If you notice signs of poor gut health, lifestyle factors may help improve your gut microbiome and benefit your overall health.
What is the gut microbiome?
Some microorganisms are harmful to our health, but many are incredibly beneficial and even necessary for a healthy body. Research indicates that having a large variety of bacteria in the gut may help reduce the risk of conditions like diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and psoriatic arthritis.
How does the gut microbiome affect your health?
The incredible complexity of the gut and its importance to our overall health is a topic of increasing research in the medical community. Studies over the past few decades have found links between gut health and:
- the immune system
- mental health
- autoimmune diseases
- endocrine disorders
- gastrointestinal disorders
- cardiovascular disease
A higher level of diversity in gut bacteria may be associated with improved health. While research is ongoing, it appears clear that your gut health plays a role in many areas of your health and well-being.
Many parts of modern life can affect your gut microbiome, including:
- high-stress levels
- too little sleep
- eating a Western diet high in processed and high-sugar foods
- taking antibiotics
This in turn may affect other aspects of your health, such as:
- immune function
- hormone levels
- development of diseases
You may notice a few symptoms if you have reduced gut health. Here are seven of the most common signs:
Stomach disturbances can all be signs of an unhealthy gut. They include:
A balanced gut will have less difficulty processing food and eliminating waste, likely leading to fewer symptoms.
A diet high in processed foods and added sugars can decrease the amount of “good” bacteria and diversity in your gut. Research suggests that this may lead to increased inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation can be the precursor to several diseases, including cancer.
Gaining or losing weight without changing your diet or exercise habits may be a sign of an unhealthy gut. An imbalanced gut can impair your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar, and store fat.
Research indicates that an imbalance in gut bacteria may be linked to fragmented sleep and short sleep duration, which may lead to chronic fatigue. While the cause remains unclear, it appears to be connected to inflammation, metabolic function, and mental health.
Skin conditions like psoriasis may be related to the types of bacteria present in the gut. Lower concentrations of beneficial bacteria may impact the body’s immune system. This, in turn, may lead to conditions that affect the organs, including the skin.
Many studies have found connections between the gut and the immune system. An unhealthy gut may increase systemic inflammation and alter the proper functioning of the immune system. This can lead to autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself rather than harmful invaders.
Food intolerances are the result of difficulty digesting certain foods. This is different from a food allergy, which is caused by an immune system reaction to certain foods. Research indicates that food intolerances, like lactose intolerance, may be caused by poor-quality bacteria in the gut. This can lead to trouble digesting the trigger foods and symptoms like:
- abdominal pain
There is also some research indicating that food allergies may be related to gut health.
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You may be able to improve your gut health through lifestyle and diet changes. Consider trying one or more of the following:
Chronic high levels of stress are hard on your whole body, including your gut. A few ways to lower stress may include:
- getting a massage
- spending time with friends or family
- diffusing essential oils
- limiting alcohol intake
- practising yoga
- spending time with a pet
Not getting enough or sufficient quality of sleep may have serious impacts on your gut health, which can in turn contribute to more sleep issues.
Chewing your food thoroughly and eating your meals more slowly may lower your chances of developing obesity and diabetes while also helping you make better food choices.
This may help you reduce digestive discomfort and maintain a healthy gut.
Drinking plenty of water may be linked to increased diversity of bacteria in the gut, though the source of the water also matters. One 2022 study also found that people who drank more water had less of a type of bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal infections.
Staying hydrated benefits your health overall and can help prevent constipation. It may also be a simple way to promote a healthy gut.
While research is ongoing, adding a prebiotic or probiotic supplement to your diet may help improve your gut health. Prebiotics provide “food” meant to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, while probiotics are live good bacteria.
People who have a severe illness or a weakened immune system should not take probiotics. Also, not all probiotic supplements are high quality or beneficial for your health. It’s best to speak with a healthcare professional when choosing a probiotic or prebiotic supplement to help improve your health.
You may have a food intolerance if you have symptoms such as:
You can try eliminating common trigger foods to see if your symptoms improve. If you’re able to identify and avoid a portion of food or foods that are contributing to your symptoms, you may see a positive change in your digestive health.
Reducing the amount of processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods that you eat may lead to better gut health. Eating a diet high in fibre likely contributes to a healthy gut microbiome as well. You may also positively impact your gut by eating foods high in micronutrients called polyphenols, like:
Diet and gut health appear to be very closely linked. Avoiding processed foods, high-fat foods, and foods high in refined sugars is likely important for maintaining a healthy microbiome, as these foods may promote the growth of damaging bacteria. There are also foods you can eat that actively promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, contributing to your overall health. These foods include:
- legumes, like black beans and chickpeas
- whole grains, like oats and quinoa
- vegetables, like broccoli and asparagus
- nuts, like almonds and pistachios
- fruits, like apples and peaches
According to a 2019 study in mice, garlic may increase gut microbiome diversity and improve gut health. A small 2018 study of 49 people similarly found that aged garlic extract increased diversity and levels of beneficial bacteria. Still, more research on humans should be done.
Fermented foods are great dietary sources of probiotics. Examples include:
Research suggests that consuming these foods may improve the gut microbiome.
Collagen-rich foods such as bone broth and salmon skin may be beneficial for both overall health and gut health. A 2021 study indicated that supplements with collagen may benefit the gut microbiome in mice, though further research is needed. You could also try to boost your body’s collagen production through your diet. To help your body make collagen, try eating more:
- citrus fruits
Why does the gut microbiome vary in individuals?
The gut microbiome is affected by many factors, including:
- antibiotic use
Each of these elements varies in different people, influencing their gut microbiomes in different ways. This variation results in individuals having unique gut microbiomes.
Fasting seems to benefit the gut microbiome, though more research in humans needs to be done. According to one small 2019 study of 16 people, fasting was linked to lower levels of a bacteria that promotes colorectal cancer.
Research in animals also shows the benefits of fasting. A 2018 study in fruit flies found that intermittent fasting appeared to improve gut health and increase lifespan. Another 2019 study in mice indicated that fasting promoted the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and reduced inflammation in the intestines.
Some studies have found no impact of probiotics on the gut microbiome. Still, other research suggests that probiotics may significantly affect the makeup of the gut microbiome and positively impact other areas of health, like immunity. Studies are still being done in this area.
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The human gut is complex. While research is ongoing, it seems clear that the gut microbiome impacts whole-body health. A healthy gut contributes to:
- a strong immune system
- heart health
- brain health
- improved mood
- healthy sleep
- effective digestion
- potential prevention of some cancers and autoimmune diseases
Lifestyle and dietary changes may positively affect not only your gut health but your overall health.