When you hear the term ‘gut health,’ you might think of your digestion, probiotic supplements, or even the foods that are touted as good for your gut, from kimchi to kombucha. But what does it mean to have a healthy gut, and why does it matter? We’re here, with the help of Seed Health*, to break it all down for you.
What is gut health?
Your gut informally refers to your gastrointestinal tract and the trillions of bacteria living within it.
When your gut is in good health, the bacteria that live there are in harmony with each other as well as with your internal environment. This symbiosis allows you to experience benefits such as easier and regular bowel movements, a well-functioning (not overly active) immune system, and regulated mood and appetite, just to name a few.
When your gut is dysfunctional, that means the symphony the bacteria are playing is out of tune, whether there’s an imbalance of beneficial bacteria or you’re not feeding your gut with the foods it needs to thrive. From this dysfunction, you may experience bloating, food sensitivities, intolerances or allergies, recurring yeast infections, or irritable bowels.
But the role these bacteria play and their impact go well beyond your GI tract. These bacteria are absolutely vital to human life and collectively, they make up the microbiome.
What is the microbiome?
The trillions of bacteria that make up your microbiome work together to do a few major things in the gut:
Support the integrity of the gut lining
The lining of your gut wall needs to work hard to maintain intestinal permeability, or the right balance of letting nutrients leave to be used by cells all over the body and preventing harmful pathogens and undigested food from leaving the GI tract. Bacteria help maintain the mucous membrane portion of the gut lining, preventing conditions like leaky gut where it becomes much harder to maintain the proper amount of intestinal permeability.
Neurotransmitters are chemical signals that communicate specific messages to specific cells. Neurotransmitters produced in the gut, such as serotonin, can stimulate muscle contractions (necessary for moving food and waste down and out the GI tract), as well as can directly impact mood via the “gut-brain axis,” the communication between your gut and your brain coordinated by the nervous system.
Break down hard-to-digest foods like fiber
Butyrate, a byproduct of the digestion of fiber found in plant-based foods is a short-chain amino acid, which has been found to be incredibly effective at reducing inflammation and making sure your immune system knows who is friend and who is foe.
So, where do probiotics come in?
Glad you asked! Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide a health benefit to the host (you!) when consumed in adequate amounts.
Two important things to keep in mind here: 1) In order to be a true probiotic, the cultures found within the product must be live, which means they need to survive manufacturing, shipment, and finally, make it into your GI tract. And 2) ‘Health benefit’ is going to vary from person to person, which makes sense, as no one’s gut microbiome will be the same as another, and the effects of a probiotic are going to differ from person to person.
Probiotics work not by completely changing the makeup of your existing gut microbiome, but rather, interacting and conspiring with the bacteria in the microbiome to deliver their intended benefits.
Six tips on how to nourish your microbiome
Now you know what your gut does and how it can affect not just your digestive health, but many other areas of your well-being, too. Let’s dive deeper into ways you can improve your gut health, and in turn, reduce the risk for disease and improve your overall health.
1. Eat a varied diet.
Just as everyone’s microbiome is different, so too are the foods and diet that will help you feel your best and help you maintain your gut health (that’s IIN core concept of bio-individuality in action). That said, there are some major pillars of a gut-healthy diet that experts recommend you follow, such as limiting processed foods and refined sugar, and prioritizing whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and quality protein (whether animal or plant-based). Ensuring you are getting adequate fiber is key, which can be found in plant-based foods.
When it comes to dairy, experts recommending limiting consumption as well, but dairy foods such as yogurt and kefir contain beneficial bacteria that can support gut health. Be sure to check the label of your favorite dairy products, though, as they can often sneak in lots of added sugar in the guise of fruit.
2. Get enough sleep.
Sleep is not overrated! Getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night is recommended for most adults, and is critical for your body to reset and recharge. Sleep is an opportunity for your brain to clean up the waste byproducts from the day’s cellular processes, and research has even found that those who get better quality sleep have a better, more diverse microbiome. Increased microbiome diversity has been associated with increased resilience and strength of the gut.
3. Don’t overdo the hand sanitizer.
This is easier said than done, especially in our current environment, but can be a small step in improving our body’s microbiome. We’ve been focusing on the gut, but we also have a rich diversity of bacteria on our skin and our hands!
Alcohol-based sanitizer kills all bacteria, both beneficial and harmful, which means we are altering the naturally-occurring balance of bacteria on our bodies. If we continuously disturb the bacteria on our hands, we may end up impacting our internal microbiome if these bacteria become resistant to sanitizers. Opt for washing your hands instead of reaching for the sanitizer.
4. Move your body regularly.
Exercise is beneficial for the body and mind, as well as your gut! You don’t need to spend an hour exercising every day, but prioritizing daily movement, whether it’s a 10-minute yoga flow or walk around the neighborhood, will promote a healthier microbiome.
Research has found that low impact exercise can reduce the time it takes for stool to pass through your GI tract, limiting the opportunity for pathogens to make their way back into your system, and in turn, reduces the risk of colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. Low impact exercises can look like using resistance bands, doing yoga, swimming, biking, or brisk walking.
In general, exercise can reduce bodily inflammation, protecting the gut lining and microbiome.
5. Reduce stress.
While some stress can be motivational (eustress), most of the stress we experience today is detrimental to our health. Remember the gut-brain axis we mentioned earlier? The gut and the brain communicate via the vagus nerve, which can send signals in both directions. Research has shown that the vagus nerve helps regulate the body’s stress response, and that increased vagal tone (ability of the nerve to communicate properly) is associated with reduced inflammation, decreased risk for gastrointestinal disorders, and relief of stress-related symptoms.
Conversely, stress and anxiety reduce vagal tone and inhibit signals sent by the vagus nerve, negatively impacting gut health. Check out these breathing techniques to reduce stress and improve vagal tone!
6. Take a probiotic that meets important criteria.
You eat well, get enough sleep, move your body, and meditate to reduce stress, but perhaps you're still looking for a gut health boost. Not all probiotics are created equal because they may not contain live strains, or they may not be present in adequate amounts to promote health.
Seed’s approach to probiotic supplementation is backed by science, clinical research, and rigorous testing to ensure quality and effectiveness, plus their probiotic meets the technical definition of what a probiotic is and should be. To learn more, check out Seed’s articles here or head straight to the IIN Campus Store to start nourishing your microbiome today.
*The Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) is partnered with Seed Health, and we will earn affiliate commission on any Seed purchase made in the IIN Campus Store.