Let’s talk about the gut baby, let’s talk about you and me, let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be, let’s talk about it!
If you were raised in the late 80’s early 90’s, you’ll appreciate the Salt-N-Pepa reference there. But honestly, what’s all the hype about when it comes to the gut? If you’ve asked yourself this question, Gut Health 101 will answer it!
- Why does gut health matter?
- What is a healthy gut?
- How do you know if you have an unhealthy gut?
- What foods are good or bad for the gut?
- Are gut health and mental health connected?
Keep reading to find out the answers to these questions and more!
What is the Gut?
You may be wondering, “what exactly is the gut?”. Essentially, the “gut” is the gastrointestinal tract. To put it simply, the gut includes every area that foods and beverages travel throughout the body. You may find it interesting to know that the gut is a singular tube, starting at the mouth and ending at the anus.
The Role of the Gut
Since we are diving into gut health 101, let’s break that down a little more. I’m sure this part won’t surprise you, but the main functions of the gut are to digest foods and beverages, absorb nutrients from those items and then excrete unwanted waste from the body.
But that’s not where it stops. There’s more! The gut plays a key role in a multitude of checks and balances within the body, including:
- Hormone Regulation
- Immune System
- Gut Brain Communication
- Mental Health & Wellness
- Insulin Resistance
Registered dietitian Su-Nui Escobar explains how healing your gut can help improve menopause symptoms.
Why Gut Health Matters
Unless you’ve lived off the grid over the last few years, you’ve likely noticed that gut health has been front and center in the media, books, magazines, and research. It may surprise you to know that this is not new science. Interestingly, it takes an average of 17 years for evidence-based research to reach clinical practice.
For gut health enthusiasts like myself, the evolution of gut health making its way into mainstream clinical practice feels like running under water. You see, when you know the incredible power of the gut and how it affects so many vital functions in the body, it feels urgent for others to know as well.
You Are What You Eat
As a registered dietitian, I can attest to the statement that “you are what you eat”. It’s true folks; garbage in garbage out. The traditional Western diet has wreaked havoc on our gut health, mental health, physical health and more. It all starts with the quantity and quality of what we decide to put in our mouths. Keep reading below to learn what foods are good and bad for gut health.
Gut Health 101 and Mental Health
Much of my urgency comes from the simple fact that people are suffering, and many times, the gut is the answer. It’s almost so simple, it’s painful. The gut-brain connection is a great example of how brain healthy foods can boost your mood.
Gut Brain Connection
- Did you know that when you improve your gut health, your gut is able to more effectively produce the “feel good” neurotransmitters Serotonin and Dopamine?
- Did you know that chronic stress can affect your gut health, which can start a cascade of symptoms that negatively effect your health, such as digestive problems, mood disorders, weight gain, and more?
It’s no secret that the mental health of individuals all over the world has been attacked over the last couple of years due to the global pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% during the first year of the pandemic.
Whether you’ve been sick with the virus or not, it’s likely that stress, isolation, burnout, anxiety, or depression have affected you or a loved one over the last few years.
Signs of An Unhealthy Gut
Now you’re probably wondering how to know if you have an unhealthy gut. Gut health 101 has you covered! Below you will find common signs and symptoms that may give you a clue that your gut is unhealthy. Please note this list is not all-inclusive.
- Food Sensitivities
- Brain Fog
- Excessive Cravings
- Weight Gain / Loss
- Autoimmune Disorders
- Heartburn / Indigestion
- Chronic Fatigue
What Foods Are Good for Gut Health?
To learn more about the specific foods in each category below check out this post on Gut Health Superfoods.
- Leafy Greens
- Ancient Grains
- Fermented Foods
- Prebiotic Foods
What Foods Are Bad for Gut Health?
- Fried foods
- Fast foods
- Chips & salty packaged snacks
- Processed meats
- Processed cheese products
- Soda, juice & sugary drinks
- Sugar & candy
- Pre-packaged food
- High fat dairy
- Highly refined grains (ex. white bread)
- Large amounts of red meat
9 Ways to Improve Gut Health
Now here’s what you’ve been waiting for, let’s shift the focus to talking about exactly what you can do to improve your gut health.
1. Practice Stress Management
As if being stressed isn’t troubling enough, chronic, or excessing stress on the body causes the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. Unfortunately, excess cortisol can lead to hunger and cravings, which sometimes lead to poor diet choices and weight gain, negatively affecting gut health even further.
2. Eat a High-Fiber Diet
Fiber rich foods have been shown to enhance gut health and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Of particular importance are prebiotic fibers that can be found in foods such as artichokes, green bananas, asparagus, garlic, onions, leeks, oats, apples and flax seeds. Prebiotics play an important role in the regulation of mental wellness through the gut-brain-axis, which affects brain function, immune function, and emotional behavior
3. Aim for a Plant-forward Diet
A great example of a plant-forward diet is the Mediterranean Diet. This style of eating is rich in fruits and vegetables and boasts both anti-inflammatory and gut health properties. It may come as no surprise that the Mediterranean Diet is high in B vitamins and fiber, both of which are excellent for overall health and wellbeing.
4. Consider Probiotic Supplementation
You can certainly eat probiotic containing foods, such as fermented foods to improve the health of your gut. If you want to be serious about optimizing the gut and even improving overall health and wellbeing, a probiotic supplement is beneficial. Probiotic supplements help repopulate the good bacteria in the gut.
5. Get Adequate Sleep
The CDC recommends that adults ages 18-64 aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Additionally, inadequate sleep causes a stress response in the body, which signals for the release of cortisol.
6. Exercise Routinely
Although not an independent variable, moderate exercise has been shown to reduce inflammation, strengthen the gut lining, and increase gut microbe diversity. It is also believed that individuals with a healthy gut may benefit from enhanced workout performance.
7. Choose Anti-Inflammatory Foods
While diet is certainly not the only way to fight inflammation in your body, what you put into your body each day plays a significant role in either increasing or decreasing inflammation.
Fortunately, fitting anti-inflammatory foods into your diet is simple, as most fruits and vegetables have anti-inflammatory properties. For example, foods such as berries, citrus, herbs, tea, and chocolate contain flavonoids, a polyphenol.
These powerful antioxidants not only fight inflammation, but they are also known to decrease the risk of certain cancers, diabetes, and heart disease.
8. Limit junk food
I’d like to think this one is self-explanatory, but I’ll clarify. As I said before, garbage in – garbage out. It’s that simple. In the same way that you would not pour salt water into your gas tank and expect your car to run smoothly, you cannot put junk food into your body and expect to feel and look great.
Convenience, packaged, and fast foods are high in unhealthy fats, salt, and sugar, all of which cause inflammation in the body. These foods are also calorically dense, yet nutrient depleted.
9. Avoid toxin exposure
This one may surprise you, but toxins come in all shapes and forms; such as toxins from the environment, skin care products, cookware, plastics, pesticides, and more.
Toxins are known to disrupt the microbiome and create dysbiosis, an imbalance in your gut. This imbalance can lead to constipation, gas, bloating, leaky gut, and other gastrointestinal disturbances.
You may be wondering how to reduce toxin exposure in your home. In this article by Wellbeing with Grace, you can learn about reducing toxins with something as simple as changing out your cookware.
If this topic fascinates you, registered dietitian Laura Krauza, dives deep into this matter. Krauza shares 15 ways to restore gut health and much more!
Here’s to a happy, healthy gut! No matter where you are on your gut healing journey, I hope you found the answers you are looking for in Gut Health 101. If you found this information helpful, please feel free to leave a comment and share it with others! Thank you!
The purpose of this information is to inform and empower the reader to make positive lifestyle changes. The intent is not to replace medical advice or instructions given by your doctor or healthcare provider.
Angela Lago is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and holds a Master’s of Science in Nutrition. She is passionate about researching the connection between gut health and mental wellness. Learn more about Angela’s journey from being depressed, anxious, and sleep deprived to being happy, healthy, and thriving!