You might assume that your gut primarily affects your digestion, and while it certainly does play a big part in your ability to break down and absorb nutrients properly, its roles extend far beyond this. For example, the status of your gut health also impacts your immune system, response to inflammation, appetite, and even your mood, sleep and energy. Because the “modern-day diet” (or Standard American Diet, as it’s sometimes called) often lacks important nutrients for gut health — such as probiotics, antioxidants, prebiotics and fiber — it’s no surprise that gastrointestinal issues are so common today.
Improving the quality of your diet is one crucial step in supporting a healthy gut; however, certain supplements and lifestyle changes can also make a big impact — such as those that address chronic stress, sleep deprivation and high levels of inflammation.
Why Gut Health Is Important
It’s estimated that about 70% of your immune system is located inside your gut microbiome, which describes the diverse collection of trillions of microbes such as bacteria, yeast and other organisms that reside in your gastrointestinal tract. Some of these organisms, known as probiotics, are considered “friendly” bacteria because they help to defend against the effects of harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi that can wind up making you sick. Someone with a well-functioning gut is considered to have a healthy ratio of good bacteria to harmful bacteria in their microbiome. This not only helps to prevent issues like diarrhea and constipation, but also supports the gut’s ability to absorb and synthesize essential nutrients, eliminate waste from the body, and stimulate the development of T-cells, which are responsible for defending healthy cells.
Another reason why taking care of your gut is so important is because of the “gut-brain connection.” This describes the relationship between your microbiome and central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord), which are in constant communication. There are many millions of neurons located in your gastrointestinal tract, and these neurons send signals back and forth to your brain all day that affect your mood, concentration, capacity to handle stress, and your ability to get good sleep. For instance, how well your gut is functioning partially determines how your body produces “feel good” neurotransmitters like serotonin, which has mood-lifting and calming effects.
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Introduce Your Gut to These Foods
The quality of your diet impacts the types and amounts of bacteria that thrive in your gut, which means your diet plays an important role in supporting both your digestion and your immune system. It’s especially important to “feed” the healthy bacteria in your gut by filling up on nutrient-rich whole foods — including fermented/probiotic foods, high-fiber foods, prebiotic foods and plenty of veggies and healthy fats. Many of these foods also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that support your gut-brain connection by giving your nervous system the nutrients it needs to thrive and by fighting oxidative stress, which can damage healthy cells.
Meeting your daily fiber needs — which is between 25 and 38 grams per day for most adults — is also key for keeping digestion on track. However keep in mind that consuming much more than this amount may actually contribute to digestive issues such as bloating and diarrhea if you’re sensitive to the effects of some types of fiber (for example, FODMAP foods should actually be avoided by people with sensitivities to specific types of carbohydrates that can contribute to gas, bloating, cramps, pain and constipation).
Some of the best nutrient-dense foods for gut health include:
- All types of fresh vegetables, especially leafy greens, bell peppers, green beans, broccoli, tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms, etc.
- Fruits including berries, citrus fruits, kiwi, melon, etc.
- Quality proteins, like grass-fed meats, pasture-raised poultry, wild-caught fish and free-range eggs
- Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut
- Healthy oils like coconut oil and olive oil, plus avocados for healthy fats
- Herbs and spices
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes/beans (preferably soaked and sprouted to improve digestion)
- 100% whole grains, such as quinoa, oats and brown rice (preferably soaked and sprouted to improve digestion)
- Organic, unsweetened dairy products, such as aged cheeses and unsweetened yogurt
- Coffee and tea in moderation, plus herbal teas and bone broth
- A diet that’s low in, or completely free of, grains and sugar can actually improve digestion; however, it’s still important to get at least some fiber in your diet to keep your bowels moving.
In addition to emphasizing the foods above, limit or avoid processed foods made with added sugar, refined grains, poor quality seed/vegetable oils and additives. A diet high in processed foods (especially when these foods are eaten at night, close to bedtime) can throw your gut bacteria out of balance since these foods tend to be difficult to properly break down.
Finally, make an effort to learn which foods are currently on the “Dirty Dozen” versus the “Clean 15” lists, which help consumers to determine which organic foods are worth purchasing. Buying organic as much as possible helps to limit your pesticide/chemical exposure, which can support a healthy gut and immune system.
