9 easy ways to make your gut happier

If you think your stomach’s only job is to digest food, think again: The human gut plays a major role in your immune system and mental health. Meaning, when your gut is unhappy, there’s a good chance the rest of your body will be, too.

An unhealthy gut, or dysbiosis, can cause inflammation in the gut, says physician and registered dietitian Amy Burkhart, MD, of The Celiac MD. This may lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), depression, autoimmune diseases, and a host of other symptoms, like diarrhea, constipation, bloating, headaches, and fatigue.

While improving your gut health can’t solve all your problems, it might be a good place to start if you’ve been living with a range of symptoms with no clear cause. Here’s what you need to know about gut health, how it affects the rest of your body, and how you can make your gut happier. 

What is gut health?

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The “gut,” as we commonly refer to it, includes everything in your gastrointestinal system, from your mouth and throat, through your esophagus, stomach, and intestines, and down to your rectum. But what does it mean to have good gut health?

“Having a healthy gut means that a person doesn’t have gastrointestinal symptoms like abdominal pain or diarrhea, that they are free from gastrointestinal diseases like colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, and their system is free from inflammation,” says Lauren Manaker, MS, a registered dietitian and author of Fueling Male Fertility. 

It also means, Manaker adds, that a healthy gut microbiome has a balance of beneficial bacteria in the form of probiotics. Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy for us to accidentally throw the balance of good gut microbes and bad microorganisms out of whack. Things that can cause poor gut health include poor nutrition, stress, lack of sleep, excessive alcohol consumption, certain medications (like antibiotics), and smoking.

You might have poor gut health if you regularly experience any of these digestive tract symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Bloating or gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

And, according to Dr. Burkhart, there are non-digestive signs as well, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle pain, including fibromyalgia
  • Joint pain 
  • Skin rashes or acne
  • Trouble concentrating (brain fog) or paying attention
  • Food intolerances
  • Headaches
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Anxiety or depression

The link between the gut and the immune system has been well-studied; in fact, a huge part of your immune system is centered in your gut, relying on its microbiome to stay regulated. When the microbiome becomes unbalanced, it can cause short-term effects on the immune system (in the form of more frequent illnesses) as well as long-term effects on your overall health and well-being, like autoimmune diseases.

We also know that the “gut-brain” connection is real: While the nervous system in your gut is primarily responsible for digestion, it sends other types of messages to your brain, too, that may cause feelings of anxiety or depression or trigger mood swings. In other words, your gut does more than just process the food you eat—and your gut health plays a huge role in overall wellness and how you feel on a day-to-day basis.

How to improve gut health

The reality is that most of us could probably benefit from paying more attention to our gut. The good news is that you can do it naturally, with just a few simple lifestyle modifications. The goal, says Dr. Burkhart, is to increase microbiome diversity with the number and variety of good bacteria in your gut, which will decrease inflammation and reset the gut. Here’s how to get started.

1. Eat a variety of foods

Here’s some interesting science: The more diverse the microbiota in your gut, the healthier your gut will be. But how do you get a lot of gut microbiota diversity? By eating a wide range of healthy foods like fruits, veggies, and lean proteins.

All the experts we talked to emphasized the importance of eating many different types of fresh, whole, colorful foods—from berries and avocados to dark leafy greens and legumes like lentils. In fact, a 2016 study in Food & Function suggests that fruits and vegetables, like polyphenol rich artichokes, apples, and blueberries, may have a protective effect against the growth of bad bacteria in the gut.

2. Limit alcohol and added sugar

According to Inna Melamed, Pharm.D., a functional medicine practitioner and author of Digestive Reset, alcohol is disruptive to the gut microbiome and causes issues with melatonin production (which disrupts sleep, another marker for poor gut health). 

Added sugars are also a common cause of gut inflammation—including artificial sweeteners. Cutting down on your consumption of sugary, processed foods that are common in the Western diet can help restore your gut health balance, too.

3. Eat fermented foods

One of the most commonly recommended ways to heal the gut is by incorporating more fermented foods into your diet. These foods, says Manaker, contain probiotics that support gut health and promote a balanced microbiome by increasing the amount of lactobacilli.

