Top Tips for Better Gut Health
Good health in our digestive system – the gut – goes well beyond tummy troubles.
Jessica Morrell, CNP, IFMCP, a women’s health nurse practitioner, and Annie Ailts, MS, RDN, LN, IFNCP, a registered dietitian of Avera Medical Group Functional Medicine offer these insights that can help you achieve better belly health.
“Whatever you eat or drink will either feed the good bacteria or the bad bacteria in your gut,” Ailts said. “The bad bacteria love sugar and processed foods so limit your intake of candy, sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, sugary breakfast foods, chips and other unhealthy snack foods and fast food. Instead, focus on whole foods such as vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds. It’s also important to note that artificial sweeteners can disrupt the gut microbiome and cause an overabundance of harmful bacteria so avoid ‘diet’ and ‘sugar-free’ products, too.”
Fermented Foods and Fiber
Good gut health gets help from fermented foods, such as yogurt and sauerkraut. High-fiber vegetables also aid the good bacteria and nullify the bad. “Yogurt may be helpful for some people, but if it’s high in sugar, it is counterproductive,” said Morrell. “People who have an intolerance to dairy shouldn’t use yogurt to help with gut health. Some fermented foods don’t help every person – each digestive system is unique.”
Knowing the Signs
You can tell if your gut microbiome is not doing well – you’ll feel bloated, have irregular bathroom habits, increased gas and plenty of heartburn or acid reflux, too.
“Oftentimes our body is trying to communicate to us, but it can be easy to ignore it until things get really bad,” Ailts said. “Even though many people deal with gastrointestinal symptoms such as heartburn, gas, bloating, constipation, and loose stools, it’s not something that you have to accept as ‘just life.’ These are signs that your gut microbiome is unbalanced, and making diet and lifestyle changes can significantly improve the balance you need.”
Once you “flip the switch” and begin a better gut-focused diet, you’ll see improvement quickly, but it’s fragile. “When people return to bad habits, such as having sugary drinks, they will see the signs of poor gut health come back. That’s why steady change, using science-based approaches, is best,” Morrell said. “There’s never really an ‘overnight’ change. Remember, it likely took time for your microbiome and symptoms to become what they are, so it’ll take time for improvement.”
The cleaner the diet, the better – but being human means realizing 100% clean diets will not happen. “Don’t abandon it – stay mindful and work on it,” she said.
Stress Stops Success
Ailts said you can have the perfect diet, but if your stress levels are really high, they can disrupt everything.
“Unfortunately, stress affects our bodies in a number of ways, and it’s especially harmful for gut health. While we can’t eliminate all the stressors in our lives, we can learn to respond to them differently,” she said. “Consider deep breathing from your belly throughout the day, doing 10-minute meditation or mindfulness sessions, keeping a gratitude journal, practicing yoga, or going for a walk.”
Doing it Right
Working with a professional can help, especially if you’re considering a probiotic supplement or if you’ve recently used antibiotics. Start with your primary care provider. “There are a lot of supplements and approaches like fermented foods that can backfire for some people,” Morrell said. “Having an evaluation with a health care or nutrition professional can help you avoid false starts on your journey to better gut health.”