By Leah Zerbe
In the past decade, the importance of gut health has taken center stage in the health and wellness fields. For example, did you know that your gut houses between 70 percent and 80 percent of the cells that make up your immune system?
We now know that the gut acts like the “second brain,” and, generally speaking, plays a role in weight management, and helps facilitate a normal inflammatory response. A healthy gut microbiome is one of the most important aspects of overall health.
All of this is probably leading you to wonder, “How can I support my gut health?”
This article will explain just that: the steps to take to promote how well your healthy gut microbiome functions, the best and worst foods for supporting gut health, plus more useful tips including gut supplements to consider taking.
What Is Gut Health?
“Gut health” refers to how well your gastrointestinal tract and digestive system function, including how this relates to the balance of bacteria living in your gut.
The human microbiome (or “community of microbes”) is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria and other organisms, such as yeasts, fungi and more. In fact, believe it or not, within the human body, there are more bacteria and other microbes than there are human cells.
“Probiotics'' is a big buzz these word days, but in case you aren’t clear on what exactly probiotics are, you can think of them as the “friendly bacteria” that populate your gut/microbiome.
These “good guy” types of bacteria (such as the strains called Saccharomyces boulardii, Bacillus subtilis, and Bacillus coagulans) have some of the following overall roles and benefits:
- Supporting your immune system, including immune defenses and activation.
- Promoting a healthy GI tract and a healthy inflammation response.
- Helping to keep your digestive systems running smoothly, including by reducing occasional diarrhea and constipation and supporting healthy elimination/bowel movements.
- Supporting nutrient absorption.
- Facilitating healthy hormone production, including production of “hunger” and ”fullness” hormones that regulate your appetite.
- Helping to produce B vitamins and vitamin K.
- Supporting cognitive health and keeping our brains working properly, due to the “gut-brain connection.”
Signs of A Healthy Gut
A healthy gut is now considered by most experts to be a foundation for good overall health. In fact, it’s been said that all health begins in the gut.
That includes digestion, immune system function, one’s outlook, metabolism and more.
A healthy gut also boils down to the ratio of “bad guy bacteria” vs. “good guy bacteria” populating your gastrointestinal system. Essentially, you need a higher ratio of gut-friendly bugs to outnumber those that are not gut-friendly to remain generally healthy.
So how do you know if your microbiome is in good shape or not? And what are the signs of an overall healthy gut?
Generally speaking, signs of a healthy functioning gut microbiome can include:
- Comfortable digestion
- Healthy bowel transit time
- Being able to consume a variety of foods
- A healthy functioning thyroid
- Healthy energy levels
- Having a positive outlook and motivation
- Overall bodily comfort
- Being able to focus
- Healthy skin
There are many factors that can support gut health, plus each individual is affected somewhat differently by their diet, environment, etc. Some factors that can contribute to a healthy ratio of gut bacteria in the microbiome and other GI benefits include:
- Eating a gut-friendly and overall healthy diet
- Getting enough vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber
- Managing stress
- Getting enough sleep
- Not smoking
- Limiting or excluding consumption of alcohol
- Limiting or avoiding environmental toxin exposure
How to Support Gut Health
Now that you know how important it is to pay close attention to the state of your gut microbiome, let’s talk about how to support gut health using dietary changes, supplements and other steps.
1. Eat An Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Focusing on the quality of your diet is key for gut health because the foods in your diet directly impact the balance of bacteria in your microbiome. For example, fermented foods actually help increase microbiota diversity, while high-fiber foods help feed beneficial bacteria.
A good balance of gut bugs also facilitates you being able to properly absorb nutrients from your diet, plus it plays an overall role in your metabolism and in fat storage.
What foods are best for your gut health? See below for the top picks, as well as some foods to avoid.
2. Take Gut Health Supplements, Including Probiotics
While your diet is No. 1 when it comes to health promotion, a number of supplements can also help support the health of your gut.
Some supplements to consider adding to your routine include probiotics (which can benefit nearly everybody), digestive enzymes and collagen protein. Of course, you should always consult your healthcare professional prior to starting any new dietary or lifestyle program, including supplementation.
Benefits of these supplements include supporting healthy digestive and immune system function, supporting healthy bowel transit time, and reducing occasional constipation, gas and bloating.
3. Manage Stress and Get Enough Sleep
Managing stress can positively impact your gut and even your gut lining. So make sure you keep stress under control.
Similarly, getting enough sleep, which can positively affect digestion (not to mention help to curb cravings for unhealthy foods). Getting enough sleep can also impact how the gut absorbs nutrients.
So, prioritize getting enough rest each night (aim or 7 to 9 hours per night) and also intentionally incorporate relaxing activities into your week, such as meditation, time spent in nature, exercising, reading and other calming and hobbies.
4. Exercise Regularly
Exercise is a natural stress reliever and can also help to strengthen the immune system. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise, three or four times a week, as a natural way to support your overall health.
Related: The Gut–Immune System Connection
The foods and beverages below are associated with support for gut health and digestive well-being:
- Fresh vegetables (all kinds): loaded with phytonutrients and fiber, veggies help to fight oxidative stress and supply key nutrients. Aim for variety and a minimum of four to five servings per day. Some of the best include beets; carrots; cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale); dark, leafy greens (collard greens, kale, spinach); onions; peas; salad greens; sea vegetables; and squashes.
- Whole pieces of fruit: Fruit contains various antioxidants like resveratrol and flavonoids, which are tied to overall health. Three to four servings per day is a good amount for most people, especially apples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, nectarines, oranges, pears, pink grapefruit, plums, pomegranates, red grapefruit or strawberries.
- Herbs, spices and teas: turmeric, ginger, basil, oregano, thyme, etc., plus green tea and organic coffee in moderation.
