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Much of our overall health is determined by the state of our guts, from the immune system to cognitive function to weight and metabolism.
Affecting approximately one in four people, having an unhealthy gut is very common and often agonizing.
An unhealthy gut can mean many things, with digestive symptoms including bloating, gas, heartburn, discomfort after eating, diarrhea, or constipation.
Although the causes of poor gut health are multifactorial, there are several ways to improve your digestive health and relieve some of the uncomfortable symptoms.
Let’s learn what an unhealthy gut is, how to heal your gut naturally, and the top foods to eat on a gut-healing diet.
The five-foot-long tube in our guts—known as the large intestine or colon—houses upwards of 100 trillion microbes, comprised of approximately 4,000 species that can be detrimental, neutral, or beneficial bacteria.
Referred to as the gut microbiome, this collection of bacteria can be imagined as a lush rainforest—just as a rainforest requires a diversity of plants and animals to flourish and remain in balance, our microbiome also needs a wide variety of bacterial species to thrive.
When our gut microbiomes become out of whack, dysbiosis—an imbalance of good bacteria and bad bacteria—can develop.
Another condition that can either be a cause or a symptom of dysbiosis is leaky gut syndrome.
Also known as intestinal hyperpermeability, leaky gut occurs when the single layer of epithelial cells that line the intestine becomes “leaky,” leading to gaps between the cells, like cracks in a pipe.
Tight junctions play a vital role in intestinal barrier function, as these protein-rich membrane complexes seal the epithelial cells together.
When the intestinal lining becomes leaky and tight junctions become weaker, toxins, bacteria, and too-big proteins can travel through the gut barrier into the bloodstream, which is thought to cause both gastrointestinal and extraintestinal symptoms.
As you might imagine, the primary signs of an unhealthy gut involve digestive symptoms, including:
As the gut microbiome is intricately linked to other body systems, there are also several non-gastrointestinal signs of an unhealthy gut, including:
If you have symptoms of an unhealthy gut but don’t want to take medications, there are several steps you can take to heal your gut naturally with food, supplements, and lifestyle changes.
However, if you’ve been diagnosed with a gut disease, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD; encompassing ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease), or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), you may want to discuss these changes with your gastroenterologist first.
Dysbiosis is a common cause of digestive problems, so repopulating your gut microbiome with beneficial bacteria can help.
You can rebuild the bacterial rainforest in your gut by taking supplemental probiotics or consuming probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and other fermented foods.
As there are thousands of different strains of beneficial bacteria, a blend of probiotics—both supplemental and dietary—can work together to encourage the growth of healthy gut microbes.
In addition to being like a rainforest, our guts are also like a parking lot—there is only a finite number of spaces, so if your gut parking lot is full of harmful bacteria, there is no room for the healthy bacteria to thrive.
Therefore, encouraging the growth of healthy microbes in your parking lot can inhibit the bad ones from taking up all the spots.
Although it would seem that acid reflux and heartburn would be caused only by excess acid, the opposite is usually true—low levels of stomach acid typically cause these digestive symptoms.
Stomach acid, which consists mainly of hydrochloric acid, is essential for breaking down protein completely and killing off potentially harmful bacteria before they reach the intestines.
We start to lose stomach acid with age, medication use, or chronic consumption of antacids like Tums.
If you feel your digestive symptoms worsen after eating protein-rich meals, low stomach acid could potentially be the cause.
To remedy this, taking the supplement betaine hydrochloride (betaine HCl) before meals can help to increase stomach acidity.
Digestive bitters can also benefit stomach acid, as these botanicals work by stimulating saliva and bile production to help with carbohydrate and fat breakdown, respectively.
Examples of digestive bitters include ginger, peppermint, anise, fennel, dandelion, and artichoke extracts.
Many people don’t realize that stress is detrimental to gut health.
When you’re stressed out, your body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode, which shuts down non-essential bodily functions—like digestion.
