Getting started with gut health can be a challenge.
With all of the information available on the internet, it can be hard to navigate through relevant and scientifically-based material — especially when pages and pages of misinformation inundate Google.
This guide cuts through all that misinformation often found online — and relies on thoroughly researched sources backed by science to help you get started with gut health.
What Is the Gut Microbiome and Why Is It So Important?
Before you are even born, your gut microbiome is already forming. It is unique and determined by your mother’s diet, genetics, and even whether you are delivered vaginally or by cesarean section.
By the time you are born, the colonization of microbiota already plays a significant role in immune system functioning and metabolic pathways. (Rodríguez, 2015)
Any alteration to your gut microbiome — even in infancy — can lead to disease later in life.
As you mature so does the bacteria living inside of you. (Rodríguez, 2015)
By the time you reach adulthood, there are around 100 trillion microbes consisting of approximately 500 different bacterial species existing in the gut, outnumbering human cells in the body 10:1.
Within the last 15 years, there has been comprehensive research conducted on the gut microbiome and its impact on health. For example, when bacterial infections, antibiotic medications, surgical procedures, or poor diet compromise the gut microbiome, there is an increased risk of mental illness, nutritional deficiencies, and metabolic conditions (Cani, 2018).
In other words, gut health is an integral part of overall health.
Signs Your Gut Health Needs Improvement
The gut bacteria of healthy individuals are often very different from those who are unhealthy. Unhealthy individuals typically have too much or too few of a particular species of bacteria — or in some cases, several species of bacteria may be missing.
We refer to this as gut dysbiosis. Below are potential signs of gut dysbiosis.
Research in this field is ongoing. But one study suggests that high levels of unhealthy bacteria living in the gut may contribute to weight gain. (Patterson, 2016)
In a separate mouse study conducted on twins (where one mouse was obese, and the other was of a healthy weight), the gut microbiome of the mice was found to be different.
The scientists transferred the microbiota of the obese twin to germ-free mice. Despite being on the same diet as other mice, the mice who were given the microbiota of the obese mouse gained weight.
This discovery led researchers to believe that obesity is not genetic so much as it is connected to gut health. (Ridaura, 2013)
Unhealthy gut bacteria may contribute to heart disease. Certain strains of harmful bacteria produce trimethylamine N-oxide, a chemical linked to blocked arteries.
Other strains of harmful bacteria can turn nutrients that are found within red meat into trimethylamine N-oxide, as well (Wang, 2011).
The microbiome also influences systemic inflammation — a known risk factor for heart disease.
Declining Mental Health
Several studies have linked mental illness and altered brain function to gut dysbiosis due to inflammation and immune dysfunction (Rogers, 2016).
Chronic Inflammatory Diseases
Growing evidence has shown a link between gut dysbiosis and chronic inflammatory diseases.
This is partly because gram-negative bacteria often take the place of beneficial bacteria populations in an individual’s microbiome. This type of harmful bacteria releases endotoxins, which are linked to chronic inflammation (Belkaid, 2014).
Examples of chronic inflammatory diseases include:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Celiac Disease
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
- Crohn's Disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
Nutritional deficiencies occur as a result of inflammation caused by dysbiosis, such as SIBO.
An overgrowth of harmful bacteria can release toxins, affecting the ability of the digestive tract to absorb nutrients sufficiently. (Morris, 2016)
Getting Started on Improving Your Gut Health
If any of the signs of poor gut health resonate with you, you have options that may address these symptoms. We encourage you to talk to a doctor or nutritionist before making any significant changes to your health, diet, or exercise regimen.
Improve Your Diet
Diet is one of the most effective ways to improve your gut health. Consider adding the following to your diet:
- A wide range of different foods. This can help build your gut microbiome with diverse strains of healthy bacteria. The more species of bacteria living in your gut, the more health benefits you will reap. (Wu, 2011)
- Fermented foods. Foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh, miso, and kombucha all contain a good amount of healthy bacteria and antioxidants.
- Whole grains. Whole grains contain fiber and beneficial carbohydrates, which may reduce the growth of harmful bacteria.
- More plants. A plant-based diet can reduce harmful bacteria, inflammation, and cholesterol.
- Foods rich in prebiotics. Prebiotic foods promote the growth of beneficial bacteria such as bifidobacteria. A few foods that contain prebiotics are onions, Jerusalem artichokes, and asparagus.
- Foods rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria. Foods high in polyphenols include dark chocolate, onions, blueberries, green tea, red wine, and olive oil.
- Fruits and vegetables high in fiber. Fruits and vegetables are some of the best sources of nutrients. They’re effective at keeping the microbiome healthy. They may also prevent further growth of harmful bacteria and increase the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria. (Klinder, 2016)
- High-fiber fruits and vegetables. These include pistachios, almonds, lentils, green peas, artichokes, blueberries, broccoli, chickpeas, and kidney beans.
When looking to restore gut health, you may also want to consider the following.
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners promote the growth of harmful bacteria and can actually stimulate sugar cravings. Artificial sweeteners can also increase blood sugar levels while simultaneously reducing insulin response in the body. (Palmnas, 2014)
Take a Daily Probiotic Supplement
Probiotic supplements usually contain several live bacteria species, which can help to improve gut health. (McFarland, 2014)
The most beneficial bacteria species to look for in a general probiotic supplement are:
- Bifidobacterium breve
- Bifidobacterium infantis
- Bifidobacterium bifidum
- Bifidobacterium lactis
- Bifidobacterium longum
- Lactobacillus reuteri
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Lactobacillus brevis
- Lactobacillus casei
- Lactobacillus bulgaricus
- Lactobacillus gasseri
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Lactobacillus paracasei
- Lactobacillus salivarius
Avoid Unnecessary Doses of Antibiotics
This is because antibiotics don’t just kill harmful bacteria — they kill off good bacteria, as well. Always consult with your doctor before stopping any antibiotic.
Stress restricts blood flow to your gut. Research and shown a complex bi-directional line of communication between the gut and the brain. This is why you may experience issues with your digestive system or immune system when you are under stress. (Bridgewater, 2017)
This guide is just a primer — an introduction to gut health. We encourage you to review the various articles on our website, designed specifically for people like you looking to learn more about gut health.
You may want to move on to Clear Signs You Have a Leaky Gut and How to Treat It.
Or, you may want to get started on supplements to aid you as you make other lifestyle changes to improve your gut health. If so, we recommend the following: