The term 'healthy gut' has been a hot topic of discussion recently - And for good reason. The gastrointestinal tract, or commonly known as GI, is a part of our digestive system. It's what helps us digest our food, but recent research is suggesting that there is more to our digestive system than just a long tube that our food passes through.
There are hundreds of different species of bacteria found in the intestines of the human gut, they're known as the gut microbiome. These little guys are responsible for our health - the good, the bad, and the ugly. So when you hear people talk about their gut health, they are referring to their gut microbiome.
If you're wondering why I'm even covering this topic... Well it's because maintaining our gut healthy is important for digestion, but also for immune support and mental health. And right now is the most important time to support our immune system and our physical and mental health. I'll briefly go through why gut health is important and go through the signs of an unhealthy gut and how to improve it - Because a healthy digestive system equals a healthier you.
Why is gut health important
As we know, our GI is responsible for digesting food - It takes the food we eat and converts it into nutrients and stored energy then shuttles the rest of the waste out of our body. Essentially if you're not eating healthy and properly nourishing yourself, you're going to feel it. After eating something delicious, but not necessarily healthy you'll notice your energy levels dip, and maybe you're even a bit more irritable. The more unhealthy you eat, the more out of balance your gut will be, and the more of a negative impact it has on your health. But why is that? Well it has to do with our gut microbiome!
Around 70-80% of immune cells reside in our gut, so consequently the gut microbiota has a mutual relationship with our immune system, they work together. A healthy immune system handles how our body reacts to new things that are exposed to us through our gut. Without a healthy immune system, there would be an inflammatory response to every new food that entered your system. So it maintains balance between reaction and tolerance. A diverse gut flora is actually what teaches the immune cells that not everything that enters our system is bad. So an unbalanced, bad gut flora can lead to a shift in our immune response. When that happens the body's reaction is typically inflammation, digestive issues, allergies, weight gain and other issues.
So if you want to make sure your immune system is properly working then you have to make sure your gut and gut bacteria are balanced and healthy.
That's how our gut works with our immune system, but how does it impact our mood or mental health? Well our gut actually has its own nervous system. The gut nerve cells produce 90-95% of serotonin, not only that, but neurotransmitters (found in your brain) also reside in your gut. Just as a reminder, serotonin is responsible for many roles like sleep, memory, appetite, temperature regulation, and more.  So just like our gut and immune system have to be in balance in order to work efficiently, our gut needs to be in balance in order for our brain to be balanced. 
Causes and signs of an unhealthy gut
Everyone's gut microbiome is different and unique to them. A healthy gut generally has a diverse array of organisms - good bacteria, fungi, and other microbes. An unhealthy gut generally is less diverse and has an increase of bad bacteria that is associated with disease. Luckily, if you have good gut flora an imbalance will trigger negative effects, but after a short-time it bounces back to normal. But if your gut is constantly being triggered and imbalanced then it can lead to an unhealthy gut that will take longer to fix and improve.
So what causes an unbalanced and unhealthy gut? A number of factors do...
- Poor nutrition - Eating junk food (foods that are no nutrient-dense) can lead to an overgrowth of bad bacteria and yeast.
- Some over-the-counter medicines and antibiotics - Anti-inflammatories and acid blocking drugs can disrupt the microbiome. Antibiotics are typically prescribed to kill harmful bacteria, but it can also wipe out good bacteria, especially if it's being overused.
- Stress - Too much stress can alter the gut nervous system and change the normal bacteria in your gut.
Those are the three main causes, other factors include the environment you live in, poor sleep, travel, and alcohol.
If you're unsure whether your gut health is good or bad, here are a few common signs that point to an unhealthy gut:
- Upset stomach (Gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or heartburn)
- Unintentional weight changes
- Food intolerances
- Sugar cravings
- Inflammation/skin irritations
- Sleep issues
- Mood disorders (anxiety and/or depression)
Obviously these signs can point to other health related issues, but if you find yourself constantly bloated or having stomach issues along with other symptoms then chances are it has to do with your gut!
How to improve gut health
As you can see, your gut is responsible for more than you've ever imagined! Luckily, there are ways to improve and heal an unhealthy gut so it can flourish with good bacteria that will work with your immune system and brain so your overall health is in better shape.
Clean up your diet
Remember, our gut is responsible for the digestive process in our body. Meaning the food you eat has a direct effect on your gut.... And just like some of us, the bad bacteria and yeast found in our gut love processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods. They actually thrive off of it! To minimize the growth of the bad guys you have to minimize the amount of processed foods you eat.
Feed your body foods that will give you sustainable energy and make you feel good overall. A healthy, well-balanced diet should include plenty of high-fiber vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins. If you want to promote the growth of good bacteria try eating more complex carbohydrates, high-fiber foods, and prebiotics. These types of foods will help make the good bacteria grow and multiply to push out the bad. Just introduce these foods slowly, a sudden switch to high-fiber foods can lead to bloating. So introduce these gradually, and find what triggers certain reactions in your body.
Here are a few of the best foods that promote good bacteria:
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale
Although processed foods are bad for your gut, there also might be healthier foods that may not sit well with your stomach. When cleaning up your diet, pay attention to how your body feels and reacts after eating certain foods. Try to see if any of the foods you're trying trigger inflammation or bloating. This will help you find foods that trigger an imbalance in your gut so you can eliminate them from your diet and start healing.
Eat fermented foods and probiotics
Prebiotics promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, probiotics are live good bacteria. A good way to improve your gut microbiome is by eating fermented foods that are rich in probiotic bacteria. These foods add beneficial bacteria and enzymes to your gut flora which increases the health of your gut microbiome and digestive system, which in turn enhances the immune system. So if you're not eating fermented foods, then it's time to add some to your grocery list!
The best fermented foods for your gut:
There are probiotic supplements, but there isn't much research yet to determine whether probiotic supplements are as beneficial as advertised. So try your best to get probiotics from natural sources like the foods listed above.
Manage stress levels
Stress wreaks havoc on your body, including your gut. In fact, chronic stress can trigger inflammation, and that is not good! Reducing stress is ideal for your gut, mental, and physical health. So try your best to manage your stress levels, there are so many ways to go about this, but just find a technique that works for you. A few ways to lower stress is by practicing self-care, meditating, exercising, yoga, getting enough sleep, hanging out with loved ones, decreasing caffeine intake, breathwork, and more.
Try intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern that people practice for weight loss and several of the other benefits it offers. It's normally done by fasting, or not eating, for an extended period of time, usually 16-24+ hours.
One of the wonderful benefits of fasting is that it can help reduce inflammation. Fasting gives your gut a break from digesting food all day. This break allows your body to fully digest all the food you have eaten and reduces any inflammation in the gut that may have been triggered by certain foods. Then your gut can start fresh and use its energy and resources on the food you'll be eating next. But before trying this method, read about intermittent fasting to see if it's right for you.
The takeaway is, if you want to be healthy you have to get your gut healed and balanced. It's a very complex system that must be healed and balanced in order to work efficiently with other important systems in your body that help keep you healthy. So keep it simple, eat a nutritious diet high in fibrous vegetables and fermented foods, manage your stress, get enough sleep, and exercise.