- A healthy gut is important for your overall health and well-being.
- If your gut health is out of whack, you may have digestive problems and other issues.
- A balanced diet containing prebiotics and fermented foods with live and active cultures can help.
Your body contains trillions of microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeasts, that make up your microbiome. Many of these live in your intestinal tract. It’s important your gut microbiome is balanced and healthy since it can affect your overall health and well-being.
Furthermore, between 70% and 80% of your immune-producing cells are in your gut. This means that frequent illness can signal an unhealthy gut, says registered dietitian, Sue-Ellen Anderson-Haynes, founder of the health and wellness company 360 Girls & Women.
Other possible signs of an unhealthy gut are feeling a lack of energy and difficulty sleeping, as well as gastrointestinal issues such as gas, bloating, indigestion, and constipation, Anderson-Haynes says.
But by making a few diet and lifestyle changes, anyone can kickstart a healthy gut. Below are 10 steps recommended by Anderson-Haynes to help balance your gut and promote a healthy microbiome.
1. Don’t skip meals or overeat
If you’re one to skip breakfast, stop; this is something that can make your gut unhappy, says Anderson-Haynes. Ideally, you don’t want to go longer than roughly six hours without eating, unless it’s overnight, she says.
But it’s important you don’t eat too frequently, either, as overeating can cause problems with digestion.
“Pay attention to your hunger cues like if your eating pace slows down or if you’re breathing at a different pace,” says Anderson-Haynes. “You may even feel your stomach is getting [swollen] or you want to unbuckle your belt — these are signs you’re full and to stop eating.”
2. Add prebiotics to your diet
Prebiotics are substances that feed healthy gut bacteria. Certain foods contain them, such as:
Prebiotic-packed foods are high in fiber but not all high-fiber foods are prebiotics, Anderson-Haynes says. They need to contain specific prebiotics such as inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides, and galacto-oligosaccharides.
3. Incorporate fermented foods, too
Fermented foods with live and active cultures feed on prebiotics and aid in digestion. They are found in:
It’s a good idea to eat prebiotics together with probiotics, such as eating an apple and a yogurt as a snack, Anderson-Haynes says.
4. Make sure you’re getting enough fiber
Only 7% of US adults eat enough fiber, according to a 2021 study. Fiber helps your body digest and normalizes bowel movements. Sometimes high-fiber foods can cause gas but a dietitian or gut health specialist can “make sure your food is balanced with fiber-rich foods and [help you] combine them or cook them in a particular way to reduce the gas,” Anderson-Haynes says.
Fiber-rich foods include:
- Chia seeds
5. Drink plenty of water
Adequate water is critical for good health in general, “but it also helps to break down and digest our foods,” Anderson-Haynes says. “If you’re having a lot of bloating, indigestion, or upset stomach, it may mean you’re not drinking enough water.”
There are tons of health benefits associated with drinking more water, such as healthy joints, help with weight loss, better skin health, and improved athletic performance, among others.
How much water you drink depends on a variety of factors including how active you how, how much you weigh, and how old you are. Generally, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recommends adult females drink 2.7 liters of water per day and for adult males to drink 3.7 liters of water per day.
6. Go easy on spicy foods, red meat, and processed foods
Spicy foods may irritate your stomach lining, cause heartburn, and worsen gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If you’re having gastrointestinal issues, it’s wise to avoid spicy foods, Anderson-Haynes says.
Because certain less-healthy foods, such as red meat and highly processed foods, can harm gut health, it’s a good idea to limit how much of those you eat, as well.
7. Get moving
Moderate exercise can promote a healthy gut microbiome, and it can also help relieve constipation, Anderson-Haynes says.
Exercising for just 30 minutes a day can help diversify the good bacteria in your gut, while also increasing blood flow to your muscles and helping you get better sleep. Even low-impact workouts like walking or yoga are reliable ways to increase your activity level.
8. Manage stress
Stress can disrupt your gut microbiome. “Individuals that have, for example, irritable bowel syndrome, when they’re more stressed, they have flare-ups,” Anderson-Haynes says.
And if your stress levels are severely high, you may irritate chronic conditions like ulcers or have other gastrointestinal problems, she says.
9. Get a good night’s sleep
Healthy sleep patterns are linked to gut microbiome diversity, and inadequate sleep can harm the gut microbiome. The average adult should aim to get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.
Getting more (and better) sleep can also have a big impact on your mood, your cognition, and your weight; it’s that important.
10. Avoid overusing antibiotics
Antibiotics can have a harmful impact on your gut health. Sometimes they’re necessary but they “can negatively affect gut microbiome by decreasing gut diversity and increase risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” Anderson-Haynes says.
It’s recommended you ask your health care provider to help you weigh the benefits and risks of taking any prescribed antibiotics.
A healthy diet is essential to kick-start and maintain a healthy gut. And this is important beyond GI health: Diet affects your microbiome and your microbiome influences your disease risk.
Because your microbiome affects your overall physical and mental health, it’s important to do things like getting enough pre- and probiotics, staying hydrated, keeping active, and getting adequate sleep. Incorporating these into your daily habits can help you feel better overall.