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Gut Health: Why It Matters

Did you know that gut health affects literally everything in your body? The gastrointestinal system is the main “portal” for taking in and processing nutrients, but it also serves a communication center and disease fighter. From your nervous and immune systems to your mental health and digestive function, a healthy gut plays a pivotal role in your overall well-being.

But what does “gut health” mean? How does it affect other parts of your body? And what can you do to improve your gut health if it’s out of balance?

Also known as the digestive tract or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the gut covers the parts of the body involved with food intake and output from top to bottom. This includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, colon and rectum. But when we talk about gut health, we're really talking about the bacteria in the microbiome, and the vast majority of the “microbiome magic” happens in your large intestine.

Think of the microbiome as the environment inside the large intestine, specifically the trillions of bacteria that live there. In fact, there are more bacteria in your gut than there are stars in the Milky Way.

Microbiome diversity is important. The microbiome contains both good bacteria and bad bacteria, known as gut flora. The good bacteria feeds on fiber, including both soluble and insoluble fiber in our diets. The bad bacteria feed on elements in simple sugars and processed foods. Our body has an important, symbiotic relationship with our microbiome: it takes in all these microorganisms, digests them and then produces other compounds that our body can use. So, while some of these bacteria are harmful to our health and others are beneficial, they both need to be there.

Linking Gut Health and Overall Well-Being

According to the National Institutes of Health, digestive diseases affect 60 million to 70 million Americans, ranging from gallstones and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Gut-related issues span beyond your GI tract. Signs of an unhealthy gut may show up as:

  • Chronic pain

  • Mental health issues (such as depression and anxiety)

  • Weight loss

  • Migraines

  • Diabetes

  • Insomnia

  • Inflammation

  • Fatigue or lethargy

But it’s not all bad news. Gut health may help predict diseases, provide protection and offer possible treatment. Research suggests that gut health influences, and even improves:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune illnesses

  • Cancer

  • Heart disease

  • Diabetes

Gut balance also has a profound effect on the brain. More than 90 percent of the serotonin, the hormone that makes us feel happy, is produced in the gut. Food cravings often originate from this connection. And psychological stress can negatively affect your gut health, causing inflammation and emotional eating.

Because the gut forges such a strong connection with so many other elements of our well-being, it’s important to keep it healthy.

How To Improve Gut Health

To balance your gut flora for a healthy microbiome, follow these tips for better health.

  • Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Besides providing a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals, they’re also a good source of fiber — the main fuel for those bacteria. Aim for three large servings of vegetables a day with at least four or five different sources of vegetables.

  • Include nuts, seeds and legumes in your diet. Examples include cashews, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, black beans and lentils. They’re all excellent sources of both fiber and protein.

  • Eat whole grains. They provide another great source of dietary fiber. Eat a variety of whole grains, including barley, brown rice, bulgur, millet, oats, quinoa, whole wheat breads and cereals.

  • Eat both prebiotic and probiotic foods, which help boost the population and diversity of good bacteria. They may help to reduce gut inflammation and stimulate the gut’s natural immune system.

    • Prebiotics: almonds, apples, bananas, broccoli, flax seeds, garlic, onions  

    • Probiotics: fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, tempeh, yogurt

  • Take supplements. If you don’t consumer enough prebiotic and probiotic foods, consider taking supplements to maintain a healthy gut.

  • Limit antibiotics. Avoid taking antibiotics if you don’t need them, such as if you have a common cold. Why? Antibiotics can wipe out both bad and good bacteria.

Making small changes to our diets can have major positive effects down the line. Spend a little time analyzing what you eat in a day — consider writing down your meals in a food journal — and make any adjustments necessary to optimize your digestive health.


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