Trillions of bacteria, and as many as 500 different species of them, live in your gut — and by gut we mean both your stomach and (mostly) your intestinal tract.
Many of those microorganisms are extremely beneficial – even essential — to your overall health. Turns out the gut is a lot more complex than we used to think and over the last couple of decades more and more research has been conducted to demonstrate the connection between your gut health and all kinds of health issues, including:
- Endocrine disorders
- Autoimmune diseases
- Skin conditions
- Immune system functions
An unhealthy gut environment can play a significant role in Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome. Intuitively, that connection makes sense. But you’ll probably be surprised to learn that your gut microbiome (the balance of microorganisms living in your gut) can also affect depression, mood, and mental health.
Gut Bacteria, Where Does it Come From?
Much of your gut microbiome has been with you from birth. But, as with so many things, your environment, what you eat, and even where you live can have an effect on the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut.
Some Signs of an Unhealthy Gut Environment
- Constant fatigue – most of the hormone that affects your sleep, serotonin, is produced in your gut. Poor gut health can hurt your ability to get a good night’s sleep. Not getting enough good sleep inevitably leads to feeling tired all the time.
- Unintended weight gain or loss can be a sign of an imbalance in your gut. That imbalance can negatively impact your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, absorb nutrients, and store fat. An inability to properly absorb nutrients can contribute to the urge to overeat (or the feeling of being hungry) which leads to weight gain. Too much of the wrong bacteria in your small intestine can cause unwanted weight loss.
- Skin conditions such as eczema may be related to inflammation in the gut and the gut damage that can cause.
- Stomach discomfort such as bloating, diarrhea, gas, abdominal pain, and nausea are often caused by food intolerances which may be linked to the balance of bad to good bacteria in your gut.
How to Improve Your Gut Environment
Turns out, many of the things we’ve already been suggesting you do for your general health are also going to be good for your gut health. If you have been reading my previous blogs, none of these will come as a surprise:
- Avoid a high-sugar diet. Sugar decreases the good bacteria in your gut. So stay away from refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and all those processed foods that use sugar to keep you coming back for more.
- Take up meditation, enjoy a walk in the woods, look up from your phone and enjoy the real, live people in your life.
- Or think of it this way: eat more slowly. This will help you get the full benefit of the good foods you’re eating, and help you avoid stomach upsets.
- Stay hydrated. Staying hydrated is beneficial to the mucosal lining of your intestine and your good bug balance. They say you should not wait until you’re thirsty to drink; when you’ve reached that point, you’re dehydrated. So keep a glass or a non-BPA reusable water bottle handy and sip it all day long, thirsty or not.
- Get enough sleep. Insufficient sleep can seriously destroy your gut health which will lead to poor sleep. Avoid that vicious cycle by leaving yourself enough time in your day to get seven or eight hours a night of sleep.
- Promote diversity. Ease up on those antibacterial wipes, play in the dirt, kiss your dog; our too-clean modern life has diminished the diversity of bacteria we’re exposed to, reducing our immunities as a result. Don’t be foolish, of course, not all dirt (or bacteria) is good for you, but letting some into your life can actually be a good thing.
- Keep doing those same things that are good for the rest of your health like not smoking, not drinking too much alcohol, cutting down on the amount of red and processed meat you eat, going easy on dairy, and – need we say this 1000 times? – avoid sugar.
(Specifically) Good for Your Gut Foods
- They are so good for so many things. And for variety, include other colorful berries such as raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and bananas. Okay, bananas aren’t exactly berries, but they do help fight inflammation and stabilize your gut bacteria.
- The goal is between 20 and 40 grams a day and most of us don’t meet that goal. You can increase the amount of fiber in your diet by adding fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and vegetables to your diet.
- Some examples: asparagus, spinach, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens, leeks, onions, garlic, soybeans, and oats.
- These are fermented foods such as miso, kefir, tempeh, kimchi, and sauerkraut
And, of course, if you are taking antibiotics for any reason, they can really mess with your gut microbiome. Be especially mindful about adding gut-healthy foods and avoiding those that damage your gut during any course of antibiotics.
What about Probiotics?
There are probiotic foods (see above), and then there are actual probiotic supplements. Here’s the catch with that: unless you get tested, you cannot be sure which bacteria you are lacking and which you already have plenty of. It’s always best, if you can, to get what you need from the whole and healthy foods you eat, but we all know that isn’t always possible. The science is still out on whether the probiotics that come in pill or juice form are actually doing you any good. It’s a good idea to consult your health professional to see which of the many, many types of probiotics now on the market might specifically be good for your unique gut environment.