When it comes to optimizing overall health, optimizing gut health is crucial, as the gut is interconnected to all of the body’s systems. If your gut health is awry, your overall health may suffer in other ways too. Read this article to learn more about if your gut is making you sick and how to improve your gut health.
Gastrointestinal (GI) issues that negatively impact your gut
Several different kinds of GI conditions affect the overall health of the body and the gut. A few of the most common conditions that can affect the gut are gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and Celiac Disease.
GERD is a common condition that many people classify more simply as “heartburn” or “acid reflux”. It is a condition in which stomach acid is constantly coming back up into the esophagus. People typically experience this after meals, and it may worsen as the day goes on and/or at nighttime.
If you have GERD, your gut health may be affected, as the acid balance can be off, causing digestive issues and general discomfort. Typically, people with GERD can help mediate some symptoms through diet, lifestyle, and medication usage. Talk with a qualified healthcare practitioner for more personalized suggestions.
A second factor that can negatively impact gut health is excess alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption in excess can cause gut dysbiosis, in which the gut flora is negatively affected. While avoiding all alcohol types in excess is likely beneficial, there has been some evidence that moderate red wine consumption can be less harmful to the gut (when compared to other types of alcohol) due to its polyphenol content.
A third very common variable that can negatively impact gut health is chronic or long-term use of antibiotics. Antibiotics, while essential in some cases, can kill the bacteria in the gut, killing off both the good and the bad. A good rule of thumb is that if you have been on a steady dose of antibiotics, up your probiotic intake post-antibiotic treatment. This may aid in repairing your gut.
Variables that negatively impact gut health
While there are conditions that can cause poor gut health, there are also variables that can negatively impact gut health. One of the main variables that can negatively affect gut health is a poor diet. A diet that is not rich in prebiotics and probiotics can compromise the health of the gut. Including prebiotic-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains helps to feed the good gut bacteria in the GI. Eating probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi helps the good gut bacteria to continue to proliferate.
A second factor that can negatively impact gut health is excess alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption in excess can cause gut dysbiosis, in which the flora of the gut is negatively affected. While avoiding all alcohol types in excess is likely beneficial, there has been some evidence that moderate red wine consumption can be less harmful to the gut (when compared to other types of alcohol) due to its polyphenol content.
A third very common variable that can negatively impact gut health is chronic or long-term use of antibiotics. Antibiotics, while essential in some cases, can kill the bacteria that live in the gut, killing off both the good and the bad. A good rule of thumb is that if you have been on a steady dose of antibiotics, up your probiotic intake post-antibiotic treatment. This may aid in repairing your gut.
A last and not-so-obvious variable that can negatively affect gut health is sleep deprivation. There has been evidence to show that after just two days of sleep deprivation, the GI tract can suffer. When you don’t get enough sleep, the flora in the gut is altered, and there is an increased proliferation of the bad gut bacteria associated with weight gain, obesity, and type II diabetes.
If you are not getting enough sleep regularly and are struggling with your gut health and/or weight, examine your sleep hygiene and look to optimize it. This may improve your overall health status.
Consequences of poor gut health
If you have poor gut health, especially chronically, it can start to take a toll on your overall health, with many potential consequences. Some of the potential consequences include:
- Feeling tired or lethargic - a common consequence of poorly managed gut health is increased feelings of tiredness and/or lethargy. This is often because the gut is in poor health, and so you may not be absorbing some of the key, critical nutrients that your body needs to thrive.
- Compromised immunity - another common possible consequence is poor immunity and/or increased rates of sickness or infection. The GI tract is one of the lines of defense in the body against germs and foreign invaders, so if its composition is compromised, it may not be as efficient in fighting off bugs.
- Compromised mental health - another consequence of poor gut health could be poor mental health. If gut bacteria are not optimized, individuals commonly have increased rates of anxiety and depression. This is where the “gut-brain” connection term comes from, as the bacteria in the gut affect the brain.
- Increased food cravings - a final potential consequence of poor gut health is increased food cravings, especially foods high in sugar. This is because when there is dysbiosis in the gut bacteria, it is sometimes due to excess sugar consumption. This tends to cause an individual to further crave these types of foods, which in turn, continues to feed some of the bad gut bacteria.
Outcomes of a healthy gut
If you want to improve your gut health, there are many things that you can do. Positive outcomes will come from improving the health of your GI tract. Some of the outcomes of having a healthy gut can include:
- Better digestion - if your gut health and bacteria are optimized, you are better able to digest and absorb all the nutrients from the foods you eat. Doing this will improve digestion and the utilization of nutrients, improving one’s overall well-being.
- More energy - if you are better able to digest and utilize nutrients, this will translate to improved energy levels throughout the day. After all, food is broken down and used as fuel for the body, so the better that this process is functioning, the more optimal energy levels will be.
- Less brain fog - when your gut health is optimized, the good gut bacteria are rampant, and the bad bacteria are minimized, providing you with more mental clarity. This is because your “gut-brain” connection is optimized, reducing the severity of anxiousness and/or depression.
Ways to improve overall gut health
If you are looking for ways to optimize and improve your gut health, there are several things to consider. Some of these include:
- Nutrition - aim to optimize your nutrition by including more prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods. This will help to create a more optimal gut environment to help support good bacteria to flourish. Try to minimize foods that may aggravate your gut and create unnecessary inflammation and/or digestive issues.
- Sleep - if you feel as though your sleep hygiene routine is less than optimal, begin to work on small improvements that feel manageable. Take inventory of anything that you may be doing consistently that is a sleep disturbance, like excess white light at nighttime, caffeine consumption too late into the day, or not getting enough physical activity during the daytime. Then, aim to create an action plan for ways to improve your sleep quality and/or duration.
- Movement - if you are living a sedentary lifestyle, it may be difficult to have optimal gut health. Exercising helps to create a healthy microbiome by increasing microbiome diversity. It also helps to keep things moving so that digestion is more optimal.
- Stress management - if you are chronically stressed, you likely have elevated cortisol levels, which can be disruptive to the health of the GI tract. If you find that you are struggling to manage your stress, begin by taking inventory of what stresses you out most and consider some small, stress-relieving tactics that you can add to your day. Some ideas to consider that can help mitigate stress include meditation, movement, sunshine, a hot shower, and/or a sauna.
Overall, optimizing gut health is crucial for optimizing overall health. The gut is central to the body and all the body’s systems. If you or someone you know struggles to maintain optimal gut health, share this information with them. And report back as to some of your favorite gut-friendly foods or practices.
Jordan Stachel holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from The University of Southern California and is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She has several years of experience helping clients reach their health goals through her clinical work within private practice. Jordan is most fulfilled when guiding others towards making stepwise, sustainable changes that add up to big results over time. Jordan works with a wide variety of individuals, ranging in age from children through the elderly, with an assortment of concerns and clinical conditions. She helps individuals optimize overall health and/or manage disease states using personalized medical nutrition therapy techniques.