A beginner’s guide to gut health
Yes, gut health is a complex topic and much more than just a list. However, we find that often taking a simplified approach to gut health and focusing on the fundamentals can make all the difference, even if someone is already doing “all” of the more elaborate things. So based on that, here are nine do’s and don’ts to foster a healthy gut (and body!).
Gut health do’s:
Eat a variety of plant-based foods: Research indicates that eating a diet rich in plant-based foods (think lots of fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and whole grains) results in a healthier, more diverse gut microbiome. The reason is that each of these foods contains a variety of antioxidants each a bit different from the other and having various gut-healthy benefits. Additionally, most of these foods contain fiber which is good for the gut bacteria when the fiber is fermented into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), acting as prebiotics for the gut.
Eat a diet rich in pre/probiotics: This probably is not new news; however, it is SO important that we will explain it anyway. Think of prebiotics as the good bacteria promoters as they feed the gut bacteria and probiotics as the live beneficial bacteria. Together, they work synergistically to promote a diverse and healthy gut microbiome! Prebiotics are found in veggies, especially in jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, and jicama. Probiotics are found in fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, and sauerkraut. In addition to food, pre/probiotics can be found in supplement form, but their quality is key. If you want to know which supplements may be best for you, please reach out!
Hydrate: Drinking adequate fluids throughout the day is critical for health overall. Specifically in the gut, being dehydrated often leads to constipation may impair digestion, and may negatively impact the gut lining (the mucosal lining of the gut is dependent on proper hydration). Not to mention adequate hydration is essential for organ function, detoxification, the immune system, and hormone balance (which again ties back to gut health!).
Chew your food and slow down: Taking the time to sit down, look at, smell, taste, and chew your food is SO underrated. This helps put your body into rest and digest mode, releases digestive enzymes, and if you think about it, chewing is the only way your body can physically break down food via your teeth. The rest is all via chemical reactions. If you are swallowing big pieces of food, it is going to be tough for your body to break down (from an enzymatic and chemical perspective)! This, alongside eating on the go and scarfing down your food, can result in poorly digested food and digestive distress like bloating, abdominal pain, belching, and more. Next time you eat, challenge yourself to sit down and look at your food and CHEW. Also, try setting a timer to see how long it takes you to eat your food – you will probably be shocked at how fast you eat. Then challenge yourself to eat slower, even if it is by a minute each time, until you feel like you are taking the time to chew your food and enjoy your meal.
Get good quality sleep: Yes, your sleep quality impacts your digestion. Have you ever noticed that when you get less sleep, you wake up feeling bloated, ravenous, and reaching food carbohydrates all day? Well, when one is sleep-deprived, it increases stress, negatively affects food choices, alters hormones related to appetite, and disrupts the gut microbiome. This is why getting quality sleep is key for optimizing digestion.
Move your body daily: Getting your body moving has profound effects on your gut health, hormones, sleep, mood, and more (which all also impact the gut)! From a gut-health perspective, engaging in physical activity helps motility and benefits the gut microbiome.
Cook with high-quality oil: Oils like Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Avocado Oil, Coconut Oil, Flaxseed oil, and ghee (even though technically not an oil) are anti-inflammatory given their ratio of Omega 3’s to Omega 6’s and are packed with antioxidants making them the perfect choice to optimize gut health! Check out this post to learn what oils you should use and when.
Wait 3-4 hours between meals/snacks: This can be particularly helpful for those who are constipated and/or are chronically bloated. This is because the Migrating Motor Complex (MMC) is naturally stimulated in a fasted state or about every 3-4 hours post-meal sending waves of muscle contraction through our stomach and small intestine (aka peristalsis) so that food is pushed through to the large intestine for further digestion and ultimately excretion.
Engage in stress management practices: The gut and brain are closely linked together via the vagus nerve. When you feel stressed, your gut can take the brunt of it, resulting in undesirable symptoms like indigestion, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, you name it! Therefore, we highly recommend engaging in daily practices to help improve your body’s stress response, whether that is yoga, meditation, journaling, a walk outside, a hot bath, etc., which will help activate your parasympathetic nervous system (aka rest and digest!). Additionally, even if you do not have time to get these practices in (or forget), taking a few deep breaths before meals can be beneficial.
Gut health don’ts:
Now that we have explained what you should do, what you should not be doing may feel more self-explanatory. Also, it is important to keep in mind that we are not suggesting you never engage in these behaviors; rather, you bring awareness to them to see how each makes your body (and your gut) feel and then limit them appropriately.
Eat the same foods every day: Eating the same handful of foods on repeat is not great for the gut microbiome. As we mentioned earlier, each food has its unique properties, which feed the gut microbiome and provide your body with various nutrients. When you eat the same foods repeatedly, your gut microbiome may lack diversity, and you are at an increased risk for nutrient deficiencies. While we all have our staple foods (I often eat a similar breakfast daily), try buying a new fruit, veggies, nuts, grains, etc. weekly. A great way to do this is going to the farmers market, where you can find what’s in season and likely bursting with flavor!
Eat a diet primarily composed of processed foods: A dietary pattern that is primarily composed of packaged foods rather than fresh produce, nuts, seeds, legumes, and high-quality protein is often inflammatory (thanks to the oils used) and is void of adequate protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber (key for gut health!).
Skip out on hydration: We discussed how important staying hydrated is earlier! Everyone has their tricks for getting their water in throughout the day, whether it is setting a reminder on their phone telling them to drink, drinking 16 oz right upon waking, or having a water bottle that has timestamps marked out telling you how much to drink when – whichever way is most effective for you is the one we suggest!
Eat on the go: When you eat on the go, you are not chewing food adequately, not in touch with your hunger and fullness cues, and in turn, are asking yourself for poor digestion. If you have to eat on the go, take a few deep breaths before the meal, look at your food, think about chewing, and slow down as much as possible!
Skip out on sleep: Sleep is not for the weak. While sleeping, your body is busy detoxing, balancing hormones, boosting immunity, and brain plasticity, among other important functions. People who sleep well have better weight management, mental health, brain health, fertility, and productivity, as well as reduced disease and cancer risk, anti-aging effects, and more diverse gut microbiomes.
Consume drinks with artificial sugars and artificial sweeteners/flavors: Drinks with artificial sweeteners may negatively disrupt the gut microbiome. Our suggestion is to swap them out by putting fresh fruit into water or drinking some flavored water/seltzer/soda from brands like Spindrift, Sound, and Olipop.
Load up on inflammatory oils (like canola, peanut, sunflower safflower, etc.): We have touched on this a few times now because we believe it is that important. In general, you will drastically decrease the consumption of these inflammatory oils (thanks to their omega 3 to omega 6 ratios) by eating a whole, unprocessed plant-based food diet (and no, we are not talking about a beyond burger!).
Consume liquid calories and graze on snacks throughout the day: Eating food throughout the day and consuming caloric drinks disrupts the MMC and likely results in impaired digestion (think about it, you are never really giving your body a rest) and slower motility (contributes to bloating, bacterial overgrowths, and hormonal imbalances).
Prioritize work over your physical and mental health: Newsflash, when you do not prioritize your own physical and mental health, your gut will not heal! I cannot tell you the number of times clients have seemingly done everything right for their gut – at least diet-wise. However, it was not until they prioritized their mental health that their gut truly started to heal.
The Bottom line
We are still learning a lot about the gut, its complexities, and how it impacts our overall health. However, we know it is WAY more important and involved in so many more processes than we once thought. That being said, we like to stick to the basics when it comes to gut health because the truth is you cannot heal the gut without setting the foundation first! In general, this looks like eating an unprocessed plant-based diet, engaging in physical activity, getting high-quality sleep, and taking care of your mental health.
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Written by Alison Richman MS, RDN