The gut, overlooked and underappreciated, is the lynchpin of our health. The gastrointestinal system is the internal hub from which everything radiates. It’s the main “portal” for taking in and processing nutrients, but also a communication center and disease fighter. We have 10 times more cells in the gut than we do any other area of our body. Not only that, but a growing body of research suggests that seventy percent of our immune system is located in our gut. For good overall health, we neglect our gut at our own peril.
Here are nine things your gastroenterologist (and your gut) will thank you for not doing.
Gut Health Tips: 9 Mistakes to Avoid
1. Eating a low-fiber diet
The most basic tenet of gut health is that microbes that live in our gut thrive on fiber. It’s their preferred food, primarily because fiber is not digested by human enzymes. Fiber reaches the colon fully intact, where the microbes feed on it and digest it. Short-chain fatty acids are produced when the friendly gut bacteria ferment fiber in your colon. These short-chain fatty acids are massively anti-inflammatory; they are also the main source of energy for the cells lining your colon.
Dietary fiber is found only in plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. Meat, milk and eggs do not contain fiber. Note that the fiber found in greens is not the same as the fiber found in beans. Some microbes like spinach and some like beans. To ensure that all your microbes get fed, eat a heavily plant-centric diet.
2. Sticking to a mono-diet
The American Gut Project at UC San Diego School of Medicine, one of the largest studies on how diet and lifestyle affect the health of the microbiome, found that the single most powerful predictor of a healthy gut was the diversity and variety of plants in your diet. Minimally or unprocessed and plant-based foods in a wide variety is key. Fiber from an array of diverse sources—think 30 different plant types per week—helps the microbiome flourish. Think about adding more high fiber plants to your diet, such as fruits, vegetables, lentils, beans, nuts, legumes, and whole grains.
One reason why so many Americans have digestive problems is because we simply overload our systems. Our guts need time to literally rest and digest. Try not to eat past fullness and avoid continual grazing or late-night eating. Your body needs the chance to chill, so it isn’t constantly working to digest food.
4. Consuming too much sugar
A diet high in sugar negatively impacts the gut microbiome. Too much sugar can upset the balance of good bacteria and cause inflammation. Added sugars are found in many products, especially baked goods, ice cream, and desserts. They are also added to many processed foods, even ones you wouldn’t expect, such as pasta sauces, salad dressings, condiments and soups.
5. Staying clear of fermented foods
Probiotics are found in sauerkraut, kimchi and miso, as well as yogurts that have live and active cultures. These fermented foods act as gut-friendly fuel for microbiota. Although you can supplement with probiotics, the best way to feed your gut microbes is with food. Note that the prebiotics found in fiber helps grow the beneficial gut bacteria. Add in fermented foods, which are loaded with both probiotics and postbiotics, to help create the compounds that are made when good gut bacteria digests the prebiotics. The prebiotics and probiotics combine to form postbiotics, which produce those marvelous short-chain fatty acids mentioned earlier.
6. Indiscriminate antibiotic use
There’s no denying that antibiotics have a very important place in medicine, essential as they are to fight off dangerous infections. However, they tend to be overprescribed. The problem with antibiotics is they can not only kill off bad bacteria, but also good bacteria. Too frequent or unnecessary antibiotic use can cause an imbalance in gut bacteria.
7. Chronic stress fests
Though it’s a relatively new area of research, the science suggests a link between gut bacteria and the brain, including mood disorders like depression and anxiety. In that vein, long-term stress negatively affects your overall health. The microbiome and your gut motility respond to stress and can become off kilter when there is chronic stress. Stress is linked to diarrhea, constipation, IBS, and ulcers. Focusing on managing stress levels can dramatically help with gut symptoms.
8. Not exercising enough
Consistent exercise is one of the best ways to improve your digestion. The exercise, and the assist from gravity, helps food travel through your digestive system. Even minimal exercise, like a short stroll after a meal, can move bowel movements along.
9. Neglecting hydration
Taking in an adequate amount of fluid can help to regulate your bowel movements, prevent constipation, and break down foods in combination with stomach acids and enzymes. Hydration, surprisingly, is one of the most important factors in promoting a healthy gut. As a bonus, water moves nutrients around in the body, helps remove waste and other toxins, promotes better skin and reduces inflammation.