, and wheat.
Lifestyle changes can also heal your gut.
"Gut health and sleep quality go hand in hand," Oates says. "Recent pre-clinical studies have shown that interruptions to the sleep cycle may disrupt the body's ability to maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Conversely, the beneficial bacteria in your gut can boost your body's supply of melatonin, the hormone responsible for maintaining your sleep cycles. Melatonin also has a protective effect on stress-induced lesions in the gut, so maintaining a healthy sleep pattern is essential."
Additionally, 30 to 45 minutes of low- to medium-intensity daily exercise can also beneficially impact our gut microbiome, Oates notes. "It can increase the production of protective short-chain fatty acids. Just remember that more doesn't always equal better." (Walking, yoga, Pilates, and bike riding are solid options.) And, of course, try to decrease your stress level. After all, Dr. Ganjhu says it's one of the leading causes of gut upset. Oates recommends meditation as a way to relieve tension and unwind; start with five minutes a day and increase from there (a little each day can go a long way).