How to Improve Gut Health For a Better Microbiome, According to RDs
Gut health is one of the most talked-about topics in the wellness sphere today — and for good reason. Having a healthy gut can impact a slew of factors regarding your body and how it functions. But between knowing the best foods for gut health, how to improve gut health naturally, how to get rid of bad gut bacteria, and so much more, there's tons to grasp and even more to be overwhelmed by.
If you're not sure where to start when it comes to improving your gut, that's OK. Ahead, I'll break down the basics of gut health, as a registered dietitian, and share what other experts have to say when it comes to making improvements. Ready for a gut check?
What Is Gut Health?
At the heart of gut health is a term you might have heard of: the microbiome. The microbiome refers to the diverse community of trillions of microorganisms living in our intestines. This includes bacteria, viruses, and fungi. While it may sound a bit unappealing, these little critters play a pivotal role in our health.
As for gut health, it's all about the balance and diversity of these microorganisms. A healthy gut has a good balance of different types of bacteria, which aid in digestion, help the immune system function optimally, and even influence our mood and mental health. When this balance is disrupted, it can lead to conditions known as dysbiosis, or an imbalance of microbial species in the gut, which can have wider health implications.
"By improving your gut health and the diversity of your microbiome, you can mitigate unwanted symptoms such as bloating, excessive gas, and irregular bowel movements," food writer and dietitian Melissa Mitri, RD, MS, tells POPSUGAR.
Some signs that you may need to work on your gut health include:
- Constipation and/or diarrhea
- Excessive gas
Additionally, unexpected weight changes may be an indication of an unhealthy gut, which can impact your body's ability to absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar, and store fat. Sleep disturbances or constant fatigue may also be a sign that your gut could use some TLC.
How to Improve Gut Health Naturally
Improving your gut health may sound like tall order, but you can actually improve your gut naturally with a few simple lifestyle changes — from your diet to your sleep schedule.
Eat a diverse diet
"Eating a diverse diet is one of the best ways to improve your gut health," Mitri says. She encourages people to eat a wide range of foods from every food group, especially fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables. "These foods contain prebiotics, or beneficial fibers that can nourish your gut in positive ways," she tells POPSUGAR.
Eating a diverse diet also introduces various bacteria into your gut microbiome, diversifying the composition and enhancing health benefits.
Lower your stress levels
"Your stress levels can negatively impact your gut health, leading to potential digestive issues and symptoms," Mitri says, adding that you can naturally improve your gut health by paying attention to and lowering stress levels.
A few stress-relieving activities Mitri suggests include guided meditations, nature walks, deep-breathing exercises, and body scans, where you regularly tune into any physical signs of stress, such as indigestion, physical pain, or stiffness.
Include prebiotics and probiotics in your diet
Consuming probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut and taking probiotic supplements can help increase the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
But prebiotics, the less-talked-about fiber, are also crucial for gut health, Mitri says. "Prebiotics are plant fibers that the good bacteria in your gut eat to help them thrive. Think of prebiotics as the 'food' for the probiotics," she says. Foods rich in prebiotics include onion, garlic, artichokes, and cruciferous vegetables, such as kale and broccoli.
Adequate water intake supports gut health by softening food components throughout the digestive tract, facilitating smoother movement, and promoting regular (and easier-to-pass) bowel movements. As a result, being adequately hydrated may reduce the risk of constipation. The National Academy of Medicine recommends people assigned female at birth consume nine cups of water every day, and people assigned male should aim for 13 cups per day.
Regular physical activity contributes to good gut health. One study showed that participation in moderate- to high-intensity exercise for 30 to 90 minutes at least three times per week (or 150 to 270 minutes per week) is linked to positive changes in the gut microbiota.
Good sleep hygiene can improve your overall health, including your gut health. Not getting quality or accurate sleep is linked to gut dysbiosis. While one study published in PLOS One showed that those who had more quality sleep had a more diverse gut microbiome. And on the flipside, having a diverse and healthy gut microbiome is linked to better sleep. Why this relationship exists is still being explored.
The Best Foods For Gut Health
When looking to improve your gut, thinking about what you're putting on your plate every day is crucial.
As mentioned earlier, fiber-rich foods and probiotics can be crucial. Some research also suggests that eating a plant-heavy diet can create more good bacteria, says nutrition consultant Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD.
