While it may be easy to assume that your gut does little more than digest food and make poop, the health of your gut is actually connected to the health of your whole body and to each body system, including your immune system – that surprises most people!
Your gut health depends on what you eat, your stress level and other key factors – we’re going to cover all of those things in this article so that you have the tools you need to be healthy and feel safe. Don’t be suckered by pseudo-experts trying to make a quick buck – get your evidence-based nutrition recommendations (and your free download) right here.
Why is gut health so important?
The importance of gut health is far-reaching. Our gut is connected to every system in the body. Having a healthy gut means that your immune system is primed and ready to keep you safe; even in the face of disease and illness.
Our gut health is also linked to our risk of depression and anxiety, dictates how well we absorb the nutrition from the food we eat and is even connected to our bone health. Our gut being healthy helps our whole body to look, move and feel its best (1)
One way to measure our gut health is by the total amount and the variety of microorganisms living there, including bacteria. If you’ve been reading about gut health already, you may have come across the term microbiome – this is the term for the whole collection of bacteria, yeasts and other organisms that live in and on your body. Did you know that we have way more cells that are not us – the microbiome – than us?
The healthiest people have a wide range of beneficial microorganisms, a robust population of these little critters, the right ratios of the different kinds of microorganisms, all in the right place.
If you have an overgrowth of the wrong kinds of microorganisms, this can make you feel sick. For example, yeast is naturally found in everyone’s gut, but if you have a greater ratio of yeast to other bacteria, your gut health can be out of balance.
You also need to keep the bacteria and other organisms in the right place. While it is healthy to have a wide range of bacteria in your large intestine, you want to keep them there. If you have an overgrowth of microorganisms in your small intestine, that can make you feel gross. The technical term for an abundance of bacteria in the small intestine is Small Intestine Bowel Overgrowth and is usually abbreviated SIBO by healthcare professionals and researchers.
Signs of a healthy gut – how do I know if my gut is actually healthy?
There is no single test or sign to know if your gut is healthy, but there are different signs that you can monitor to get the big picture.
If you have a healthy gut, you’re not regularly struggling with constipation or diarrhea, you don’t often feel bloated or (excessively) gassy – some gas is perfectly normal. You’re able to eliminate waste – poop – each day without stress or struggle.
While an occasional bout of bloat or diarrhea is not a big deal, having patterns of these symptoms means you might benefit from working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) to feel better.
What foods heal your gut?
The most important dietary factor for gut health is the amount of fiber contained in your usual food choices. While it is really common to think about fiber only in the context of helping you go to the bathroom, fiber actually plays a lot of important roles to keep you, starting with your gut, healthy.
One of the most important jobs that fiber has is to nourish the gut bacteria. Probiotics are the living, breathing bacteria. Prebiotics are the fibers that are their food source.
We are unable to digest these fibers. But, the bacteria that we want to support thrive on the fiber. And if we aren’t eating enough fiber, the bacterium can actually begin to digest the cells lining our gut – we need to keep those bacteria fed!
When we have a robust microbiome, they help to actually feed the cells lining our gut, make vitamin K and send happy messages to our brain. When we take care of our microbiome, it takes care of us.
Can I just take a fiber supplement?
I don’t recommend starting there. Fiber is one of the benefits of having healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, but it is far from the only one.
Fruits and vegetables have vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals (such as the lycopene that makes carrots orange) water and carbohydrates. A fiber powder is only that – fiber. Plus, it is easy to overdo it with fiber powder supplements and actually cause constipation.
What foods can hurt gut health?
While no meal is going to make or break your gut health, patterns over time influence the health of your gut (2).
Added sugar can feed the wrong microorganisms. We’re not talking about the sugar in fruits and veggies – they’re packed with fiber that feed the health-promoting organisms – we need to moderate the free sugar that is added copiously to sweet drinks, desserts and in surprising amounts in yogurt, granola bars and other foods that we think of as very healthy. Turn that food package over to and tally how much added sugar you’re having on a typical day. Dial it back if your daily total is above 30 or so grams (3).
Moderate alcohol – one serving per day for women and two servings per day for men – is fine for most adults if you’d like that to be a part of your routine. More than that, especially alcohol that also contains added sugar or dyes can make our gut health worse. Enjoy that glass of wine, but also drink plenty of water and seltzer (4).
What else influences your gut health?
Your gut health is influenced by your environment and food choices from the moment you were born. From your birth experience to the foods you were fed as an infant, any medications or supplements you have taken and your exposure to chemicals and toxins in your environment, many many factors are influencing the health of your gut.
Your gut health is adaptive and flexible and resilient. Patterns influence your health over time.
Stress isn’t all bad – stress can motivate us to finish a project, prioritize between variables, and escape danger. But chronic stress can compromise gut health. Having stress for weeks and months on end can make our gut lining weaker and increase inflammation.
How can I improve my gut health?
- Eat more colorful foods that boost your immune system, starting with lots of fruits and vegetables. One strategy is to enjoy a familiar favorite, such as carrots, incorporated more in more creative meals and build from there.
- Boost fiber, from real food, whenever you can. You can whip up smoothies, and even desserts, with high-fiber foods.
- Sleep. When we are not getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep our immune system suffers (5).
- Consume probiotics from fermented foods. While yogurt is the most known source of probiotics, we can actually get those healthy living organisms from raw apple cider vinegar to kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut.
- Snack on nuts and seeds instead of a processed, low-fiber snack. Nuts and seeds are full of gut-healthy fiber as well as healthy fats, protein and minerals.
- Drink enough water to have urine that is pale like lemonade vs. dark like apple juice. If you’re dehydrated you have an increased risk of constipation.
- Exercise – there is no amount that is too little to not be worth it. Take a walk, dance along to a TikTok video or put on your rollerblades. Movement that you enjoy is a routine you’ll enjoy sticking with – no need to force yourself to go running if it isn’t your thing.
- Work with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. RDNs are the nutrition experts! RDNs are here to help you to live your very best life, starting with your gut health. This is a teamwork opportunity that your immune system will thank you for taking.
Your gut health is linked to all body systems, especially your immune system. There are no quick fixes; your gut health and immune strength are a reflection of your habits over time.
Jumpstart your gut health with our 3-Day Quick Gut Reset. On an ongoing basis, focus on a good night’s sleep, eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables each day, and keep sugar and alcohol in check. With a lifestyle that respects the importance of gut health, you’ll be well on your way to staying healthy this season and next.