Growing up, whenever I felt like my gut health was out of whack, I was told to grab a probiotic-rich yogurt out of the fridge — and that was the end of it. Now, I realize that probiotics are associated with gut health (more on that ahead), but there are also other ways to boost your digestive health that don't involve eating the popular breakfast food.
From getting the right amount of shut-eye to working out, you can check out a few of them here.
"Regular exercise stimulates the gut and increases intestinal activity, [which] can help with digestive problems such as constipation and bloating amongst others," Dr. Shawn Khodadadian, MD, of Manhattan Gastroenterology, said.
Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, a Daily Harvest registered dietitian and nutritionist, also recommended her clients stay active throughout the day for optimum digestive health, among other health benefits. And while hitting that 10,000-step goal isn't necessarily "a hard-and-fast rule," Shapiro does ask her clients to aim for that number.
As for how much you exercise, you'll want to take your personal health and fitness levels into consideration. Chat with your doctor about any changes in your routine, and ask trained professionals for advice in building out a safe exercise schedule.
Get a Good Night's Sleep
On top of just being in a better mood and kicking dark circles to the curb, practicing healthy sleep habits can benefit your overall gut health, too.
"Sleep is very important in that it allows your body time to rest and repair," Dr. Khodadadian said. "Sleep allows your digestive system a chance to rest and gives your body a chance to replenish its energy levels that allow it to function well."
What's more, Shapiro said that research indicates that the microbiome releases sleep-inducing neurotransmitters, while the gut produces melatonin. "Also, research shows that our microbiome is affected by our circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle). So clearly health, sleep and bacteria are all related!" Shapiro added.
How much sleep you need depends on the person and their activity level, however, the Mayo Clinic generally recommends seven to nine hours of sleep for adults.
Lower Your Stress Levels
I don't know about you, but I definitely experience stomach aches and pains when I'm super stressed. Turns out, Dr. Khodadadian said the brain and gut are connected.
"Stress can cause physical changes like spasms and can exacerbate conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and make them more difficult to manage. Stress can trigger GI symptoms and psychological therapies are commonly used to treat functional gastrointestinal disorders."
Working out, drinking a hot cup of tea, meditating, and speaking with a licensed mental health counselor are just a few of the many different ways to manage stress, but Shapiro also brings up adding adaptogens into your body as a natural way to address and adapt to stress.
"Some of my favorite ways to incorporate adaptogens are through smoothies and lattes because you get all the benefits, and no cooking required!" she said. "I love Daily Harvest's Chaga and Chocolate Latte because it effortlessly incorporates these stress and cortisol-reducing adaptogens into my morning routine to start my day off on the right note."
Again, you'll want to chat with your doctor before making any major changes to your diet.
Understand How Probiotics and Prebiotics Work
OK, I know I said we weren't going to talk about yogurt per se, but probiotics and prebiotics are important to understand when we're talking about gut health.
"Probiotics are made of good bacteria that can possibly help the body to keep working well and keep a healthy balance of bacteria in your microbiome," Dr. Khodadadian explained. "The good bacteria may help fight off bad bacteria and possibly support immune function. Your body naturally tries to achieve this balance and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet helps."
Some yogurts, as mentioned before, contain these probiotics, but, Dr. Khodadadian said that researchers are unsure if probiotic supplements are effective in treating different conditions, and urges you to speak with your doctor about your personal health concerns.
You've also probably heard the term prebiotics by now, too. The Mayo Clinic defines prebiotics as specialized plant fibers that essentially help healthy bacteria in your gut grow.
"These healthy bacteria discussed above can not flourish without prebiotics, which are found in foods that contain natural fiber such as fruits and vegetables," Shapiro said. "Some of my favorite prebiotic foods include artichokes and legumes, as they contain resistant starches which provide food for the bacteria in our gut and microbiome."
Prioritize Whole Foods
Another way to boost your gut health is to prioritize healthy, whole foods. "Processed foods, preservatives, sugar, and more can decrease our overall health and do not help to build up or maintain a healthy gut microbiome," Shapiro explained. "A diet full of fiber from fruits and vegetables (prebiotics), heart-healthy fats, lean protein, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals can help to promote health, energy, and digestion."
A registered dietician can help you create an eating plan that fits your lifestyle, needs, and of course, your gut health.