Gut health: It’s a topic so hot that we’re predicting it to be one of the major health trends of 2024. But if you’re relatively new to the conversation or aren’t sure where to start when it comes to improving your gut health, we’ve got you covered. Join us as we look at how (and why) to show some love to your hard-working digestive system.
It’s All Connected: Healthy Gut, Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
We all learned it as children, maybe even from a simple cartoon or a colorful diagram: our digestive systems are responsible for breaking food down into usable nutrients and filtering out waste. But sometimes, we make the mistake of thinking that our digestive systems otherwise operate in isolation from our other physiological functions.
The critical, more grown-up truth is that our gut health is also closely linked to the levels of inflammation found in our bodies, the general health of our immune systems, our mental health, and much more. This means how we treat our digestive systems has much can show up as much more than just a little extra belly fat.
“Good Bugs” and Gut Health
“If your gut’s not right, your brain’s not going to be right,” says Dr. Daniel Amen, a California-based MD and psychiatrist. Amen cites studies that point out how the loss of “good bugs”—also known as healthy bacteria and microorganisms—can cause adverse chain reactions in our mental health and cognitive abilities due to the sensitivity of the gut-brain connection.
“Feeding your gut bugs…and making sure you take care of your gut can be so helpful,” says Amen.
The sooner we understand how much our internal systems tie together and rely on each other, the more we can see the benefits of showing our digestive system some TLC. So, if we’re starting from scratch with gut health, what should be our focus, and where should we start?
Gut Wellness Goodies: Top Tips for Rebooting Your Digestive System
A little behavioral change can go a long way when improving your gut health. If it feels overwhelming to do a complete overhaul all at once, pick one or two tips and start there.
Let’s dive in.
Balance Your Nutrition Plan
Many of today’s nutrition plans are based on overall caloric intake or hitting certain macro goals (broken down by protein, fats, and carbs). But when it comes to long-term gut health, it’s about more than just staying under a specific caloric threshold; it’s about the composition of the foods we eat.
“Feed your gut bugs fiber, fruits, and vegetables, and take a probiotic,” says Dr. Amen. While American adults typically only consume about 15 grams of fiber per day, the American Heart Association and other health experts recommend not only getting around 25 to 30 grams per day but also that you should be trying to get your fiber intake from whole foods, not from supplements.
What are some top sources of dietary fiber? Luckily, you’ve got options:
Grains and cereals — aim for a serving of whole grains with every meal.
Beans and legumes — not only are these little guys fiber-rich, but certain types also contain enough protein for promotion to main dish status a few times a week.
Fruits and vegetables — opt for whole fruits and vegetables versus juices that pump in sugar and remove the actual fiber.
Start small with a Meatless Monday bean dish substitution, or snag an apple with some peanut butter to hold you over until dinner.
Don’t Forget Your Probiotics
In addition to fiber, look for ways to add probiotics to your diet. Probiotics are the good-for-you bacteria and yeasts that introduce healthier bacteria to your gut. Common dietary sources of probiotics include:
Prioritize Sleep and Manage Stress
We’ll never stop saying it: sleep is an absolute non-negotiable building block for any healthy lifestyle. As quality sleep decreases, your stress level increases. This increased stress, in turn, can wreak havoc on your gut wellness and healthy hormone production.
Production of hormones like leptin and ghrelin, which are necessary for regulating appetite and hunger, can easily be disrupted by short lapses in adequate sleep patterns. On top of that, our decision-making and cognitive abilities are also negatively affected by sleep deficits, creating an uphill battle for healthy nutrition planning and mindful eating.
The Holistic Art of Sleep Hygiene
Sleep and stress management go hand in hand, so look for ways to improve your sleep hygiene through relaxing bedtime routines or sleep synching. By maintaining consistent sleep schedules, minimizing bedtime distractions—and dare we say it—minimizing the bedtime scrolling or streaming, you’ll be well on your way to a happier gut.
Move Your Body
Last but not least, get moving! And it doesn’t have to be a marathon, power lifting quest, or a high impact fitness overhaul. Just a little daily, low-impact movement can go a long way toward additional stress management and body weight maintenance, which can make life a lot easier for the digestive system.
Exercise also increases antioxidant release and reduces inflammation, which aids the body’s immune system. It also balances insulin and cortisol production, which is highly beneficial for the gut. Moderate exercise—whether it’s a daily mile walk, dancing during chores, or a short, low-impact ruck — is a great way to kickstart your gut health improvements if you’re not sure you’re ready for a longer-term fitness goal or you need some time to build a new nutrition plan.
Baby Steps for Better Health
It’s okay to start small and continue enjoying the foods and activities you love. The key to any sustainable change is building simple habits that can become a practical part of your daily life. Start with one apple, one mile, or one hour with the screens off at bedtime; your digestive system will thank you.