Image of a stomach's anatomy which represents gut health.

Gut Health 101: The Beginner's Guide

This article was written by Sophie Atkinson

One look on a health or wellness creator’s social media and you’ll likely quickly see the term ‘gut health’ appear consistently.

It’s something that has gained major attention over the last few years as more research has been published showcasing the strength of the gut-brain connection.

Through these studies, we now know that the gut is like a complex communication network that affects mental health, sleeping patterns, and much more.

Due to this, the surge in interest and understanding has left many wondering how to support a healthy gut microbiome and say goodbye to any issues they may already be facing.

If you’re as curious as the rest of us, we’ve outlined everything you need to know to understand the gut’s impact and the role it plays in the body.

 

What Is Gut Health, and Why Is It Important?


Gut health means having a healthy gut microbiome and digestive system. 

When someone has poor gut health, this means the body doesn’t have enough good bacteria which leads to the bad bacteria to thrive. And unlike many other issues that can be present in the body, it’s not always obvious what has caused the gut to be imbalanced.

It could be due to the build-up of day-to-day habits like not getting enough sleep or physical activity or due to smoking and drinking too much alcohol. Diet and gut health are very closely linked too, with eating fermented foods and fiber from colorful fruits and vegetables being a hack for maintaining a healthy microbiome.

While the Greek physician Hippocrates was a little off when he said ‘all disease begins in the gut,’ his phrase definitely highlights the importance of gut health as the microbiome controls numerous processes.

Its importance lies in its abilities and how drastically the body can be impacted when something is a little off.  As an example, the gut can intensify mental health problems, prevent digestion from correctly taking place, weaken the immune system, and potentially even lead to autoimmune problems.

 

 

Gut Microbiome 101

 

The Connection Between Gut Health and Mood


The gut’s abilities go far beyond digestion as it can directly alter mood and mental health. It’s actually an advanced ecosystem that is often referred to as the ‘second brain.’

It contains a network of neurons and neurotransmitters known as the enteric nervous system (ENS) that communicates with the central nervous system (CNS) through the gut-brain axis.

With this connection to the mind, brain, and gut being in constant communication, poor gut health can bring on symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

 

Signs of Poor Gut Health

 

Digestive Issues


The gut is where food is processed, nutrients are absorbed, and waste is sent for elimination.

So when something is awry in the gut, it can significantly impact how food is digested which can lead to bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.

This aspect cannot be underestimated as it’s a vital process. Human enzymes can’t break down complex carbohydrates, fibers, and other components on their own - it has to follow the usual process in the gut.

 

Food Intolerances


It can be extremely frustrating when you suddenly become sensitive to your favorite foods, whether it’s cheese, bread, or anything else that is delicious.

This sudden onset could be due to poor gut health as this brings on an increased risk of food hypersensitivity. This is because the body may be lacking the types of colonies in the microbiome that are needed for healthy and normal digestion.

When faced with certain foods, the gut might be struggling to break this down which causes flare ups of gas, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

If you are experiencing this symptom, you should keep a diary of what you’re eating and when the intolerance starts to take over. This could help you identify the foods that are no longer agreeing with you.

It may have turned into a bigger issue too, as growing evidence suggests that IBS could result, at least in part, from a dysfunctional interaction between our gut-brain axis and our gut microbiome.

 

Low Energy and Feeling Under the Weather


Not only does the gut impact the digestion process, and mental health, but also the immune system. Many of the body’s immune cells reside in the gut-associated lymphoid tissue which sits in the intestinal lining.

This part of the body has specialized immune cells too which interact with the gut microbiota and antigens in the intestinal environment. This is how they can tell which substances are harmful.

When a damaging substance has been found, immune responses can be activated. But when the gut-associated lymphoid tissue and microbiome aren’t working properly, the immune responses can be delayed or compromised entirely.

As a result, you may experience a constant feeling of low energy, fatigue, or a sense that you’re not 100%.

 

Unexplained Weight Gain or Weight Loss


A downside of an imbalanced gut is that your body may find absorbing nutrients, storing fat, and even regulating blood sugar more difficult than normal. The process might be slower or completely disrupted.

When this occurs, people can see weight loss or gain caused by bacteria overgrowth or not getting the correct nutrients in the body.

Aside from gut-related reasons, sudden weight gain could be due to stress, alcohol consumption, or medications. The first two (stress and too much alcohol) can bring on gut problems too so it could be a combination of reasons.

 

Tips for Improving Gut Health

 

Eat a Diverse Range of Foods

 
Image of a woman eating a healthy balanced diet and food rich in fiber to improve gut health.
 

Every adult should be eating a balanced diet, but this should be stressed even more so when gut health needs improving.

It’s recommended to increase your fiber intake as most people don’t get enough. A diet that is rich in fiber can promote digestion and prevent constipation, two of the common symptoms of a troubled gut microbiome. You should aim for 30g of fiber a day and should seek to get this from a variety of sources.

This could include oats, beans, fruit and vegetables, brown rice, and wholemeal bread.

You should be aware of what foods trigger stomach troubles and avoid these where possible. Typically, the usual culprits are highly acidic foods, spicy food, or soda.

