When doctors talk about gut health, they’re not just talking about your stomach, or even your whole GI (gastrointestinal) tract. A healthy gut is, in fact, an entire ecosystem, teeming with life, all working together in your body to keep things running smoothly.
What you put in your body, as well as other lifestyle choices, can determine the strength of that ecosystem and how well it withstands the ups and downs that come with living.
Trillions of tiny organisms, all hard at work, live in your gut.
Bacteria gets the most press, but fungi, viruses, and other microbes are also present and crucial to your gut health.
There are so many varieties of organisms, scientists are just beginning to name and catalog them all. What we do know is how to make an environment that encourages the growth of healthy microbes and the elimination of less-healthy ones.
How do you know if you’re suffering from an unhealthy gut? Usually, the signs will show up just where you expect them: gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal discomforts are all red flags that something isn’t working right in your gut.
While these are symptoms, an unhealthy gut may have far worse ramifications for the rest of your body. An unhealthy gut can lead to a weakened immune system and greater inflammation, both of which put you at greater risk for a wide range of diseases and disorders.
It’s shocking to realize just how much your gut health can affect the rest of your health. Recent studies have found that a healthy gut may be able to prevent or treat all of these problems:
In other words, your gut health can affect every aspect of your life as well as how long it will last!
Fortunately, your gut health is largely in your control. While you can’t protect yourself from every irritant and hazard that passes by, you can create an internal environment that protects you from the worst effects of stress and illness. While there is some evidence that probiotic supplements can help, researchers have found that diet and lifestyle are the most powerful forces in shaping your gut health.
A 2017 review of multiple studies on diet and gut health comes to some clear conclusions. (7) First the good news: the right diet can improve your gut health effectively, even if you can’t make other lifestyle changes. Specifically, the Mediterranean Diet, which has been celebrated by doctors for decades for its effect on heart health and cancer prevention, also benefits gut health. Medical questions rarely have simple answers, but eating a Mediterranean diet does seem like something of a magic bullet.
Specifically, you can improve your gut health by eating:
So, what foods should you avoid to keep your gut healthy? You probably won’t be surprised to find the usual culprits in this list:
In other words, the “Standard American Diet” is a recipe for an unhealthy gut!
Along with switching to a Mediterranean diet, there are some changes to your routine that can improve your gut health. Conveniently, they’re all habits that will improve your health and well-being in a variety of ways. (12)
There is evidence that your gut biome suffers when you don’t get enough sleep or when you don’t sleep in accordance with your natural circadian rhythms, so prioritize getting a full night’s rest.
Stressful environments can also wreak havoc on your gut health. While avoiding stress would be ideal, a more realistic plan is finding ways to handle stress, such as regular meditation or mindfulness exercises.
And, speaking of exercises, physical fitness can improve your gut health as well. This area of study is still fairly new, but evidence suggests that regular, strenuous exercise may improve your body’s gut biome and reduce problematic inflammation.
Finally, avoid environmental toxins when possible, and protect yourself from them when necessary. This issue is one that society will need to address with collective action, as you can’t reduce air or water pollution by yourself. Hopefully, as we learn more about gut health and environmental toxins, we will start to see wider social changes.
In the meantime, making lifestyle changes can be difficult, but improving your health, wellness, and longevity makes it worth it. When you take care of your gut– and the trillions of living beings that reside there– your gut will take care of you.