In recent years, researchers have learned that having a healthy digestive system is important to overall health. Your digestive tract processes the food you eat so you can use it for energy. Your gut also plays a role in immune system functions by removing waste or harmful substances from your body. When your gut doesn’t work well, your overall health might start to suffer.
What is your gut?
When doctors talk about your gut, they mean the entire length of your digestive system. This begins with your mouth and throat and extends through the internal organs that process food into energy, including the stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. The gut also includes your excretory system, which passes waste out of your body through your colon and rectum.
All of the organs in your digestive system contain trillions of bacteria. These microorganisms, which are called your gut flora, are an essential part of the digestive process. When these bacteria feed on sugars and fibers in your diet, they break them down into a form that your cells can use for energy. An imbalance of your gut flora can lead to health problems.
Symptoms of gut problems
If your gut is out of balance, you may start to notice health issues. The most obvious symptoms of gut problems are digestive symptoms, which can include heartburn, indigestion, constipation, or diarrhea. You may also experience other symptoms, including:
- New or worsening mood disorders, such as depression or anxiety
- New or worsening symptoms from autoimmune problems, such as rheumatoid arthritis and type-1 diabetes
- Skin rashes and allergy symptoms
- Sleep problems
- Sugar cravings
- Unexplained weight changes
Scientists believe that these symptoms happen because gut function is tied to immune function. When your gut works the way it’s supposed to, it removes harmful material from your body through the natural excretory process. You pass the waste as urine or feces. If the gut can’t perform that function efficiently, it may trigger immune reactions to substances that your gut hasn’t been able to remove from your system.
Improve gut health
It’s possible to improve your gut health. Making lifestyle changes can improve the balance of organisms in your gut flora. When you restore that balance, your digestive tract will operate more efficiently.
Eat more fiber
Fiber is important to digestive health because fiber and sugars are foods for some of the bacteria in your gut. Experts sometimes call these foods prebiotics. You can get more fiber in your diet by eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Food such as apples, asparagus, corn, garlic, flaxseeds, onions, oats, lentils, and nuts are all high in fiber.
Eat fermented foods
Foods that have gone through a fermentation process contain probiotics. Probiotics are the actual bacteria you want to populate your gut. Eating things like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, or kimchi gives you a serving of good gut flora. Add them to your diet to support your gut balance.
Cut back on processed and surgery foods
Foods that are high in sugar, like candy, soda, or packaged baked goods, can disrupt the balance of organisms in the gut. Some microorganisms thrive on sugar, so eating too much of it causes those bacteria to proliferate. That may lead to symptoms like inflammation and sleep problems. Cutting back on processed and sweet foods may improve your gut health.
Get more sleep
Researchers are studying the relationship between sleep and gut health. They have learned that there is a connection between healthy digestive function and healthy sleep. Stomach upset can disrupt sleep, and disrupted sleep may worsen digestive problems. Building healthy sleep habits to get enough sleep may improve the symptoms of gut-related health issues.
If you increase your exercise you may improve your gut health in multiple ways. Exercise can help you lose weight, which reduces your risk of some digestive health problems. Increased activity may improve your sleep, which can also improve your gut health. Exercise also improves blood flow all over the body, including in your digestive tract. That may directly improve how well your gut works.
Treat other health conditions
If you have any underlying health issues, including mental health conditions, make sure you are getting appropriate treatment for them. Talk to your doctor about any digestive symptoms you’re having, as well as symptoms like inflammation or disturbed sleep. Your doctor can help determine if you may have a gut health issue. Your doctor may suggest specific diet changes or supplements that could help your gut health without compromising other treatments.
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Johns Hopkins Health: "Your Digestive System: 5 Ways to Support Gut Health."
The Lancet Gastroenterology and Hepatology: "The effect of sleep on gastrointestinal functioning in common digestive diseases."
Orlando Health: "Gut Health: Why It Matters."
Piedmont Healthcare: "Signs of poor gut health."
Psychology Today: "The Connection Between Sugar and Your Gut."