This year when it comes to being a happier, healthier you, go with your gut.
Your gut doesn’t merely handle digestion or flutter with occasional butterfliers or nerves. Your gut is also home to trillions (yes, trillions!) of bacterial cells. Believe it or not, gut bacteria play vital roles in keeping your body functioning and you feeling in tip-top shape.
What are gut bacteria?
These bacteria, including fungi and viruses, make up what’s called your gut microbiome (the microorganisms living in your intestines).
First, for clarification, when we talk about your gut, we’re talking about your gastrointestinal system, which includes your stomach, intestines and colon.
Your gut is responsible for keeping the balance, so to speak. It’s full of both good bacteria and bad bacteria or opportunistic little microbes. Healthy gut bacteria protect your immune system, keep inflammation low and even promote your mental health.
How does an unhealthy gut affect your health?
If you don’t have enough good bacteria, however, the bad microbes can begin to put your body off balance and increase your risk of inflammation and disease.
“Some bacteria, present in small amounts in the GI tract can pose no harm, but given an opportunity to proliferate or take over can cause some people harm,” said Nicole Hahn, a clinical dietitian with Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix. “For example, bacteria like E. coli, C. difficile and H. pylori all can cause infections, some of which can be hard to get rid of once present in your digestive tract.”
How can you get healthy gut bacteria?
The good news is that you don’t need any expensive probiotic pills or drinks to improve your gut health. Hahn shared six simple ways you can do this naturally.
1. Eat plenty of fiber-rich foods.
When you think about your diet, consider the number of plant-based foods, grains, legumes and beans you’re eating. Foods high in fiber, especially prebiotic fiber, balance your gut increasing good bacteria and starving bad bacteria.
“Eating a well-balanced diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables and other high-fiber foods can provide the GI tract the fiber and prebiotic fiber it needs to maintain gut microflora in good balance,” Hahn said.
[Also read “You’ve Heard of Probiotics. What About Prebiotics?”]
Here is a list of some high-fiber foods that help grow good bacteria:
- Vegetables: onions, asparagus, spinach, green peas, sweetcorn, artichokes, leeks, parsnips
- Legumes: chickpeas (pulses), lentils, soybeans
- Fruit: raspberries, peaches, watermelon, grapefruit, pomegranate, white peaches, dried fruit
- Bread/Pasta: barley, rye and wheat bread, oats, couscous, quinoa
- Nuts/Seeds: walnuts, pistachios, almonds
2. Limit your sugar intake
Sugar is everywhere, even when you can’t taste it. Sadly, refined sugar can upset the gut microbiota (the makeup of bacteria in your gut). A diet high in processed foods and added sugars can decrease the number of good bacteria in your gut and feed the bad ones. This imbalance can cause you to crave sugary treats more, which in turn can damage your gut more.
“High amounts of refined sugars, particularly those in sweetened beverages, have been linked to weight gain, which can be a precursor to a number of diseases,” Hahn noted. “Non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) may also have an effect on changes to the gut microbiome, but the effects of such changes need further investigation.”
3. Add fermented foods.
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, buttermilk, plain yogurt and kombucha may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are good for the gut. They are rich in probiotics and lactobacilli bacteria that help keep harmful gut bacteria at bay in the intestines.
When you purchase fermented foods, however, look for a label that says it has “live and active cultures.”
4. Stay hydrated
Drinking plenty of water each day has so many benefits for your gut. It can help aid in digestions, regulate your bowel movements and prevent constipation. Staying hydrated is one simple way you can promote a healthy gut.
5. Lower stress levels
Chronic stress can be hard on your mind and body, including your gut. Stress can cause digestive upset, nausea and decrease the number of good bacteria.
While you can’t rid yourself of all stress completely, there are things you can do to help manage it. Some ways to lower stress may include meditation, journaling, massage, avoiding overworking and getting regular exercise.
“Exercise supports the number of good bacteria in your gut and contributes to bacterial diversity, or the number of strains,” Hahn said. “There are some studies that show that exercise can change the composition of the gut microbiome, but evidence is still unclear on overall health effects.”
6. Get enough sleep
Not getting enough sleep can have serious impacts on your gut health, which can then contribute to more sleep problems. Getting plenty of rest can help you promote a healthy gut balance. The more you do to increase the good bacteria in your gut, the better you will sleep.
If you’re still having trouble sleeping, there are plenty of things you can do. Check out this article for sleep tips.
Bottom line: Eat, sleep and be healthy
Your gut is more connected to your health than you might previously have thought. It’s home to trillions of bacteria that work hard to keep you fit and well.
Making simple positive changes like increasing fiber-rich foods, lowering stress and getting plenty of rest are how to get a healthy gut and overall health.
If you continue to have stomach issues and aren’t sure what is causing your symptoms, consider keeping a food diary. Use it to log what you eat and how you feel. Take that to your health care provider, and they can help pinpoint what might be causing your discomfort or pain.
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