An important presentation or a fight with your spouse can initiate this response, which increases cortisol levels, shuts off digestion, and delays stomach emptying, causing stomachaches, heartburn, nausea, and indigestion.
When the stomach is not allowing food to pass through, the large intestine wonders what’s going on and tries to speed things up, causing stress-induced bowel urgency or diarrhea.
So, although reducing stress is easier said than done, eating slowly and mindfully is a good place to start.
Other stress reduction practices include meditation, yoga, gentle movement, breathwork, and therapy.
Some foods are inflammatory for everybody, including sugar, alcohol, and fried foods.
Other foods are only inflammatory for some people, which may take some trial and error or keeping a food diary to see which foods worsen your digestive symptoms.
Foods that can be inflammatory for some people include gluten, dairy, eggs, and coffee or caffeine.
If you think you may have a gluten sensitivity—this is different from celiac disease, an autoimmune response to gluten—try a gluten-free diet for 1-3 weeks and see if your symptoms improve.
Lastly, you can consider certain supplements to heal your gut.
In addition to the previously mentioned probiotics, there are six herbs and supplements that may be beneficial to your gut:
If you don’t want to take dozens of pills per day, comprehensive gut-healing supplement complexes may be a better choice.
One option is Onnit’s Total Gut Health, a 7-pill package containing digestive enzymes, prebiotics, fennel seed, ginger, probiotics, and betaine HCI.
Lastly, there are several foods you can regularly consume to improve gut health.
Fermented foods are rich in dietary probiotics, which can help to repopulate the gut microbiome.
These foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, miso, kombucha, natto, and fermented pickled vegetables.
If you’re not used to eating these foods, start slowly with just one to two tablespoons and gradually work your way up, as excessive portions can cause digestive upset if your gut parking lot is overrun with bad bacteria.
Anti-inflammatory foods can help to heal your gut, including:
Like collagen, bone broth is rich in the amino acid glycine, which is thought to reduce intestinal permeability and improve gut health.
Bone broth also contains collagen, gelatin, glutamine, iron, vitamin K, vitamin A, and zinc—all of which are important for gut health.
Pineapple is a natural source of bromelain, a digestive enzyme that helps break down protein.
Kiwi is rich in soluble fiber, which helps support healthy gut bacteria growth, and insoluble fiber, which keeps bowel movements regular.
Kiwi also acts as a prebiotic, a type of fiber that acts as food for our healthy gut bacteria to consume and thrive.
Like kiwi, asparagus is a prebiotic food that supports healthy gut bacteria growth.
It contains high levels of inulin, a prebiotic fiber that feeds good bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.
Onions are also rich in prebiotics that can help to heal your gut.
Red onions especially are beneficial for gut health, as they are loaded with antioxidants called anthocyanins that can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the gut.
However, some people have trouble digesting onions, so keep your portions small or avoid if you know that onions upset your stomach.
Last but not least, ginger is an impressive anti-inflammatory and gut-healing food, as it speeds up gastric emptying, reduces nausea, and contains a plethora of antioxidants.
Consuming ginger in its whole root form or a freshly pressed juice is best, as ginger powder has slightly fewer benefits.
The quickest way to start healing your gut is by removing inflammatory foods or foods you know cause digestive trouble.
The second step would be to reduce stress, add anti-inflammatory foods, and repopulate your gut microbiome with supplemental or dietary probiotics.
Lastly, taking gut-healing supplements can be a long-term strategy to improve your gut health.
Gut healing can begin in as little as three days, as our gut microbiomes are very responsive and can alter quickly.
However, most people don’t experience complete gut healing for several weeks to a month.
You’ll know your gut is healthy if you have 1-2 bowel movements per day that are neither dry nor loose and no digestive symptoms like nausea, excessive gas, bloating, cramping, constipation, diarrhea, or abdominal pain.
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Energy drinks and sugary snacks may be louder, sweeter, and faster-acting than natural sources of sugar, but rarely are those benefits conferred without some form of reckoning down the road.
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