These days, the words “gut health” can be heard from every corner of the wellness space — not just because many of us experience the digestive symptoms of an unhealthy gut (think: bloating, gas and abdominal pain), but also because the gut plays a key role in our overall well-being. Research shows a connection between the brain and the gut, which means good gut health can help dispel symptoms of anxiety, depression and improve mental health. Pretty cool, right?
So, how do we improve our gut health? Discover a doctor-approved step-by-step plan for better gut health ahead.
Step 1: Eliminate Triggers
It is hard to really know what is going on in there without eliminating potential triggers. “It is important to identify foods — inflammatory foods, sugar, highly processed foods [and] sensitivities — chronic antibiotic use and environmental chemicals [like] pesticides, herbicides and glyphosates that you may be exposed to that can be harmful to your gut health,” says Alissia Zenhausern, N.M.D., a naturopathic physician at NMD Wellness of Scottsdale. “Avoiding these is key in rebuilding and supporting a healthy gut.”
To identify your body’s triggers, Zenhausern recommends starting a food diary and tracking everything you eat and drink to gain insight into how your gut reacts to certain foods. “Part of repairing your gut is reducing constant inflammation. One of the best ways to do this is to understand your unique food intolerances,” she explains. Keeping a food diary for one week and paying attention to things like bowel movements and other digestive symptoms “allows you to better determine which foods may be causing inflammation and need to be avoided,” she notes. “You will also want to pay attention to ‘non-digestive symptoms’ like headaches, fatigue, skin rashes, muscle and joint pain and insomnia because these too can be caused by GI disorders.” Some of the most common triggers include dairy, gluten, caffeine, eggs, tree nuts and shellfish.
Once you discover your triggers, Zenhausern recommends eliminating the items for six weeks. “You need to give your body time to regulate its amplified immune response,” she notes. “By six weeks, you have officially given your body the break it needs, but for some people who have had chronic gut symptoms, it may take three to six months to fully recover.”
Step 2: Request an IgG Food Intolerance Test
If keeping a food journal is too daunting or time-consuming, Zenhausern says you can also ask for an IgG Food Intolerance test which “will tell you which foods your immune system is reacting to, [and] which foods you are sensitive to [aka, those trigger foods].” The IgG Food Intolerance test is a blood test that can be done at a blood draw station or doctor’s office. “Typically, doctors that specialize in allergies or naturopathic doctors can issue this test, however, ask your primary care doctor [too] as many of them can order this test or refer you to the correct doctor.”
If you think dairy might be the problem, your doctor might have you do a lactose intolerance breath test. Instead of drawing blood, this two-hour test requires you to drink a lactose beverage and blow up balloon-like bags every 15 minutes. The air is then tested for hydrogen, which is usually undetectable except for those with lactose intolerance — undigested lactose produces hydrogen as it is fermented by bacteria in the colon.
Step 3: Heal the Lining of Your Gut
In some ways, the lining of your gut is like armor that protects the digestive system from the repercussions of diet. “If your gut is inflamed or if you suffer from Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, healing the lining of your gut will be necessary,” says Zenhausern. “This will help your gut stay healthy and prevent unwanted pathogens or toxins from leaking out of the intestinal walls and into your blood,” she adds. “Our gut is naturally permeable to allow absorption of key nutrients. In our small intestine, the gut is made up of microvilli which are hair-like projections that increase our gut’s ability to absorb nutrients. Unfortunately, when there is inflammation in the gut like that seen in Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, the normal cells that line the gut can become damaged, [which] leads to permeability of the gut,” she adds.
So, how do you heal your gut lining? Zenhausern prefers herbal supplements such as slippery elm, Aloe vera, L-glutamine, marshmallow root, and Quercetin, as these botanicals and nutrients have components that directly influence the gut lining and help restore a healthy gut. “Instead of taking all of these supplements separately, I love using GI-Revive by Designs for Health,” she notes.
Step 4: Fuel Good Bacteria
“Good bacteria is the bacteria that normally make up your gut flora,” she explains. “There are more bacteria in your gut than cells in your entire body. In fact, there are roughly 100 trillion microbes in and around your body [and] only about 37 trillion human cells — that’s why I often say you are more microbe than you are human! That said, not all the bacteria in your gut are considered good, which is why Zenhausern says to focus on fueling good bacteria for a healthier gut.
One of the easiest (read: most affordable) ways to promote good gut bacteria is through your diet. “Eat fermented foods every day,” suggests Zenhausern. “Fermented foods [such as kimchi and sauerkraut] contain prebiotics that helps support your good bacteria.”
Step 5: Reduce Sugar and Other Inflammatory Foods
Sugar is considered an inflammatory food, but that is not the only way it can wreak havoc on your gut. “Aside from [the] fructose found in fruit, sugar can feed pathogenic organisms in your gut,” explains Zenhausern. “Pathogens are bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms that can cause diseases,” she adds.
In addition to sugar, Zenhausern says foods that contain artificial sweeteners (they are massively detrimental to gut microbiome), gluten, dairy or soy are considered inflammatory.
Step 6: Incorporate Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Speaking of inflammatory foods, Zenhausern says an important step in gut health is to consider what is inflammatory and what is anti-inflammatory. “Anti-inflammatory really means foods, vitamins [and] nutrients that reduce inflammation,” she notes. Adding anti-inflammatory foods — such as broccoli, turmeric, spinach, blueberries and avocado — to your diet can help promote good gut health.
Step 7: Use a Probiotic Supplement
Probiotic supplements are quite buzzworthy in the wellness world — and for good reason. Probiotics “help repopulate your gut with good bacteria,” which ultimately helps promote good gut health. “I wouldn’t look for an exact dose, it’s more about the strains — your probiotic should contain three particular strains: Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus and Bacillus,” notes Zenhausern. Additionally, she recommends keeping a close watch on the label as some might require refrigeration. Probiotics that have been freeze-dried “are stable at room temperature.” However, if a probiotic is not freeze-dried and left unrefrigerated, “the bacteria in the capsules will die,” which is not exactly bad for you but defeats the purpose of adding one to your regimen. “My favorite shelf-stable probiotics are MegaSporeBiotic by Microbiome Labs and Ortho Biotic by Ortho Molecular Products.”
Additionally, she recommends consulting with your doctor before adding a probiotic supplement to your regimen and says speaking with a medical professional is a must for those that take “immunosuppressing medications or have immunodeficiencies.”
Step 8: Mindful Eating
We often think about what we put in our mouths, but rarely do we consider how we do it — which is where mindful eating comes to play. Removing distractions (such as our phones, the computer and even the television) while we nourish our bodies can be a key factor in promoting a healthier, happier gut. Research shows that the brain works with the digestive system by sending signals to the gut and nervous system to determine when we are full. This whole process typically takes around 20 minutes but is often confused by inhaling our food too quickly and can result in over-eating. In removing distractions and focusing on our chewing, we not only give ourselves some peace and quiet in our busy lives but also help our guts. Not to mention: Chewing our food helps better activate our salivary glands, which has its own digestive functions. Saliva helps breaks the food down before it enters our digestive system, allowing for easier digestion throughout.
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