Gut health myths

By Jill Levy

As increased attention is being given to the association between a well-functioning gut and overall health, it’s not surprising that some gut health myths keep creeping into mainstream news coverage. 

While some advice still holds true when it comes to gut and digestive health — such as the importance of eating your veggies, staying hydrated and avoiding processed foods — every person has a unique gut microbiome, which means that blanket statements and generalized advice aren’t always best for everybody to follow.

Each individual's gut is influenced by factors including their diet, genetics, use of medications, stress levels and environment. This means that what’s best for one person in terms of gut health may be a big problem for another. It’s easy to see, then, why well-intentioned advice can turn into digestive health myths that are misunderstood.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common gut health myths circulating in recent years, along with the truth behind these claims. 

Myth #1: Gut Health Only Matters for Digestion

Did you know that an estimated 70 percent of your immune system is located inside your gut? Your gut microbiome, another term to describe the collection of trillions of microbes living in your gastrointestinal tract, is ground zero when it comes to overall gut health and even overall health. . 

You’re probably already aware that the foods you eat impact your digestion, but your diet also plays an important role in sup­porting your immune sys­tem because it impacts the types of and amounts of bacteria that thrive in your gut. 

The goal is to maintain a healthy ratio of “good guy” bacteria to “bad guy” bacteria in your microbiome. This not only helps to support healthy, normal transit time and reduce occasional diarrhea and constipation, but also supports your gut’s ability to absorb essential nutrients, elim­i­nate waste from your body,  and much more. 

Related: Gut Health 101: Signs of A Healthy Gut

Myth #2: You Should Be Pooping Once Per Day

This is one of the most pervasive digestive health myths out there, but the truth is, there’s a lot of variability when it comes to what’s “normal” in terms of poop frequency. 

Constipation is technically defined as “When a person passes less than three bowel movements a week, or has difficult bowel movements.” 

This means that not every individual needs to poop every day to be considered overall healthy; and on the other hand, some may go several times per day, and this can be considered “normal,” too. 

As long as bowel movements are not uncomfortable and are somewhat consistent in terms of frequency and appearance, things are likely considered “normal.” 

Myth #3: Occasional Heartburn Is Caused By Too Acidic and Spicy Foods

Spicy and acidic foods might contribute to occasional heartburn, but they aren’t believed to be the only offenders. What are some other culprits? Most often,  smoking, use of some medications, an overall poor diet, being overweight and chronic stress can also contribute.

If you find that certain acidic, bitter or spicy foods trigger occasional heartburn, it can be a good idea to avoid these foods, in addition to eating smaller meals and not eating too close to bedtime.

Myth #4: Low-Carb Diets Can Lead to Digestive Discomfort

While low-carb diets have earned a reputation as being beneficial for supporting a healthy weight, they’re also often pretty notorious for causing constipation. 

In reality, a diet that’s low in, or completely free of, grains and sugar can actually boost digestion; however it’s still important to get at least some fiber in your diet to help keep your bowels moving.

Once you’ve met your daily needs for fiber — which is between 25 and 38 grams per day for most adults — consuming more than this amount may actually lead to occasional bloating or diarrhea. A very high-fiber diet can also potentially wreak some digestive havoc as well. 

There are many anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense foods you can eat while on a low-carb diet that provide essential vitamins and minerals as well as fiber in moderate amounts. This approach can help contribute to overall gut health while helping with digestion.  

These foods include:

  • Grass-fed meats and pasture-raised poultry 
  • Wild-caught fish 
  • Free range eggs
  • Healthy oils like coconut oil and olive oil
  • Most herbs and spices
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Avocado
  • Fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut
  • Organic, unsweetened dairy products
  • Many vegetables, especially leafy greens, bell peppers, green beans, broccoli, tomatoes, zucchini, etc.
  • Small amounts of legumes/beans
  • Small amounts of berries
  • Coffee and teas

Myth #5: All High Fiber Foods Improve Digestion

While incorporating a variety of high-fiber foods in one’s diet offers most people many healthy benefits, for some people certain fibrous foods should probably be avoided. 

Not only is too much fiber a potential contributor to gut discomfort, but certain types of fiber-rich foods may also be. For example, FODMAP foods should actually be avoided by people with sensitivities to specific types of carbohydrates (FODMAP stands for “fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols,” which are short-chain sugars/carbs that can be hard to digest). 

When the resident bacteria in the gut digest FODMAPs, this produces hydrogen, which can contribute to occasional gas, bloating and constipation.

A lot of fiber-containing foods are classified as FODMAPs — including apples, pears, some berries, sweeteners, dairy products, legumes/beans, cruciferous veggies, asparagus, mushrooms, onions, wheat, other grains and many others. This means an elimination diet may be helpful to determine which foods help support healthy digestion, and which do not.

As always, you should consult your healthcare professional prior to starting any new dietary or lifestyle regimen, including dietary supplements. 

Jill Levy has been with the Dr. Axe and Ancient Nutrition team for five years. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology from Fairfield University, followed by a certification as a Holistic Health Coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Jill takes a “non-diet” approach to health and really enjoys teaching others about mindful eating, intuitive eating and the benefits of eating real foods.

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