- Fermented foods: These foods contain “good bacteria” that populate your gut. Fermented vegetables also contain organic acids that generally balance intestinal pH. Try to include probiotic foods like yogurt, kombucha, kvass, kefir or cultured veggies in your diet daily.
- Wild-caught fish, cage-free eggs and grass-fed/pasture-raised meat: higher in omega-3 fatty acids than farm-raised foods and great sources of protein, healthy fats, and essential nutrients like zinc, selenium and B vitamins.
- Healthy fats and performance fats: grass-fed butter, coconut oil, ghee, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, nuts/seeds.
- Ancient grains and legumes/beans: best when sprouted and 100 percent unrefined/whole. Try ansazi beans, adzuki beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lentils, black rice, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa.
- Raw cultured dairy: contains both probiotics and short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that can help support a healthy gut.
- Coconut products: all coconut products are typically good for your gut. The medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) in coconut are often easier to digest than other fats.
- Sprouted seeds: chia seeds, flax seeds and hemp seeds that have been sprouted are great sources of fiber that can help support the growth of beneficial bacteria.
- Green tea, black or white tea, and organic coffee: Research shows that these warm liquids can support brain health, assist bowel movements and in the case of coffee, even create a more diverse microbiome.
- Red wine and dark chocolate/cocoa in moderation: several times per week or a small amount daily.
Foods to Avoid
To keep your gut in tip-top share, limit or avoid these foods:
- Foods with added sugar (such as most packaged snacks, breads, condiments, canned items, cereals, etc.)
- Refined vegetable oils (like canola, corn and soybean oils)
- Pasteurized dairy products
- Refined carbohydrates and processed grain products
- Conventional meat, poultry and eggs (opt for free-range, grass-fed and pasture-raised instead)
- Trans fats/hydrogenated fats (used in packaged/processed products and often to fry foods)
Best Supplements for Gut Health
In terms of which supplements to take, what is good for the gut?
The following gut-supporting supplements can help to support a healthy balance of bacteria in your microbiome, facilitate digestion, and assist you in maintaining normal levels of key vitamins and minerals.
As mentioned throughout this article, probiotics are the ”good guy” bacteria that you want to help thrive in your gut. Not only can you get them from eating fermented foods, but you can also take them in capsule form, such as Ancient Nutrition's SBO Probiotics Gut Restore formula or SBO Probiotics Ultimate formula.
Soil-based organism probiotics generally have an extraordinary ability to survive harsh conditions in the GI tract so they can actually make it to parts of your gut where they can go to work.
Another unique advantage that our SBO Probiotics formulas have is that they contain a combination of 25 billion CFUs* (*at time of manufacture) soil-based probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics to create a “trifecta approach." Pre-biotics act as fertilizer for probiotics, while post-biotics are the metabolites (enzymes and organic acids) created by probiotics that can have beneficial effects.
Try 1–2 probiotic taking capsules on an empty stomach, either when you first wake up or right before bed. Consult the label for directions.
2. Digestive Enzymes
Enzymes help food get broken down and metabolized as it should. Digestive enzymes help to ensure that the foods you’re eating are fully digested, which generally supports a healthy gut microflora, a healthy gastrointestinal tract and a healthy immune system.
Ancient Nutrition’s Fermented Enzymes features a powerful fermented botanical blend of enzymes (such as cellulase, amylase, protease, lipase and more) plus a probiotic and prebiotic blend for extra gut support.
We recommend gradually working your way up to taking 3 capsules at the beginning of each meal. Please see label directions for suggested use.
3. Key Vitamins
Certain vitamins and minerals — such as antioxidants like vitamin C, zinc and selenium — can help fight free radicals.
Vitamin C helps the body synthesize collagen, which forms connective tissues found in the GI tract that promote gut lining integrity. Additionally, it supports a healthy immune defense and promotes healthy antioxidant activity.
Zinc is also important for maintaining healthy immune defenses and supporting generally healthy digestion.
Collagen protein is best known for providing the foundation for strong connective tissues, including those that form the gut lining. Ancient Nutrition’s Multi Collagen Protein powder (and Multi Collagen Capsules) promotes a healthy gut, skin, hair and nails.
This unique formula provides you with collagen from four sources, including wild-caught pollock, bovine, chicken and egg shell membrane collagen, so you don't have to choose between the different types of collagen.
This non-GMO and gluten-free formula also contains no fillers, sugar, artificial flavors or artificial preservatives, ensuring you get the highest quality collagen available.
5. Bone Broth
Bone broth, which is made by simmering the bones and connective tissue of animals such as cattle, fish or chicken, is a traditional stock that is brimming with beneficial collagen and other cofactors and important minerals. However, it can be time-consuming to make from scratch, which is why Bone Broth Protein powder is a great option.
Bone Broth Protein powder made from chicken features collagen type II along with glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronic acid and 19 amino acids to support healthy gut integrity.
The steps mentioned above that are aimed at supporting gut health are general guidelines for most adults, such as exercising and eating a “gut health diet.” However, it’s best to make dietary and lifestyle changes gradually so that you don’t overwhelm your body during the process. You should also consult your healthcare practitioner prior to embarking on any new dietary or lifestyle regimen.
Aim to increase your consumption of gut health foods over the course of several weeks while also drinking plenty of water, since many of these foods tend to be high in fiber. At the same time, cut back on the foods to avoid and consider taking the recommended supplements mentioned above.
With a B.A. in journalism from Temple University and a M.S. in exercise science from California University of Pennsylvania, Leah Zerbe covers health news and functional fitness topics. She’s also a certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and is a certified yoga teacher through Yoga Alliance. Leah resides on her family’s organic farm in Pennsylvania.