Gut Health 101 [The Dietitian Explains]
“The road to health is paved with good intestines” –Sherry A. Rogers
As it turns out, gut health is more important than we ever thought!
Gut health affects everything from digestion to the way the immune system functions and can even have an impact on mental health.
In this article, a registered dietitian explains why gut health matters and how to improve it.
Why is Gut Health Important?
Most people think of their digestive system as being responsible just for the food they eat. But in reality, it does so much more!
Digestion and Nutrient Absorption
This is an obvious one. The intestines help to break down food and extract the nutrients from it to deliver to the bloodstream. This process is essential for staying healthy.
A healthy gut, therefore, ensures the efficient digestion and absorption of nutrients. This includes the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are vital for overall bodily functions.
Immune System Function
The gut also plays an important role in supporting a strong immune system. The intestinal lining acts as a barrier, preventing harmful substances, toxins, and pathogens from entering the bloodstream.
Mental Health and Brain Function
The gut and the brain are like best friends who talk to each other all the time. They have a special connection called the gut-brain axis. Inside the intestines, there are beneficial bacteria—tiny living things—that makeup what is called the microbiome.
These bacteria assist in making important chemicals called neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).
These neurotransmitters are like messengers that help control our mood, how we think, and how we feel overall. For this reason, if something goes wrong with the microbiome in the intestines, it can affect our mental health. Research shows that problems with these bacteria can lead to issues like anxiety and depression.
Inflammation and Disease Prevention
A healthy gut helps to maintain a balanced inflammatory response in the body.
Chronic inflammation can lead to many diseases, including:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Autoimmune conditions
- Heart disease
- Certain types of cancer
Emerging research indicates that the microbiome plays a role in metabolic health and weight management. An imbalance in gut bacteria has been associated with obesity, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome.
Signs of an Unhealthy Gut
So how do you know if something is off with your gut? There are a few signs to look out for.
- Digestive issues (bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea)
- Food intolerances
- Chronic fatigue and low energy
- Mood disorders (depression, anxiety)
- Skin problems (acne, eczema)
- Autoimmune conditions
- Weight changes (unexplained weight loss or gain)
- Sleep problems
- Weakened immune system
Improving Gut Health
If you’re suffering from these symptoms, improving the health of your intestines is essential for your overall well-being. Here are some key practices that can help improve the health of your digestive system:
Eat a Balanced Diet
Consume a diverse range of whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Incorporate high-fiber foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, as they support a healthy gut microbiome.
Eat Fermented Foods
Food that has been fermented contains beneficial bacteria that can enhance the diversity and balance of your intestinal bacteria.
Examples of fermented food are yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha.
Drink an adequate amount of water throughout the day to support digestion and maintain optimal bowel movements.
Minimize Processed Foods
Limit processed foods that are often high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives. These foods can disrupt the microbiome and promote inflammation.
Excessive sugar consumption can lead to an imbalance of intestinal bacteria and reduce the diversity of your microbiome. Consider limiting added sugars in your diet where possible.
Cutting down on alcohol consumption can improve your gut health because alcohol breaks the delicate balance of bacteria. This can lead to inflammation, damage to the intestinal lining, and changes in metabolism.
Increase Fiber Intake
Fiber is essential for healthy digestion as it helps feed the beneficial bacteria that support your digestive system. Therefore, you should increase your intake of fiber-rich foods, including fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
Chronic stress can negatively impact your overall health and your digestive system. Engage in stress-reducing activities like exercise, meditation, deep breathing, and hobbies to support a healthy gut-brain connection.
Get Sufficient Sleep
Prioritize quality sleep, as it enables your body to repair and regenerate. Aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
Engage in regular physical activity, as it promotes healthy digestion and supports health and well-being.
Limit Antibiotic Use
While antibiotics are sometimes necessary, overuse or misuse can disrupt the balance of the intestinal microbiome. Only take antibiotics as prescribed by a healthcare professional.
Consider Probiotic Supplements
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that support gut health.
Take to Your Healthcare Provider
If you have chronic digestive issues, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider. They can help identify underlying causes and offer treatments to improve your health.
Work With a Registered Dietitian
A registered dietitian/nutritionist can help you heal your gut. However, similar to doctors, dietitians have different specialists. Pick one that focuses on gut health.
The Bottom Line
In summary, gut health is a critical component of overall health and well-being.
A healthy, balanced gut microbiome improves digestion, boosts immune function, and even impacts mental health.
By eating a balanced diet, adopting stress-reduction practices, and avoiding things that can harm your gut health, you can help keep your microbiome in tip-top shape.
If you’re experiencing symptoms that may indicate an underlying digestive issue, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to see what steps you can take to improve your health.
Your gut will thank you!
This post was written by dietetic intern Natalie Larsen. Edited by Dr. Su-Nui Escobar, DCN, RDN, FAND.
Dr. Su-Nui Escobar, a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist in Miami, FL, is dedicated to empowering women in perimenopause and menopause to live healthier, more satisfying lives.
With a doctorate in clinical nutrition from the University of North Florida, she has expertise in menopause and weight loss, including the unique challenges faced by those on weight loss medications.
Su-Nui’s passion for her field is evident in her previous role as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson.