Five Things That Are Hurting Your Gut Health
The wrong foods or a lack of exercise could be contributing to your digestive distress.
Your gut health relies on the presence of certain healthy bacteria in your stomach, which is why people consume probiotic supplements and drink kombucha. "Bacteria in your gut are a reflection of your overall health," says Dr. Shaham Mumtaz, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital, "and improving gut health is more often about your lifestyle."
But how do you know if you're experiencing a normal stomachache or if you should talk to a doctor about a more serious issue? Constipation and consistent pain in specific parts of the abdomen can be symptoms, says registered dietitian Melissa Halas, MA RDN CDE. Unintentional weight loss, tarry or bloody stool, persistent vomiting, fevers, difficulty swallowing, yellower skin, and night sweats can also be signs of a larger problem, notes Dr. Mumtaz. You may be diagnosed with treatable conditions, including Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). When you visit a doctor, they'll rule out underlying health concerns including cancer, inflammatory diseases, and ulcers. "But if we learn that you don't have any of those conditions," Dr. Mumtaz says, "what it often comes down to is lifestyle: diet, exercise, sleep, and other stressors." Ahead, five things that absolutely could be hurting your gut health—and how to fix them.
"In my experience, diet is the biggest culprit of GI issues," explains Halas, who is a partner with MyMenuUSA. Particularly, patients who aren't consuming enough fluid and fiber will experience discomfort. "When you haven't been getting enough fiber for years and years, you're creating this unhealthy microbiome [in your stomach]." And foods you do eat are as important as the foods you don't. Registered dietitian Melissa Nieves, LND, RD, MPH points to fried and heavily seasoned foods, caffeine, and alcohol as common factors impacting gut health—especially if patients already have certain medical conditions. Dr. Mumtaz advises patients to reduce the amount of sweets and processed sugars they consume, since some studies show "they can increase the amount of bacteria in the gut."
Thankfully, incorporating balancing foods into your diet can help treat GI issues. Dr. Mumtaz suggests fruit, vegetables, chicken, and fish to nurture healthy gut bacteria. Halas often recommends the FODMAP diet, a short-term eating plan that eliminates certain sugars to help you figure out exactly which foods may be upsetting your stomach, to patients; it's best to attempt this diet under the supervision of a professional.
If you aren't sleeping well or find yourself in stressful situations at work or at home, the effects can show up in your gut health. "When you get less sleep or experience higher stress," Dr. Mumtaz says, "some studies show there is a negative outcome in terms of the quality of the bacteria in your system." Stress hormones and inflammation can change this bacteria, but stress can also drive you to eat larger amounts of the foods known to affect gut health.
Lack of Exercise
Dr. Mumtaz explains the exact correlation between minimal physical movement and gut health is currently being studied, but we know enough to understand that there is a connection. "When there is more blood flow through the body, it can change the bacteria that will live in your gut," he says. Moderate aerobic exercises are especially effective at promoting healthy bacteria, and Dr. Mumtaz advises patients to work out for at least 115 minutes per week.
Certain Medical Conditions
While diet, alcohol consumption, stress, and other lifestyle factors can affect any person's gut health, Nieves emphasizes that people with certain medical conditions can be especially sensitive to these factors—particularly if you have esophagitis, gastritis, IBS, celiac disease, acid reflux, H.pylori infection, or diverticulitis.
"Only use antibiotics when prescribed and as necessary," Dr. Mumtaz stresses, since the overuse of this medication can disrupt the amount of healthy bacteria in your gut and lead to a serious condition called Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, which requires medical intervention to treat severe diarrhea and colon inflammation.