Similarly, you should be cutting down on fatty foods like fries, burgers, and anything fried as these can be harder to digest, causing pain and heartburn.

Instead, incorporate lean meat and fish and grilled foods as a substitute.

 

Incorporate Fermented Foods


Fermented foods have been a key part of the human diet for almost 10,000 years and the recent resurgence of popularity for this food type is due to a keen focus on health.

They include bioactive peptides and microbial metabolites that can positively affect human health, with each fermented food usually comprising a distinct population of microorganisms.

Unlike a lot of the processed items out there these days, fermented foods use unprocessed raw ingredients, contain little or no added preservatives, colors, or flavorings, and are made using sustainable traditional methods.

You can even make your own at home, some of the best to make yourself include sauerkraut, tempeh, sourdough bread, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha.

 

Manage Stress Levels


Stress is one of those ugly silent assassins that can do more damage than you may realize. If you’re dealing with chronic stress, this can take a major toll on your body over time and the gut could feel a lot of the hit.

Digestive issues, anxiety, and depression are all symptoms of oxidative stress. This is when the body has too many ‘free radicals’ which are unstable molecules that damage cells, proteins, and DNA.

While the body is able to handle a certain level, anything above that and the problems begin to arise. 

If you’re feeling fatigued, muscle weakness, joint pain, headaches, anxiety, and the dreaded digestive issues, it’s time to consider new ways to manage your stress. This could mean making small tweaks to your lifestyle and environment or introducing the likes of red light therapy, meditation, or breathwork into your daily routine.

 

Exercise


In a study by researchers at the University of Queensland, the effect of exercise on the human gut microbiota was looked at. The results found that participation in exercise of moderate to high intensity for 30 - 90 minutes three times per week for eight weeks is likely to produce changes in the gut microbiota.

Exercise was found to be effective in modifying the gut microbiota in both clinical and healthy populations.

Another piece of research found that exercise is able to enrich the microflora diversity and appears to be an environmental factor that can determine changes in the gut microbial composition with possible benefits for the host.

Adults in the US are expected to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity.

So if you’ve found yourself pondering the health of your gut, make sure you’re exercising regularly and track any changes you may see.

 

Sufficient Sleep


Sleep can influence energy levels the next day and ensures your body and mind are getting the required rest it needs each night. And while there’s still a lot more information to be gleaned about the impact of sleep on the gut, the two are interconnected.

Digestive health plays a role in how well someone sleeps and similarly, a lack of sleep affects the digestive system functions.

Not getting enough sleep could increase stress and affect dietary choices the next day as being sleep deprived could lead to the hormones that control hunger wanting more.

 

Hydration


Water actually assists with the breakdown of food, so your body can absorb nutrients which means it's vital you’re drinking enough water every day. It can assist with softening stools too which prevents constipation.

While more insights need to be gained, it’s thought that water could be linked to increased diversity of bacteria in the gut.

If you’re struggling with your health, make sure you're drinking about four to six cups of plain water each day.

 

 

Gut Health Questions Answered

 
Image of a woman standing with good gut health.
 

Which Foods Improve Gut Health?

 

Typically, high-fiber and fermented foods can improve gut health. You should be eating a balanced diet of a range of foods, including a mix of soluble and insoluble fiber-rich foods.

Insoluble is the type of fiber that doesn’t change during digestion and can promote the normal movement of intestinal contents. This can be found in fruits with edible peel or sides, vegetables, whole grain products, bulgar wheat, cereals, bran, brown rice, and buckwheat.

According to general guidance, the average person should be eating between 25 to 30 grams of dietary fiber a day. This should be coming from foods and not supplements.

 

Which Drinks Improve Gut Health?

 

Just like with foods, fermented drinks can have benefits on overall gut health. This includes kombucha and kefir, but other easy-going drinks like green tea and ginger could be calming on the gut too.

While these are great to drink throughout the day, ensure you’re getting enough water in as well. 

Without an adequate intake of water, you could be increasing digestive issues like bloating, constipation, and abdominal pain.

 

Is Good Gut Health Associated With Better Sleep?

 

Good gut health is associated with better sleep! The gut and brain are linked together as they send signals back and forth via the nervous system.

When the gut affects your sleeping, this lack of undisrupted rest could increase stress. This stress could then intensify the symptoms you’re feeling from the gut. This seemingly never-ending cycle is driven by an imbalance. When this happens, taking the time to learn about your health and how it can be improved would be beneficial.

 
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For more articles on gut health, read:

Headshot of Sophie Atkinson: Kineon's Women's Health and Wellness Writer

Sophie Atkinson

Job Title: Women's Health and Wellness Writer
LinkedIn: @Sophie_Atkinson
Location: United Kingdom
Bio: Sophie Atkinson is a journalist and content writer. Sophie went straight into the newsroom, after graduating with a BA (Hons) degree in Journalism. She has since gone on to work as a freelancer for a range of brands worldwide. Her work has included a focus on several topics around women’s health, with the aim of putting a stop to the taboo culture surrounding certain subjects and health issues

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