How to Improve Your Gut Health

Signs to Watch For and Tips to Follow

Even though we may not actively think about our gut health on a daily basis, the truth is that it can have a significant impact on our daily life.

A balanced and healthy gut can improve many factors of your health, from your immune system to your mood. Read on to learn more about the signs that your gut is out of whack and the tips you can follow to strive for balance.

illustration showing scribbles in the gut

The Importance of a Healthy Gut

A healthy, balanced gut is far more important to your day-to-day life than many people realize. “A healthy gut contributes to having a strong immune system, improves heart health, helps the brain, improves mood, and improves sleep,” says Dr. Ashley Masterson, a family medicine physician with CHI Memorial Integrative Medicine Associates. So, what does a healthy gut mean, exactly? Often referred to as the gut “flora” or gut “microbiome,” the wide variety of bacteria, viruses, and yeasts contained within the digestive tract need to be kept in homeostasis. Some of these microorganisms are beneficial to the body, while others are harmful, which means that it’s key to keep them properly balanced.

How Do You Know Your Gut Is Imbalanced?

If your gut microbiome isn’t balanced or stable, your body is usually pretty quick to let you know – a primary sign is an upset stomach. The following are symptoms that your digestive tract is off its game: 

illustration of gut bacteria

These symptoms occur because, when the gut is imbalanced, it struggles to process food, nutrients, and eliminate waste in the ways that it should. 

An imbalance of the gut’s microbiome can be caused by a number of different things. Diets high in sugar or high in processed foods can reduce the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut flora, which prevents the body from processing food correctly. In turn, this can cause an increase in sugar cravings, which can lead to a cycle that’s difficult to break. Steady consumption of a food or food group your body may have a level of intolerance for – such as dairy – can also be detrimental to your gut health. 

It’s important to keep in mind that an unhealthy gut can also lead to other, more serious health conditions. A gut thrown off balance by a high-sugar diet can lead to increased inflammation in the body – something that studies have linked as a precursor to some types of cancer. Other conditions linked to poor gut health include eczema, insulin resistance, and some autoimmune diseases. Furthermore, much of the body’s serotonin – a hormone that’s important to mood and healthy sleep – is produced in the gut, and compromised levels of serotonin can lead to poor mental health, fatigue, and disturbed sleep.

An Imbalanced Gut vs. a Chronic Condition

There are a lot of things that can cause a disturbance in your digestive tract, which can make it difficult to determine if your gut is off-balance, or if something more serious is wrong. “Persistent symptoms, unexplained weight loss, blood in the stool, black stool, blood in the vomit, severe vomiting, fever, severe abdominal pain, difficulty swallowing, pain in the throat or chest when food is swallowed, and jaundice are all signs that there may be a more serious condition going on and that you should seek help from your doctor,” explains Dr. Masterson. A physician or specialist can work with you to determine if persisting symptoms are due to an unhappy gut or something else like irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, or another type of gastrointestinal disease.

Tips to Follow for Better Gut Health

Fortunately, there are a range of steps you can take toward a healthier, more in-balance gut. “In regard to your diet, you can add fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, which are sources of healthy fiber,” Dr. Masterson says. Many adults don’t get the amount of daily fiber needed, and fiber is crucial to maintaining good bacteria and balancing the gut. Some other tips to follow for better gut health include:

Add gut-friendly foods to your diet. Fermented foods are an excellent addition to your meal rotation, as they can prevent inflammation and are a natural source of probiotics. Examples of fermented food include kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, and tempeh. Other foods rich in probiotics that are beneficial to your gut include whole grains, onions, garlic, asparagus, and bananas. Whenever you’re put on a course of antibiotics, it might also be helpful to add a probiotic or prebiotic supplement to your diet, just to maintain balance of good bacteria in the gut. 

Scale back on consumption of gut-unfriendly foods and substances. Processed foods and refined sugars, as previously mentioned, can wreak both short- and long-term havoc on your gut as well as the rest of your body. Be sure to monitor your intake of these when possible, and consider avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, which can also throw your gut microbiome off balance. 

woman sleeping

Get more (and better) sleep. Even adults still need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. If you’re getting seven and still feeling fatigued, consider trying to go to bed earlier each night. If you sleep fitfully, or have trouble staying asleep, a doctor or specialist can work with you to treat the issue.

Exercise more. Regular exercise not only helps you to stay fit, but it has also been known to alleviate stress. Excessive stress can lead to heartburn and stomach upset in some cases, so a regular exercise plan that works for you is in your best interest. 

Stay hydrated. Drinking an adequate amount of water daily has a host of beneficial effects on the body, and some studies have shown that proper hydration is important to intestinal linings as well as the balance of good bacteria in the gut. 

A happier gut is one step closer to a happier you – so take care not to neglect it. If your gut is telling you it needs attention, try following some of these tips to aim for equilibrium. 

Picture of Dr. Ashley Masterson

Dr. Ashley Masterson

Family Medicine Physician,
CHI Memorial Integrative Medicine Associates

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