- Gut health includes digestion and the state of your microbiome
- What we eat, where we live, stress, sleep, and medicines can all alter the microbiome
- Fiber-rich, prebiotic, and fermented foods can help heal the gut
Gut health is very trendy. Here's what you need to know about digestive nutrition, how you can restore your gut and heal it naturally.
We know…gut health is everywhere - from Instagram to TikTok and even The New York Times. As gut health nutritionists, or dietitians who specialize in gastrointestinal disorders, we totally get the hype - we are now learning that our gut’s health not only affects how we digest food, but it can also influence our cardiovascular health, mental health, immune system and more.
But there’s a ton of misinformation out there: influencers sharing supplements that will heal your “leaky gut,” non-dietitians trying to sell their latest gut health protocols, and even single foods being touted as cure-alls for your digestive symptoms. It’s difficult to know what’s real and truly helpful for you, so we are glad that you’ve made your way to our blog! We are here to break down the latest science around gut health and offer practical advice that is informed by the latest research.
So what exactly is gut health and what can you do to make sure that you’re optimizing yours? Read on to learn about this and other questions we often get from our patients.
What is gut health?
Gut health is a term that we use to describe the health of our digestive system or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which begins with the mouth, through the esophagus, the stomach, the small intestines, large intestine and out the rectum or “back door.” People often believe that an unhealthy gut is the root of their symptoms, whether it be reflux, bloating, nausea, or what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the bathroom.
As gut health nutritionists, we also believe that the symptoms you experience are related to your gut health, but to us, the term gut health is also describing the state of your microbiome. Your GI tract is home to over 100 trillion microorganisms including bacteria, archaea, fungi, and viruses and these “gut bugs” make up your microbiome. Your gut microbiome is an ecosystem in which these bugs have a carefully balanced, symbiotic relationship. When there’s an imbalance in this ecosystem, or dysbiosis, it can lead to several disorders and diseases like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), colorectal cancer, and autoimmune disorders.
What causes an imbalance in gut bacteria or dysbiosis?
Dysbiosis in the gut can be brought on by several things. A virus, illness, infection, or food poisoning can alter the composition of your gut microbiome and introduce new, unwanted species to the gut. Frequent antibiotic use, while often necessary, can also lead to dysbiosis. Having a limited diet (eh hem, not eating enough fiber), eating too many ultra-processed foods with chemicals and preservatives, and drinking too much alcohol can also cause dysbiosis. Even poor dental hygiene, chronic use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and high levels of stress can lead to an imbalanced microbiome.
Is there a way to heal the gut naturally if I have dysbiosis?
First, it’s important to ask yourself, “Does my gut even need to be healed or do I need to nourish it?” One of the things that we find with our patients is that when they begin to experience some discomfort, they stop eating regular meals and nourishing their bodies. This can lead to the elimination of important nutrients and even more stress on the body.
We know that diet plays a huge role in shaping our microbiome and that changing what we eat can alter our microbiome in as little as 24 hours. For most people, the way to heal the gut naturally is by eating regular meals and snacks that are balanced with protein, carbohydrates, and fat with plant-rich, whole foods.
The American Gut Project found that people with the most diverse microbiomes, with the “healthiest” guts, were those who ate 30 or more different plant foods a week. Plant foods include fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, and legumes. This might not work for everyone - for some it’s impractical or may lead to more digestive symptoms. It’s important to add foods slowly or work with gut health nutritionists, like us, to ensure that what you’re adding won’t lead to more tummy troubles.
Eating too many plants or fiber hurts my belly, is there something I can do to get more of these foods into my diet?
Adding plant foods means adding fiber to your diet. When adding fiber, it’s important to go slow to avoid side effects. We talked all about the possible side effects of fiber in one of our previous blog posts. One of the things that can make adding fiber to the diet easier is by having a smoothie, which mechanically breaks down the fiber and alters the texture making it much easier to digest. But not any smoothie will do, a smoothie that is good for your gut health is one that is balanced with protein, fat, and lots of fruits and veggies. Want examples of some gut health smoothies? Sign up for our newsletter to receive our “Build-a-Balanced Smoothie” guide (look for the sign-up at the top of the home, services, or blog page). You can make your very own gut health smoothie!
Is there a probiotic or prebiotic that is best for gut health?
First, let’s define these two terms, as they can be used incorrectly - especially on food labels! A probiotic is made up of live microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeast, that when given in sufficient amounts provide a health benefit to the body. Probiotics’ health benefits are strain and dose dependent- meaning specific amounts of specific strains are needed to show an effect.
