We often don’t think about our gut health unless we are experiencing digestive issues, but did you know that your gut is actually the heart of your overall health? That’s right – your digestive system is connected to your immunity, mood, skin, and more.
The Link Between Gut Health and Overall Health
You may be wondering how your gut could possibly be connected to things such as your skin or mood. But it’s true – the state of your gut affects different aspects of your health. Let’s take a look at a few ways that our gut impacts our overall health.
Why is Gut Health Important?
Gut Health and Mood
Our gut has been nicknamed “the second brain” because it contains a noteworthy number of neurons; more than 100 million nerve cells reside in the gut. That’s more than our spinal cord! These neurons are what make up the “gut brain connection” by sending signals from the digestive tract to the brain about what is going on in the body. This gut-brain axis, as it is called, is the reason why there is such a strong connection between mental health and gut health. For example, people with digestive disorders like IBS are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. So, if you’re feeling anxious or down, it could be a sign that your gut may need some love.
Gut Health and Immune System Function
Did you know that 70% of your immune system is located in your gut? That’s why supporting your digestive tract is so important for keeping yourself healthy. When you have a healthy gut, your immune system can fight off infection and disease more efficiently. On the other hand, if your gut is impaired, you are more susceptible to illness and disease.
Gut Health and Skin Health
The state of your gut also affects the condition of your skin. When our gut microbiome is healthy and balanced it contains a diverse population of good bacterial strains, as well as the correct amounts of these strains to support eubiosis (a balanced microbiome). This diversity and amount of supportive gut bacteria help to keep the skin moisturized and free from blemishes. When your gut is inflamed or weakened, your skin can often be the first indicator, leading to skin issues and inflammation such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis.
How to Improve Gut Health
Now that you know how important gut health is for overall health, you may be wondering how you can start supporting your gut. Here are a few tips to improve gut health:
Eat probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, yogurt or non-dairy yogurt such as coconut yogurt.
These foods contain live bacteria that help to improve the digestive tract. I personally like Bulgarian yogurt due to its longer fermentation process that results in a lower level of lactose (important for lactose intolerant or sensitive folks). Coconut yogurt is also a great option for those that are sensitive to dairy, however, be mindful of gums and additives that can lead to gut aggravation. What is the point of adding these things to our diet if they contain a bunch of gut irritants, right?
A few brands of non-dairy yogurt I recommend include: Cocojune, Cocoyo, Culina and Coconut Cult. Probiotic supplements can also be a game changer to add some extra support to our microbiome; you can find them in capsules, pills, or powder form.
Additionally, ensure you are taking care of your oral health. A healthy microbiome starts in the mouth; brushing 2-3 times per day, flossing between meals and before brushing, oil pulling, and tongue scraping are all ways to ensure our mouth microbiome is balanced.
Eat more prebiotics!
Yes, replace the o in probiotics and you have prebiotics. Not the same thing, although both support the gut microbiome and are interrelated.
Prebiotics are the food that nourish and fuel our probiotics, or living gut organisms, in the body. A few sources of prebiotics include: applesauce, asparagus, sweet potatoes, artichokes, cabbage, onion, and jicama.
Eat plenty of fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Fiber helps to keep things moving through the digestive system, as well as detoxify the body through the removal of waste such as excess cholesterol, hormones, and other toxins. Fiber also produces short chain fatty acids which help repair and maintain our gut barrier, as well as lower inflammation. When consuming legumes, keep in mind that soaking, sprouting, pressure cooking, and fermenting are all factors to consider for preparation. When not properly prepared legumes can be high in what is known as antinutrients. Antinutrients interfere with nutrition absorption, therefore, proper preparation is key for lowering and removing them in our food.
Minimize or avoid processed foods, sugary food/drinks, alcohol, and caffeine.
These foods can irritate the digestive system and lead to improper digestion and other gastrointestinal problems. Focus instead on incorporating more whole foods into your diet and perhaps following a 80:20 rule of 80% whole, fresh foods to 20% highly palatable foods (aka sugary/high fat/processed foods).
Exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep each night.
Both exercise and sleep help to reduce stress levels, which can impact gut health negatively, as well as encourage proper repair and care for our gut and stomach lining. Exercise also promotes regularity by keeping things moving through our digestive system at a healthy pace. Aim for at least 30-minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week, even movement such as dancing, walking, gardening, or mobility stretching daily can make a huge difference on your health.
Eat more bitters!
Bitter foods help our bodies digest foods more optimally, and is probably why pre-meal salads are so ingrained in many cultures. Some digestive bitters to include: arugula, dandelion greens, broccoli, kale, artichokes, and cranberries. All are great options to incorporate before and with meals.
Zinc is a mineral that aids in hydrochloric (HCl) acid synthesis in the gut. Without proper HCl acid in our stomach, we are unable to properly break-down and sanitize our food leading to harmful microbial overgrowth, malabsorption, indigestion and inflammation. Some food sources of zinc include: beef, lamb, shellfish, crab, eggs, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, and chia seeds.
Breath in… breath out… we cannot digest food if we are in a stressed state. I repeat, your body cannot digest food when stressed. It is physiologically not possible.
This means that it is absolutely crucial to be in a state of calm before and while we eat. I personally like to take a few deep breaths before I eat or take a moment to give thanks for my food. I will also pause and admire my meal, maybe taking in all the colors, smells, and noises. Additionally, chew your food thoroughly. The more we can do to ease digestion, the better our bodies will properly fuel and nourish itself (our saliva contains potent enzymes that help kick start digestion, take advantage of them and chew away)!
Additional Tactics to Improve Gut Health
Sip on ginger tea, drink diluted apple cider vinegar before meals (or drizzle on salads), and eat papaya and pineapple. All will help soothe our digestive tract, support digestion, as well as contain enzymes that benefit digestion and our gut health.
Let Us Help You Improve Your Gut Health
As you can see, taking care of your gut is taking care of your overall health. Your gut health is important for overall wellness—so it’s crucial that we do what we can to keep our digestive system happy and healthy! Fortunately, there are many simple lifestyle changes you can make to improve your gut and take charge of your health. Make the changes today for a healthier, more balanced and optimally functioning gut tomorrow!
Alma Ervedosa is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), specializing in nutrition counseling. Alma believes in a functional, whole person approach to nutrition counseling. See Alma’s full bio to learn more.