When exploring individual foods to focus on, here are some to consider:
- Yogurt: Rich in probiotics, yogurt contributes to a healthy gut microbiota and aids in digestion.
- Kefir: This fermented dairy product is packed with probiotics and helps balance gut bacteria.
- Sauerkraut: Sauerkraut, or fermented cabbage, is an excellent source of natural probiotics and fiber.
- Kimchi: Similar to sauerkraut, this Korean dish is made from fermented cabbage and contains probiotics that contribute to gut health.
- Bananas: Bananas are rich in fiber, aiding digestion and promoting good gut health. Choosing a slightly underripe banana will provide more prebiotic fiber, or fiber that acts as fuel for the probiotics.
- Fructans and galacto-oligosaccharide foods: "Results of a 2018 study showed that fructans and galacto-oligosaccharides greatly improved the number of Bifidobacterium spp. and Lactobacillus spp. — two types of probiotics that have been found to aid in gut motility, the reduction of infectious disease, production of vitamins, and reduction in symptoms of IBS," per Andrews. Foods containing fructans include wheat, onions, and garlic," she says, while foods containing galacto-oligosaccharides include "beans, lentils, and soybeans."
- Turmeric: Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric may help boost gut health. There is a strong connection between curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, and gut health.
Probiotics For Gut Health
Probiotics and gut health go together like the sun and daylight. Just as the sun is the source of daylight, illuminating our world and catalyzing life, probiotics are the sunshine of the gut, fostering a thriving microbiome and promoting robust health. They are inseparable and interdependent, each enhancing the function of the other in a symbiotic relationship.
To help expose your gut to probiotics, Mitri suggests including "at least one to two servings of probiotic-rich foods daily to improve your gut health. Examples of probiotic foods are yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut."
She adds that you may also consider a probiotic supplement to improve your gut health. "There are many options on the market, but I recommend looking for supplements with well-researched strains, such as lactobacillus acidophilus, and third-party testing to ensure safety," Mitri says.
Worst Foods For Gut Health
When it comes to the worst foods for a healthy gut, the best approach is everything in moderation. That's not to say you have to cut these foods out of your life entirely, but limiting your consumption may be beneficial when it comes to your gut health.
"Ultra-processed foods have undergone extreme processing and are typically high in food additives, added sugar, and refined grains," Mitri says. These highly processed foods can introduce harmful bacteria and cause inflammation and unwanted gut symptoms in some people.
It's best to limit your consumption of ultra-processed foods like potato chips, cookies, soda, and sugary breakfast cereals. "Instead, focus on whole, minimally processed foods, including lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains," Mitri tells POPSUGAR.
"Alcohol is a major culprit for poor gut health, and chronic overconsumption can change the composition and function of your gut, disrupting major bodily processes and harming your liver," Mitri says
While even small amounts of alcohol can cause damage, try to stay within the recommended guidelines of one drink a day for people assigned female at birth and two drinks for those assigned male, she advises.
People with a lactose intolerance lack the enzyme to break down the natural sugar found in dairy food. For those who can't break down lactose, dairy may be considered a "bad" food if you are focused on supporting gut health.
In the same vein as dairy, some people can't tolerate gluten. For these people, gluten consumption may damage the lining of the gut over time.
How to Get Rid of Bad Gut Bacteria
If you have an abundance of harmful bacteria, often called dysbiosis, you'll want to implement strategies to remove them. To determine if you have dysbiosis, your healthcare provider may test your urine or stool or measure the hydrogen in your breath.
"For individuals with extremely high levels of harmful bacteria, sometimes a stronger intervention, such as antibiotics, will be recommended by your healthcare team," Mitri says.
However, for everyone else, you can remove harmful gut bacteria by creating a healthy environment inside your gut microbiome using the lifestyle changes above, including eating a balanced and fiber-rich diet; limiting your intake of processed foods, sugars, and alcohol; exercising regularly; getting adequate sleep; incorporating probiotics into your diet; and managing stress.
That being said, it's important to consult with a healthcare provider before making drastic changes to your diet or lifestyle. If you're concerned about whether or not you have bad gut bacteria and want to improve your overall gut health, talk to your physician and/or a registered dietitian.