We can’t deny that there are a lot of whacky health crazes out there, and when it comes to wellness buzzwords, “gut health” is one of the buzziest. However, the rise in “gut health” Google searches was not on account of product trends or blogger endorsements, but because of growing research that suggests the gut is one of the biggest factors in our overall health.
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Why does gut health matter?
When the gut is healthy, it absorbs the food you eat so that your body can use all the nutrients. When the gut is not healthy, like if there’s an overgrowth of bad bacteria or leaky gut lining (a controversial health condition that some healthcare practitioners believe exists and some do not), it may be that nutrients are not being absorbed properly and may even trigger inflammation.
This inflammation response can potentially show up as a number of different health problems. No matter what your health problems or goals are (like boosting immunity, increasing energy, or building muscle), it might be a good idea for you to start with your gut.
9 Ways to Improve Gut Health by the End of the Week
1. Add fermented foods to your diet
Foods that are fermented using natural processes contain probiotics that may strengthen the microbiome (or the trillions of bacteria that live in the digestive tract). Try adding fermented vegetables like pickles, kefir, kimchi, miso, kombucha, sauerkraut, and tempeh to your diet this week. Adding kimchi or miso to your stir-fry and having a glass of kefir as an afternoon snack are both easy ways to make gut health a part of your routine.
2. Reduce artificial sweetener intake (or added sugar in general)
I’m not a big fan of limitations, but if you’re serious about your gut health, artificial sweeteners may prevent the body from healing by changing the gut microbiota. Sugar can not only feed the bad bacteria, but may suppress the growth of good bacteria. In other words, you can eat all the sauerkraut and tempeh your heart desires, but it won’t make much difference to your gut if you’re consuming excess sugar. If cutting out sugar feels overwhelming, start small. Take your coffee without sweetener or have a savory breakfast (eggs or avocado toast) instead of a sweet one (sorry, pancakes, but we’re officially breaking up).
3. Let your body wake up naturally (when you can) and sleep more
Maybe your alarm clock is an absolute necessity to get to the office by 9am, but you should ideally be waking up naturally (based on circadian rhythm) for optimal gut health. “The gut microbiota has a circadian rhythm like we do. Our gut microbiota will fluctuate in terms of composition and abundance based on our rhythm of when we eat and sleep. If that circadian rhythm is disrupted, we are going to have issues,” Dr. M. Andrea Azcárate-Peril, a director at the Microbiome Core Facility at the University of North Carolina, told Healthline.
This week, focus on sleeping in line with your body’s natural circadian rhythm. Get to bed earlier if you’re having trouble waking up in the morning, and let yourself sleep until you naturally wake up when you can.
4. Focus on stress management
A 2014 study published in BMC Microbiology found that psychological stress may be able to interfere with the good bacteria and microorganisms in the small intestines. While some stress might be unavoidable in this day and age (looking at you, rush hour traffic!), find activities that calm you down and reduce stress. This week, try yoga, meditation, taking baths, or reading before bed. For long-term stress management, prioritize ways you can lower cortisol in the body on a regular basis.
5. Sip on bone broth
Full disclosure, bone broth is a health craze that still kind of grosses me out (I mean, chicken feet? Beef shin? I’m good, thanks). However, when cooked, the collagen in these ingredients creates gelatin, which may help with digestion and reducing inflammation, AKA it just might be insanely good for the gut.
Try replacing your chicken stock with bone broth in recipes, or even sip on a cup instead of tea for a gut health boost. If you’re vegetarian/vegan (or the concept of “chicken feet” just really grosses you out), you can DIY a veggie-based version.
6. Eat more (natural) fiber
Fiber is crucial for gut health. Sure, when you’re in a pinch (and by that I mean you’re *ahem* backed up), a fiber supplement, recommended by your doctor, can do the trick to get things moving. However, if you’re looking to improve your overall gut health sustainably, do what your mom used to tell you as a kid and eat your fruits and veggies.
Fiber feeds the good bacteria in your gut, as Scientific American reported. Because plants are so powerful, add more to your daily diet. Try particularly high-fiber foods like pears, berries, avocados, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, lentils, beans, etc.
7. Swap your cleaning products
There’s a lot of talk about going “clean” these days, and yes, that means even with our cleaning products. The bathroom cleaner or counter spray you use can not only affect the environment, but it can also affect your gut. A recent study found that the use of antibacterial and antimicrobial cleaning products might negatively affect the gut microbiota, though that study was done in zebrafish, which means a lot more research is needed to determine if there’s a link. Swap out any antibacterial soaps or detergents, and replace them with healthier options (or just plain soap and water).
8. Add prebiotics to your meals
You’re already focused on fiber to keep things moving, but prebiotics are a specific kind of fiber that act as food for the probiotics in your microbiome (it’s confusing, but they sound the same for a reason! You need both prebiotics and probiotics for good gut health). Try a scoop of inulin powder in your coffee or smoothie, and load up on produce like bananas, asparagus, onion, and garlic, which contain natural prebiotics.
9. Trust your gut
Pardon the pun, but your body really does know what’s best for it, so pay attention to your body’s reactions. What are your cravings? Does coffee make you tired? Does kale make you bloated or excess protein give you brain fog? While we can identify some health benefits of foods, lifestyle changes, and activities, every body is different, and only you can know what’s really good and bad for your gut.
If a workout puts too much stress on your body, or a food that’s “healthy” is making you feel sluggish, trust your instinct. Give your body what it craves instead of what you think you “should” do (i.e. if you want something warm, have a grounding stew instead of forcing yourself to eat salad, or if you’re feeling run-down, skip your workout and take a bath). Your body is meant to heal itself; listen closely enough so that you’re able to give it what it needs.