Try These Supplements for a Healthy Gut
While a healthy, well-rounded diet should be your number one priority when it comes to supporting your gut, adding certain supplements to your routine can also be very beneficial, since these can help fill in gaps in your diet. The following supplements are recommended for extra gut support:
1. Adaptogen herbs and mushrooms — Adaptogens include herbs like ashwagandha, astralagus, and holy basil, plus many experts consider functional mushrooms like reishi and cordyceps to be adaptogens. Adaptogens and mushrooms can help to promote a sense of calm and boost your ability to respond to stress and tension in a healthy way. They may also help you to get restorative sleep more easily, which can directly impact your gut.
Ancient Nutrition’s Leaky Gut Capsules are formulated to support gut function with a powerful blend of botanicals formulated for gut integrity, as well as adaptogenic mushrooms and 2 billion CFUs (colony forming units) of probiotics. This multifaceted formula features key ingredients including licorice root, astragalus, marshmallow, lion’s mane mushroom and L-glutamine, along with 2 billion CFUs of Bacillus coagulans. Together these support digestive function health and promote healthy elimination, while also helping to maintain the mucosal lining of the gut and healthy gut microflora.
2. Collagen protein — Collagen protein can help to promote gut lining integrity because the amino acids found in collagen are the main type of protein that give connective tissues, including those that form the GI tract, their health and strength.
Ancient Nutrition’s Multi Collagen Protein (MCP) powder features 5 types of collagen from four real food sources, plus it contains no fillers, sugar, artificial flavors or artificial preservatives. MCP specifically features hydrolyzed collagen, meaning the protein molecules are broken into smaller molecules, making them easier for your body to digest, absorb and use.
Bone Broth Protein powder is another way to obtain collagen since bone broth naturally features collagen along with minerals and nutrients that further support digestive health, such as glucosamine, calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus.
3. Probiotics — To get the most benefits from probiotics, you want to consume a supplement that contains “hardy” and survivable microbial strains, such as soil-based organism (SBO) probiotics. When reading probiotics labels, also keep a lookout for the genus, species and strain. The label should also indicate the type of CFUs that are present at the time of manufacturing.
Opt for a probiotic supplement that has at least 50 billion CFUs and ideally one with multiple bacterial strains. Keep a lookout for beneficial strains like Bacillus clausii, Bacillus subtilis, Saccharomyces boulardii, and Bacillus coagulans. One such product is Ancient Nutriton’s SBO Probiotic Gut Restore formula, which features prebiotics and postbiotics to create a “trifecta effect” that supports absorption. Prebiotics provide the fuel necessary for probiotics to grow and thrive, while postbiotics help to maintain a balance of gut flora.
In addition to those mentioned above, other supplements that may be helpful if you’re experiencing gut or digestive issues include digestive enzymes (to help break down proteins, complex sugars and starches in your diet, turmeric (which helps promote a healthy inflammation response), fiber such as psyllium husk (which can help prevent constipation), and magnesium (an electrolyte that can help to promote regular elimination).
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Make These Lifestyle Changes
When it comes to bolstering gut health, it’s best to tackle any problems you may have holistically. That’s because many aspects of your lifestyle — such as your sleep, exercise routine, exposure to the outdoors and level of stress — impact the types and amounts of microbes that populate your gut. Genetics and age can also play a role in forming your unique microbiome.
Lifestyle factors to focus on that may potentially contribute to poor gut health include:
- Poor diet (low in fiber and high in sugar)
- Alcohol use
- Frequent use of certain medications
- Chronic stress (stress can cause you to lose your appetite and your digestion to slow down, or can trigger issues like diarrhea or constipation)
- Sleep deprivation
- Genetic predisposition
To help support your gut-brain connection, which is responsible for your overall well-being, work on implementing these healthy lifestyle changes:
- Get enough sleep — Your microbiome is regulated in part by your circadian rhythm (or your “internal clock”). This is why an unhealthy gut can negatively impact your sleep and energy, and vice versa. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, ideally sticking to a consistent sleep-wake-schedule throughout the week if possible. Limiting screen time in the hours before you go to sleep is also recommended to doze off more easily.
- Exercise — Physical activity has natural calming effects, plus exercise helps support a healthy response to inflammation and also tends to improve sleep quality.
- Manage stress — Keeping up with exercise and fun hobbies including yoga, meditation, reading, journaling and socializing are great ways to keep stress in check.
- Spend time outdoors/in nature — Direct contact with soil and plant materials can contribute to an increase in diversity of microbiota within your body, which is a smart way to help support a healthy immune response. Time spent in the sun and in nature is also naturally relaxing, plus it can provide you with the vitamin D your body needs to support immune function, cognitive function and more.
Here’s to a happy, healthy gut!
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