In the US, probiotics are considered either supplements or drugs (prescribed), as such, those that are considered drugs are thoroughly reviewed, clinically studied, and evaluated for safety and efficacy by the FDA. Probiotic supplements are only subjected to FDA review if they contain a "new dietary ingredient." If the product has no new ingredients, the products only have to meet labeling and marketing requirements.
Plus, probiotic research is limited to only a few strains, so it's difficult to recommend one that has 50 billion of them! We just don't know the benefits of the other 45 billion strains. There is also new research showing that taking probiotics in itself could lead to dysbiosis by crowding out other helpful bacteria that are in your gut naturally.
Prebiotics are food for our gut microbes that help them to flourish, they are “a substrate that selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit.” They are often fibrous foods that humans cannot digest. When our gut bacteria eat these prebiotics, they do a number of things that are beneficial like improving our gut permeability, stimulating the immune system, and helping with nutrient absorption.
At Amenta, we always aim to put food first, so instead of probiotic or prebiotic supplements, we recommend foods like yogurt, cottage cheese, Yakult, or kefir that have probiotic strains of bacteria in them and have been proven to show a benefit in humans. We also recommend fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso. These foods contain microorganisms, but are not considered probiotics as more studies are needed to determine if they actually confer a health benefit.
Foods that are known to be prebiotic include aromatic vegetables such as onions, leeks, garlic, celery, asparagus, and artichokes. Other prebiotic foods include lentils, peas, chickpeas, peanuts, soybeans, and lima beans. Barley and oats, as well as foods that are high in resistant starch like cooked and cooled pasta or potatoes are also prebiotic foods.
Essentially if you want a better bang for your buck, a variety of probiotic, prebiotic, and fiber-rich foods is more likely to benefit your microbiome rather than unregulated supplements. If and when this changes, we will be the first to let you know!
Is there a program or protocol that should be followed for optimizing gut health?
At Amenta, we don’t have a gut health protocol or program - yet. We find that everyone is an individual and symptoms and circumstances are unique to each person and we love working one-on-one with our patients to help them achieve their individual goals (i.e. optimizing gut health, managing digestive symptoms, etc). With that said, there are some things that we can recommend to everyone for optimizing their gut health and general well-being.
Aim to eat 30 plant foods a week
Start slowly by adding one new fruit, vegetable, grain, or herb to each meal. Our Gut Health Pantry Guide is a great resource for this. This gut health book includes pantry and freezer lists as well as recipes, cooking, and grocery shopping tips. It’s full of information and will get you started on nourishing your microbiome.
Limit ultra-processed foods (UPFs)
UPFs are industrial foods with ingredients that you wouldn’t recognize or use in your own kitchens. These foods are often high in fats, oils, sugars, starches, flavor enhancers and food additives that make the foods hyper-palatable (think of foods like cheese puffs, packaged snack cakes, or convenience foods that contain high fructose corn syrup). The food additives are often not absorbed and are thought to interact directly with the gut microbiota. The research also shows that people with diets high in UPFs have also been shown to eat more, regardless of macronutrient content. Like Michael Pollan said: “Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."
Get proper sleep, exercise regularly and practice stress management - it’s not only food that affects your digestion.
- Inadequate sleep (less or more than 7-9 hours a night for adults) is linked to chronic disease. Lack of sleep can also reduce productivity, response time, lead to impaired attention, and may also lead to hormonal changes causing us to choose foods that are less nutritious. You can improve your sleep by putting devices away, making your bedroom as dark and cool as possible, and attempting to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Exercise at least 30 minutes a day or 150 minutes per week. Exercise can help you poop (the muscles that make up your intestines need to workout too!) and be beneficial for your microbiome. It’s been shown to reduce transit time (good for constipation) and speed up the movement of gas in the digestive tract as well as stimulate bacteria that provide immune functions to the gut.
- Manage your stress with yoga, breathing exercises, and practicing gratitude. Stress triggers our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), our body then releases hormones, and blood is diverted away from the intestines to more vital organs like the brain and heart. This slows down gastric emptying (food leaving your stomach to continue its journey through the GI tract) and speeds up your colonic transit leading to things like diarrhea, urgency, constipation, bloating, abdominal pain, and gas.
As we mentioned before, gut health is a very popular topic. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what’s best for the digestive system. There’s a ton of misinformation going around and marketers are trying to bait you to buy their newest products.
As gut health nutritionists and registered dietitians, we are here to cut through the noise and provide advice that is based on the latest research, not the bottom line. We look at you as an individual and our recommendations are tailored to you and your lifestyle - no cookie-cutter recommendations here!