How to improve gut health

How to improve gut health

By Benjamin Renelus, MD, Gastroenterologist Sep 06, 2023 • 6 min

Trillions of gut bacteria reside in your digestive tract, and this gut flora plays important roles in both digestion and immune system function. Gut health is the term for overall health of your digestive system, particularly the balance of microbiota, which are beneficial and harmful bacteria living inside your digestive tract.

Promoting a healthy gut may potentially ease digestive symptoms, like bloating, gas, nausea and diarrhea, while potentially helping your immune system to support overall health and well-being. There are steps you can take to improve gut health naturally.

Follow a gut health diet

What you eat can go a long way toward supporting a healthy gut microbiota. Foods that contain probiotics can help increase the number of good bacteria present in your GI tract. Other foods that deliver prebiotics may help to create the right environment for these beneficial microorganisms to thrive.

Some of the best foods for gut health may include:

  • Fermented foods: Kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickled ginger, tempeh, yogurt, sourdough bread and other fermented fare are excellent sources of probiotics.
  • Whole grains: Brown rice, whole-wheat bread, bran, oats and other whole grains contain prebiotics and good sources of dietary fiber. Not only is soluble fiber beneficial for gut health, but it may also help control cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
  • Leafy greens: Spinach, kale and other leafy greens supply essential vitamins plus prebiotic dietary fiber.
  • Fiber-rich vegetables: Asparagus, avocado, onions and other vegetables deliver plenty of prebiotics and soluble dietary fiber.
  • Legumes: Beans, peas, peanuts and other legumes are rich in dietary fiber.
  • Low-fructose fruits: Bananas, berries and citrus fruits offer fiber and are low in fructose, a fruit sugar that can worsen gas and bloating in some people.

Drinking plenty of plain, sparkling or fruit-infused water can also help promote regularity.

While certain foods can help support a balanced gut, others can create harsh conditions that can harm beneficial bacteria. These foods include those high in fat and sugar.

Some of the worst foods for gut health may include:

  • Fried foods
  • Red meats, such as beef and lamb
  • Processed meats, such as lunch meat and hot dogs
  • Sweets, such as candy, cake, cookies and donuts
  • Other highly processed foods, such as potato chips, bottled salad dressings and sauces, and frozen meals

Consider gut health supplements

Digestive health supplements provide another source of probiotics for gut health, but it’s important to choose a product wisely. If you're considering taking a probiotic, talk to your healthcare provider first. They can recommend the most appropriate type and amount for you.

Keep in mind that supplements aren’t a substitute for a healthy diet. They’re best used to bridge the diet gap and provide additional probiotics.

Exercise regularly

Regular physical activity can help keep you regular and has been shown to promote diversity in the microbiome of the gut. Strive to get 150 to 180 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, like walking, swimming or cycling, every week. In addition, incorporate at least two weekly strength-training workouts into your routine.

Support mental well-being

Stress, anxiety and depression affect more than just your mood. They can also lead to digestive issues like heartburn and diarrhea.

Take steps to prioritize your mental well-being by incorporating relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or meditation, into your daily routine. Allow yourself to take breaks from work and tedious activities at home and enjoy hobbies and spending time with friends and family during your leisure hours.

Seeking help from a mental health professional can also be beneficial. Through therapy, you can learn positive coping strategies for dealing with stress and anxiety.

Get enough sleep

Sleeping seven to eight hours per night is fundamental for good overall health and well-being. Plus, studies show that the activities of gut bacteria are guided by our circadian rhythms, making it important that you stick to a healthy sleep schedule.

Discuss digestive concerns with your healthcare provider

When lifestyle and dietary changes don’t fully alleviate chronic digestive problems like heartburn, gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, talk to your healthcare provider. You may have an underlying issue, such as food sensitivity, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which may require treatment.

Your healthcare provider can order tests and conduct a physical examination to rule out any underlying digestive problems and provide you with personalized advice on how you can support a healthy gut. 

Published September 2023.

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