At some point you were probably encouraged to “trust your gut.” That’s great advice when it comes to believing in your instincts, but your gut is a major part of your digestive system. You have about 30 feet of intestines inside your body that are home to trillions of organisms working to maintain a healthy balance.
But gut health goes beyond what happens in the digestive system. It has been shown to affect the body’s immune system, it can help the body to fight infection, can prevent some types of cancers, and even plays a role in a person’s mental health.
Fighting Disease with Healthy Guts
The research on gut health and overall health is relatively new so it’s difficult to say which strains of bacteria are the most beneficial or how bacteria work together to improve overall health. But there are a few interesting findings:
- Cancer — A study found some evidence that a certain bacteria could protect against some cancers.
- Heart disease — A study identified a bacteria that could prevent the inflammation that leads to fatty buildup in the arteries.
- Immune system — Researchers discovered that giving a certain bacteria to mice with skin cancer made their immune systems attack tumor cells.
Your gut also plays a significant role in your outlook and mental health: it’s home to 95% of your body’s serotonin, an amazing hormone that regulates your sleep, appetite, mood, and sensitivity to pain.
Feeding a Healthy Gut
How we’re built, how we manage stress, our family and genetic history, and what we eat all affect our gut. We can’t do much about our family or genetic history, but we can manage our stress, shape our bodies, and control what we put in them.
When you eat a lot of highly processed foods like fast food, chips, snacks, canned foods, and foods with added sugars, you kill the good bacteria in your gut. Sugar can cause a quick spike in serotonin, but it damages your gut’s ability to produce it. This eventually interferes with your body’s ability to regulate sleep, appetite, mood, and pain sensitivity. Eating less sugar will benefit your gut and just about every other system in your body.
Another way to improve your gut health is to add fiber to your diet, which you can get by eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Aim to consume 20 to 30 grams of fiber a day. If you don’t consume a lot of fiber, start adding it to your diet gradually to avoid bloating, gas, and discomfort.
Prebiotics and Probiotics
To get the right bacterial balance, you should eat foods to feed the bacteria in your gut or eat foods that add bacteria to your gut. Feeding existing microbes requires prebiotics while adding new microbes calls for probiotics.
- Prebiotics are dense carbohydrates that aren’t digestible by your body so they become food for the bacteria in your gut. There are lengthy lists of prebiotic foods but some of the more common ones are garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus, bananas, oats, apples, cocoa, jicama, and wheat bran.
- Probiotics are found in bacteria-fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi.
If you think you could benefit from these nutrients, talk to an AltaMed dietician to find the food sources and supplements that would be best for you.
Maintaining a Healthy Gut
Eating the right foods goes a long way toward having a healthy gut. Until the complex relationship between gut health and overall health is understood more, here are additional steps to take:
- Eat slower — Chewing well before swallowing keeps you from swallowing air and improves digestion.
- Have smaller meals — This encourages digestion and you avoid overfilling your stomach, which can lead to reflux.
- Don’t dine at dark — Your gastrointestinal tract works better in the morning and during the day.
- Control stress — Learn some relaxation techniques as digestion is harder when you’re stressed.
- Have a routine — Eating at regular times has been shown to improve digestion.
- Move more — This helps maintain a healthy weight and avoid digestive problems.
- Sleep more — Obesity is linked to lack of sleep and obesity leads to digestive problems.
We’re Here for You
AltaMed can help you answer questions about the connection between your gut health and your overall health. Our registered dieticians are available to get you on a path to eating a healthier diet. We can also help put together an exercise plan, and our Behavioral Health Services can help you cope with stress. Learn more by calling (888) 499-9303.