Five Ways to Improve Gut Health

If you like to follow health trends, you might be fully up on terms such as “microbiome,” “probiotics,” and “gut health.” Fads come and go, but it looks like “gut health” is here to stay. Researchers are learning more and more about how the gut (also known as the digestive tract) plays a major role in health and disease, including diabetes. Read on to learn more about this fascinating topic and steps you can take to get your gut into tip-top shape.

What does “gut health” mean?

To understand the meaning of gut health, it helps to step back and look at your digestive tract from a microscopic view. Your digestive tract (primarily, your large intestine) is teeming with trillions (literally) of microbes — about four-and-a-half pounds worth, to be more exact. These microbes consist of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa that outnumber our human cells ten to one. Sounds a little scary, doesn’t it? But don’t panic. These microbes are, for the most part, the good guys. They help us digest food, protect the immune system, and even help make certain vitamins. Collectively, these microbes make up what’s called the “microbiome,” and it’s thanks to our microbiome that we enjoy and maintain good health.

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However, not everyone has a healthy microbiome; in other words, not everyone has a healthy gut. For example, it’s thought that people who have digestive diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, or infectious diarrhea may have unhealthful gut bacteria that contribute to these issues. Scientists believe that other types of diseases and disorders, including fatty liver disease, asthma, skin problems, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes are related to a disruption in the microbiome, as well. Even depression and anxiety have been linked with our digestive tracts. The area of gut health is fascinating and much research is going on to learn more about the microbiome — in fact, the National Human Genome Research Institute is sponsoring an initiative called the Human Microbiome Project, a five-year study to research the microbiome and learn more about its role in health and disease. Stay tuned!

How can you make sure your gut is healthy?

While we wait for the Human Microbiome Project to shed more light on the topic, you can take steps to alter your own microbiome and, basically, get it into shape! Doing so may help you prevent or better manage certain health conditions, including diabetes. You likely will feel better, and you may even lose a little weight. Here are five ways to get started.

Start from the beginning

First and foremost, know what you’re dealing with. If you have symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, bloating, weight gain, depression, or anxiety, don’t assume that they’re necessarily because of bacteria gone bad. Other factors can cause these symptoms.

• Don’t self-diagnose or self-treat. See your doctor for a proper diagnosis and to determine the true cause so that your condition can be properly treated and managed.

Avoid taking unnecessary antibiotics

Antibiotics, such as penicillin, erythromycin, ciprofloxacin (brand names Cipro, Cipro XR), and azithromycin (Zithromax) are truly life-savers, as they help treat and even prevent certain types of infections, including those that can be life-threatening. However, antibiotics are often prescribed for infections caused by viruses or other pathogens that don’t respond to the drug. As a result of over-prescribing, antibiotic resistance is on the rise. This means that bacteria change in response to the use of antibiotics, making it harder to treat certain infections. Antibiotics wipe out bad bacteria in the gut, but they also do a number on the good guys, as well. Remember: the good bacteria can help fight off a host of problems, so you definitely want them around.

• Use antibiotics only when they’re needed. Don’t beg your doctor for a prescription if you have a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu. The drugs won’t work, and you won’t be doing your gut any favors if you take them.

Eat probiotic-rich foods

Probiotics are good bacteria, and are found in certain foods. Eating foods rich in probiotics helps to “repopulate” your gut with friendly bacteria (yes, they really ARE your friends!). Key foods that contain probiotics include yogurt with live and active cultures; kefir, a yogurt-based drink; miso soup; soy milk with active cultures; sauerkraut; kimchi, a popular Korean dish; Kombucha tea; and olives. Make a point to include probiotic foods in your eating plan on a daily basis.

• Skip yogurts, kefir, and soy milk that are loaded added sugars. They’ll be high in calories and carbs, which won’t help your blood sugars. Stick with plain versions whenever possible.

Fit in prebiotics

Prebiotics are “food” for your good bacteria (hey, they have to eat too!). Prebiotics are types of dietary fiber. Find them in the following foods:

• Garlic
• Onions
• Leeks
• Asparagus
• Jerusalem artichokes
• Legumes
• Chicory
• Bananas
• Apples
• Oats
• Flaxseed

• Prebiotic foods are also rich in many other nutrients. Make a point of including these foods in your eating plan, along with probiotic foods. Your good bacteria will be well-fed and happy!

Learn how to manage stress

Ever get butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous? Or worse, feel sick to your stomach? There’s a very real link between your gut and your brain, and when you’re upset or anxious, your digestive tract is often the first to let you know. Stress triggers the release of certain hormones, such as cortisol. Animal studies have found that lower levels of stress hormones are associated with a healthier microbiome. And it may be that a healthier microbiome influences the production of stress hormones. While more research is needed in this area, it certainly can’t hurt to deal with, if not remove, stress in a positive way.

Meditation, yoga, and other types of exercise are positive ways to cope with stress (and they’re good for your diabetes, too). If you’re short on time, try deep breathing for a quick way to calm down and relieve stress.

Want to learn more about the microbiome and gut health? Read “The Right Germs: Gut Bacteria and Diabetes,” “That Gut Feeling: How Bacteria Can Affect Your Weight,” and “Probiotics and Prebiotics.”