Some probiotic foods to eat more of include fermented dairy products like kefir and yogurt along with miso, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut. 

Many of these foods also have added the health benefits of being rich in postbiotics, or what is left when your body metabolizes prebiotics and probiotics, says Dr. Burkhart, who also recommends foods like buttermilk, seaweed, and cottage cheese.

4. See your dentist regularly

What does your oral health have to do with your gut health? The mouth is considered part of the GI system—and harmful bacteria living in your mouth can make their way down to your gut. 

“It’s important to have good dental health since the oral microbiome will affect the gut microbiome,” says Dr. Melamed, who recommends visiting your dentist regularly for cleanings and check-ups.

5. Get enough exercise 

Regular exercise can ward off a number of health-related ills, so it makes sense that it can keep your gut healthy, too. One 2020 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition shows that athletes have higher levels of good gut bacteria and more diversity in that bacteria.

“Regular exercise creates positive changes in the gut microbiome and has been shown to increase the gut bacteria that may improve gut permeability,” says Dr. Burkart, who recommends exercising for at least 30 minutes five or more days per week. 

6. Focus on fiber

While you’re committing to eating a wider variety of food to improve your gut health, here’s your reminder about the importance of eating plenty of fiber-filled foods. Most Americans fall short when it comes to eating the right amount of fiber each day, but adding more to your diet can have a direct effect on the number of good bacteria in your gut.

Dr. Burkhart suggests aiming to consume 30 to 35 grams of fiber daily, in the form of foods such as leafy green vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, apples and pears (with the skin on), and berries. 

7. Sleep more

Did you know that sleeping is good for your gut? It’s true: The better you sleep, the more types of bacteria grow in your gut, making a strong case for getting enough sleep every night.

“[While you sleep], the digestive system is busy regenerating and repairing tissues in our gut,” Dr. Melamed says. “We also grow more good gut bacteria during the night, which helps us have a better digestive process.”

8. Stress less

There’s a strong gut-brain connection, one that can increase symptoms of anxiety and depression if your gut health is poor. But the gut and brain communicate along a two-lane highway, Dr. Burkhart says, so what happens in the brain also affects what happens in the gut—and that means reducing stress levels can improve your gut health.

“Managing stress is an important piece of the gut health puzzle,” Dr. Burkhart says. “Stress is a normal part of life and learning to manage it is vital.”

She recommends developing a daily stress reduction routine, which can include breathing exercises, meditation, reading, journaling, or spending 20 minutes a day in nature.

9. Stay hydrated

Last but not least, don’t forget to drink plenty of water. Per Dr. Burkhart, dehydration leads to inflammation, and staying adequately hydrated (i.e., drinking six to eight glasses of liquid every day) can help you maintain a healthy gut.

If plain water isn’t your thing, some other beverages can work, too. In fact, Dr. Melamed suggests incorporating more herbal teas into your diet, like chamomile, dandelion, rose hip, and hibiscus; not only do these aid digestion and help hydrate you, they even have some detoxifying effects that can cleanse your gut and support your liver.

When to see a doctor for gut health

Symptoms of an inflamed gut will vary from one person to the next, but Dr. Melamed says there are a few red flags that may mean you should check in with your primary care provider or a gastroenterology doctor. Pay attention to signs of poor gut health like:

  • Irregular bowel habits
  • Chronic constipation
  • Heartburn and/or indigestion
  • Bad breath
  • Frequent stomach pain

Try to accurately assess how often these symptoms happen—you can keep a symptom journal if it helps—and don’t be afraid to let your provider know when you think your gut health needs attention. 

“It’s very important to be proactive when it comes to healing the gut,” Dr. Melamed says. “Some people don’t realize they have an inflamed gut for many years because they think their symptoms are ‘normal’ and that ‘everybody has gut problems.’” 

If your provider thinks poor gut health could be to blame for your symptoms, he or she may suggest lifestyle changes like cutting back on certain types of foods, getting more sleep or exercise, or increasing your intake of fresh, whole foods, or even trying probiotic supplements. If they’re concerned about any particular symptoms or want to rule out other causes, they may refer you to a gastroenterologist. 


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