It’s important to listen to your gut—whether it’s telling you about important life decisions or sending warning signs about your health. And while it might be hard to describe how a “gut instinct” feels, the link between gut health and your overall wellness is clear.
“Believe it or not, your gut microbiome is the foundation of your health,” Michele Helfgott, MD, told Parkview Health, explaining that good gut health “occurs when you have a balance between the good (helpful) and bad (potentially harmful) bacteria and yeast in your digestive system.”
Helfgott points out that 80 percent of your immune system resides in your gut, as well as most of your body’s serotonin. “This means if your gut isn’t healthy, then your immune system and hormones won’t function, and you will get sick,” Helfgott says. “Unfortunately, this is also how autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s Disease begin.”
While eating healthy foods might seem like the best way to take care of your digestive system, you can boost your gut health in other ways, too. Read on for four simple ways to improve your gut health.
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Eating healthy benefits many aspects of your health—but it’s also important to eat lots of different foods. The more diverse your diet, the more diverse your microbiome, and the more adaptable it will be to changes, according to a May 2016 review published by the journal Molecular Metabolism. “Unfortunately, dietary diversity has been lost during the past 50 years and dietary choices that exclude food products from animals or plants will narrow the GI microbiome further,” the authors state.
Ruairi Robertson, PhD, echoes this sentiment in an article for Healthline. “The traditional Western diet is not very diverse and is rich in fat and sugar,” Robertson says. “In fact, an estimated 75 percent of the world’s food is produced from only 12 plant and five animal species.”
Robertson suggests incorporating fruits, vegetables, and legumes into your diet. “Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of nutrients for a healthy microbiome,” he says, noting that while your body can’t digest high-fiber foods, “certain bacteria in your gut can digest fiber, which stimulates their growth.” Robertson advises that “beans and legumes also contain very high amounts of fiber.” Other foods that can bring diversity into your diet are plant-based foods, whole grains, and foods rich in polyphenols, such as almonds and dark chocolate.
A healthy diet isn’t just about what you eat, it’s about what you drink, too. The three top fluids for a healthy gut are water, water, and water.
Drinking water “may be linked to increased diversity of bacteria in the gut, though the source of the water also matters,” says Healthline. “One 2022 study also found that people who drank more water had less of a type of bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal infections. And drinking water has plenty of other health benefits, as well.
What you don’t drink is equally important. Alcohol, in particular, has been associated with inflammation, which in turn can cause myriad ill effects. “Researchers have begun to discover that alcohol, particularly if consumed chronically and in larger amounts, induces a process initiated in the gut that promotes inflammation throughout the body,” according to an Alcohol Research Current Reviews article published by the National Library of Medicine. “This alcohol-induced intestinal inflammation may be at the root of multiple organ dysfunctions and chronic disorders associated with alcohol consumption, including chronic liver disease, neurological disease, GI cancers, and inflammatory bowel syndrome.”
Many people don’t realize that improved gut health is among the many benefits of getting enough sleep. Ryan Barish, MD, tells Henry Ford Health that “it’s a two-way street. We do know that digestive health can play a role in how well someone sleeps, and sleep can affect how well the digestive system functions.”
Not sleeping enough can cause stress and inform poor dietary decisions, like choosing to eat junk food, or eating late at night. And Barish believes that decreased melatonin, the sleep hormone, may be linked to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Melatonin helps us sleep, but also assists with regulating gastrointestinal mobility, Barish says: “When melatonin levels are thrown off, it can be difficult to sleep—and it could potentially lead to GERD.”
It’s a specific example of the two-way street that is sleep and gut health. “GERD has been shown to adversely affect sleep by awakening people from sleep during the night,” Ronnie Fass, MD, explains on the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) website. “At the same time sleep deprivation… can adversely affect GERD by enhancing perception of acid in the esophagus (esophageal hypersensitivity), and potentially by increasing esophageal acid exposure time.”
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Many different factors can cause your stress to spike. “Concerns about money, work, and the economy top the list of most frequently cited sources of stress,” the American Psychological Association reports. Whatever the cause, stress is not good for your health in general, and it’s definitely not good for your gut health.
Lack of sleep can affect your gut health in various ways, Barish says. It can increase your stress levels and thus the stress hormone, cortisol. “Increased stress can cause intestinal permeability issues—or something known as leaky gut—where food and toxins are able to pass through the intestine and into the bloodstream,” he Barish. “This can lead to a host of issues including bloating, inflammation, stomach pains, food sensitivities, and changes to the gut microbiome.”
Lowering your stress is easier typed out than done of course, but there are plenty of approaches to try. Yoga and meditation, writing in a journal, and even learning how to stop saying “yes” all the time are all ways you can address stress and anxiety.