The Best Supplements for Gut Health
From probiotics to magnesium, here's what the experts suggest you consider taking.
Gut health is a hot topic these days, and for good reason: More and more research shows how important it is not just for proper digestion, but for every system in your body. Both physical and mental wellness start in the gut—and when your gut microbiome is thrown off, those two major components of your overarching health can be compromised, as well. "Our gut regulates many key functions, from our weight to our mood," explains Dr. Richard Firshein, an expert in integrative medicine and founder of Firshein Center. "In addition, many medical conditions—from autoimmune diseases to fatigue—originate in the gut or are related to gut disorders."
He also adds that our gut plays a crucial role in the production of key neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. (That's the chemical that contributes to feelings of positive well-being and happiness. When serotonin is off balance, depression often sets in.) "Our gut biome also acts as a barrier to parasites, yeast, bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and is the first line of defense against allergies and toxins," Firshein notes. "We've learned that a healthy microbiome can prevent a number of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and obesity." Overuse of antibiotics has decimated our native gut bacterial population, and over-exposure to pesticides, heavy metals, and processed sugar have compromised our digestive systems, he says. But it's never too late to try and turn things around. Here, Firshein shares the best supplements to jumpstart a healthy gut microbiome.
"There are literally thousands of bacteria that can inhabit our gut, and each has a different purpose or function," Firshein says. "Diversity is key, so taking different probiotics is one way to foster that. Another way is to maintain a diversity of food sources, generally including many different vegetarian options that will sustain different types of bacteria."
Think of prebiotics as fiber, Firshein says, which nourishes the gut lining. "There are two types of fiber," he explains. "Soluble and insoluble. Examples of insoluble fiber include flaxseed and psyllium. Many beans and fruits contain soluble fibers, which increase levels of butyrate, which nourish the gut lining."
"Glutamine is an amino acid that acts as primary fuel for the gut lining," he explains, adding that it can speed healing and restore damage to the gut tissue. It's also particularly helpful in cases where leaky gut or inflamed gut tissue is present.
Have heart burn? Consider an aloe vera supplement, says Firshein. "Aloe is packed with nutrients and natural enzymes, which can help support the gut lining, as well as aid in the digestion of food."
Licorice is useful because it helps heal the mucosal lining, particularly in cases of heartburn, acid reflux, and inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS), Firshein says. Make sure you take it in its purified (or deglycyrrhizinated) form, as licorice in its un-purified state may contribute to high blood pressure and should be avoided, he adds.
"As we get older, we typically lose our ability to produce specific enzymes," Firshein notes. "Each food requires a certain enzyme to break it down. Without adequate amounts of enzymes, food cannot be processed properly." Using digestive enzyme supplements, he says, can ease digestion upsets and bloating.
A go-to defense against constipation, magnesium should be taken with caution, explains Firshein; a too-high dose causes the opposite result—diarrhea. "Magnesium is a crucial mineral, which most of us are deficient in. Fortunately, there are several types that can be consumed with different effects" he says. "Magnesium citrate is useful for cases where someone is constipated. Magnesium glycinate is more bio-available and certainly would be my first choice in cases where constipation is not an issue."