What is Gut Health and How Does it Impact Your Health?

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    Learn about how the gut biome affects the body’s functions and the role that diet, lifestyle, probiotics, and prebiotics play in supporting overall health.

    What exactly is gut health?

    Trust your gut. It’s advice that’s been handed down throughout the ages. Today, we’re just beginning to understand how important gut health is to overall wellness. Gut health is a buzz phrase that we often hear a lot about, but we may not exactly know what it means.

    The gut in fact refers to the entire gastrointestinal tract, which begins at the mouth and ends at the rectum. The digestive tract is one continuous tube that takes in nutrients, breaks down foods, and expels waste. It includes the stomach, small and large intestines, and colon. Throughout the gut, beneficial bacteria, viruses, yeast, and fungi form the gut microbiome. Ideally, good and bad bacteria balance out. However, diet and lifestyle choices can cause an imbalance, known as dysbiosis.

    Why is gut health so important?

    Most people think that the gut provides nutrient absorption, converting food into energy and controlling functions like bowel movements. While this is true, the gut plays a role in a variety of the body’s functions and systems, from the brain and mental health to the immune system and skin health. The foods we eat nourish the organisms that make up the microbiome. Some foods nourish good bacteria, while other types of food support bad bacteria. A balanced microbiota can strengthen the integrity of the gut, making it strong and allowing for better functioning. For instance, did you know that many neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin are produced in the gut?

    What are the signs of poor gut health?

    An unhealthy gut can give you warning signs, such as gas or bloating. It’s important to note that occasional discomfort like gas can be a normal part of the body’s digestion process. However, changes in bowel movements, such as constipation, diarrhea, and discomfort can be signs of poor gut health. But signs of poor gut health aren’t just reserved for the digestive system. Poor gut health can show in other ways, like bad moods, fatigue, trouble sleeping, immune issues, and headaches. Leaky gut can occur when the lining of the gut becomes more permeable, allowing partially digested food and toxins to“leak” out and potentially contributing to joint pain, fatigue, headaches, and digestive issues. If you have changes in your bowel movements, unexplained stomach pain, or other new symptoms, it’s best to seek medical advice to rule out any serious causes or issues.

    How do I improve my gut health?

    The good news is that a healthy gut can be supported by the choices we make. Encouraging the growth of good bacteria can be done by consuming foods that help the microbiome to thrive. Healing the gut is possible. One step that can help includes eating a balanced diet filled with fiber and macronutrients like healthy fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Because consuming highly processed foods and those with a large amount of sugar can “feed” bad bacteria, which can damage the balance of the gut biome, it’s best to limit these foods as much as possible. There’s also evidence that disruptive sleep schedules can negatively impact the gut biome. Encouraging good gut health and healing the gut can be done in a number of ways.

    Probiotics and gut health

    Probiotics are a popular supplement today because they provide an infusion of beneficial live microorganisms to bolster the gut’s microbiome. Supplements and foods which naturally contain probiotic bacteria replenish the body’s supply of these good bacteria that can be depleted through lifestyle and diet choices.

    There are many fermented foods that contain probiotics, such as:

    • Yogurt and kefir
    • Kimchi
    • Sauerkraut
    • Kombucha

    Eating these foods has been shown to have a positive impact on general health. Research shows that these healthy bacteria can make foods more digestible and reduce our cravings for sweets.

    Supplements offer another way to add good bacteria to the gut. They are one of the most popular types of supplements in the U.S. Although there are thousands of different strains of probiotics, a few strains have been widely studied for their beneficial effects, particularly on digestion and the immune system. These include: Bifidobacterium animalis BB-12, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, and Lactobacillus acidophilus LA-5. One study showed improvements in bowel movement and reduced gastrointestinal tract discomfort from supplementing with these strains. Care/of’s Probiotic Blend includes all three of these beneficial bacteria in a vegan, vegetarian, non-GMO daily capsule.

    Prebiotics and gut health

    What’s the difference between a probiotic and a prebiotic? They sound so similar that it’s easy to mix them up. But there’s an easy way to differentiate the two. You can think of a prebiotic as “food” for the beneficial organisms that make up the gut microflora. Prebiotics are nondigestible complex carbohydrates that are fermented within the colon, providing energy and support for the gut organisms that help keep us well.

    Although there isn’t a recommended daily amount of prebiotics, some data suggest aiming for consuming 4-20 grams a day. Going beyond 20 grams of prebiotics daily can be too much and cause bloating and gassiness. Prebiotic supplements are available, and you can also choose food which are high in prebiotics, such as:

    • Banana
    • Chicory root
    • Onion
    • Okra
    • Garlic
    • Jerusalem artichoke

    Resistant starches (such as green bananas and cooked-and-then-cooled rice and potatoes) also show promise for the prebiotic benefits they can provide to overall health. By passing through the small intestine undigested, they can ferment in the colon through the microbiome and produce beneficial short chain fatty acids for the body to use.

    Key takeaways

    Gut health might be a buzz phrase, but it is truly a foundation of health and wellness, not a passing social media fad. Good gut health occurs when beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms are able to thrive in the gut – the gut being your digestive tract, running from the mouth to the rectum. Some lifestyle habits like lack of sleep and high-sugar processed diets can negatively affect the gut microbiome, allowing bad bacteria to proliferate. Probiotics, found in fermented foods and supplements, can help by continuously adding beneficial bacteria to the gut. And prebiotics, a type of nondigestible fiber, can help maintain good gut health by providing nutritional support to these microorganisms.

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    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Our Editorial Staff
    Freelance Contributor
    The Care/of Editorial Team is made up of writers, experts, and health enthusiasts, all dedicated to giving you the information you need today. Our team is here to answer your biggest wellness questions, read the studies for you, and introduce you to your new favorite product, staying up to date on the latest research, trends, and science. Each article is written by one of our experts, reviewed both for editorial standards by an editor and medical standards by one of our naturopathic doctors, and updated regularly as new information becomes available.