The gut, short for the gastrointestinal tract, refers to your digestive system. It’s a set of organs that start at your mouth and stop at your rectum. The gut serves many functions in maintaining and protecting the health of your body. The gut doesn’t always work at its best due to internal and external factors. In such a case, there are several things you can do to improve gut health.
Digestion is a crucial survival function as your body needs nutrients from food and drink to work properly. Starting at the mouth, the system breaks down food and drink into tiny parts for your body to absorb them and use them for growth, as energy and for repair.
Each organ in the gut helps to move the food further along the system and break it into smaller parts. Not everything you eat and drink can be absorbed by your body though.
Any parts of the food and drink that are not needed end up as waste and are excreted. How much your body can absorb from the food you eat depends on several factors:
- your metabolism
- how active you are
- your gender and age
Depending on the foods you’ve eaten, it can take up to 36 hours on average for it to move through the whole digestive system.
Why is gut health important?
Your gut is full of trillions of gut organisms, collectively called the microbiome. This includes fungi, viruses, bacteria and other small organisms and various amounts. Each of them serves a specific purpose providing balance to your gut. Unhealthy individuals have less variety in their gut organisms. There are more bacteria associated with a disease.
Organisms can bring your microbiome out of balance. This shifts your eco-system in your body. In the past few years, researchers discovered that your gut health relates to many health aspects.
At first, those health aspects don’t seem to be linked to your digestive system. But they are part of your body being in homeostasis. Affected aspects include chronic illness, emotional stress and immunity.
Gut health has even been linked to anxiety, heart disease, depression and some cancers.
Probiotics vs Prebiotics
Everybody has heard of probiotics these days. Either whilst talking to friends or from the marketing of products containing them. But what are probiotics? In a nutshell, probiotics are live bacteria, found in certain supplements and foods, that provide health benefits to your gut. They aid digestion and support an environment where microorganisms can flourish.
A process called fermentation creates that live bacteria. They appear in foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurt, pickles and others.
Prebiotics are a type of fibre which the human body cannot digest but acts as food for the bacteria in your gut. This helps to increase the number of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system.
Prebiotics can be found in onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas and oats to list a few. When cooking those foods the fibre content can change though. Hence, it is best to consume such food raw to get the most out of them.
Signs of an unhealthy gut
The most obvious sign of an unhealthy gut is digestive irregularities. Issues like increased gas, bloating or constipation all point to stomach disturbances. If you have those issues you don’t have enough diversity and quantity of gut bacteria. In this case, you should try and improve gut health.
Another sign of an unhealthy gut is food sensitivities or allergies. Issues like lactose intolerance or gluten intolerance are due to problems with your gut.
Your gut acts like a gatekeeper and decides what stays out and what gets in. Preventing foreign substances from entering your body is a second important function.
Depression, moodiness and anxiety can also be a result of a dysfunctional gut. Your happiness hormones serotonin and dopamine are predominantly made in your digestive system. If your gut is too leaky you might be losing too many of those hormones influencing your mental health.
If you have issues with your digestive system, here are 6 tips how you can improve gut health:
1.) Eat fermented foods
In ancient times the process of fermentation preserved food. There are several forms of fermentation. We are interested in the lactic acid fermentation. In this process, sugar and carbohydrates are broken down by bacteria and yeast and turned into lactic acid. Foods produced that way are sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurt and kefir.
During the fermentation process, the amount of good bacteria grows in the food. These probiotics you would want to have in your food to improve gut health as it adds to your existing bacteria.
Fermented foods not only improve your gut but also your immune system. Fermentation also changes the nutritional content of foods like increasing B vitamins. Besides, it can increase the bioavailability of certain nutrients making them more accessible to your body.
2.) Take probiotic supplements
Some people just don’t like the taste of sauerkraut or kimchi. Or they have an intolerance for yoghurt. Looking at probiotic supplements to improve gut health might be an alternative.
There are plenty of different products out there and choosing the right one for you is important. There are different strands of probiotics. Each strand seems to be more effective than others in treating particular issues.
When looking for the right supplement check the label and look for the right strands to meet your needs. Look for words like “active bacteria” or “live bacteria”. Also, find out the amount of CFUs (colony forming units) in the product. These are the number of live and active bacteria in each serving.
3.) Eat prebiotic food
If you want more healthy bacteria in your gut you need to provide the right nutrients for them. As long as you provide them with the right environment they can flourish. Prebiotics pass through your digestive system and act as fertilisers to stimulate the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
The main source of prebiotics is dietary fibre. But not all fibre contains prebiotics. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consume that fibre though. It still promotes health and aids a healthy gut itself.
The advantage of prebiotics over probiotics is the way it gets absorbed by the body. Some or most of the probiotics are either destroyed, digested or absorbed before they reach the colon. Probiotics are not affected by enzymes and gastric acids though meaning they reach the colon unaltered.
4.) Sleep more
There is not much research about the relationship between sleep and your gut but early results point to a dynamic connection. One recent study shows that sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on your gut. It does so by significantly reducing the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
A second issue is the lack of sleep puts your appetite out of balance and can increase food cravings. When you don’t sleep enough your body decreases a hormone called leptin. Leptin handles the level of satiety you feel.
Lack of sleep also increases the hormone ghrelin, which controls hunger. Not enough sleep could mean you eat too much of the wrong food because of your cravings and your brain’s inability to tell when to stop eating.
Are you struggling to sleep? Here are 9 ways to sleep better.
5.) Stress less
The expression “feeling butterflies in your stomach” comes from the link between anxiety and stomach problems. Your brain is closely connected to your digestive system.
When you think about your favourite food your stomach is releasing juices before the food even reached it. But this applies vice versa as well. A troubling part of your gut can also send signals to your brain.
Stress can affect this brain-gut relationship. This results in bloating and other digestive discomforts so they are felt easier. When you are stressed or anxious, some of the hormones released by your body enter your digestive system. They can have a negative effect on your microbiome by causing a dis-balance within your organisms.
The vagus nerve creates the link between your brain and your digestive system. It allows you to breathe, chew, and digest without thinking about it. When you are stressed the vagus nerve is not performing as it should. This means it cannot release anti-inflammatory particles to soothe inflammation in your gut.
If you are looking for ways to reduce stress, here are 10 tips.
6.) Stay well hydrated
Not only does water give you glowing skin but it also promotes gut health. It helps you maintain regular bowel movement and prevent constipation. Drinking enough water keeps your intestines smooth and flexible. If you don’t have enough water, food that tries to pass through your digestive system becomes hard and difficult to pass.
But it’s not only water that keeps you well hydrated. You can also eat whilst making sure you are well hydrated. Foods like cucumber, watermelon and zucchinis contain more than 90% water. Consuming those foods also counts towards hydrating your body and improving gut health.
How do you know you are hydrated enough? The colour of your urine is a good indicator. Dark urine can be an indicator that you need to drink more water. While clear, almost colour urine is a sign of overhydration.
There are many things contributing to a well functioning digestive system. Some aspects are internal like the type of food you eat. Some aspects are external like the amount of sleep you get and the stress you are exposed to.
What you eat and how you live has a direct effect on your gut health. A healthy gut is paramount for a healthy lifestyle and a strong immune system. It can prolong your life and provide a happy mind.
What are your tricks to maintain a healthy digestive system? Have you overcome something by fixing an unhealthy gut? Let me know in the comment section below and subscribe to my blog to get weekly updates.