Last updated: September 19, 2017

Gut health has been a major topic of conversation recently. The gut, which consists of the stomach and intestines, plays a crucial role in digestion, as well as many other bodily functions — some even call the gut the second brain, because of how it affects our mood. The gut microbiome consists of a complex community of good bacteria that live in our digestive tracts. Whether bacteria is good or bad is "all about location," according to Dr. Lora Hooper, Chair of the Department of Immunology at UT Southwestern Medical Center. If the bacteria "keep their distance from our cells and tissues and stay in the gut," then they are valuable for good metabolism. If they "invade our intestinal tissues and cells," then they might lead to disease.

A recent study by Hooper and other researchers at UT Southwestern found that the good bacteria in the gut can actually regulate the build-up of fat in the gut by essentially "hacking" the body's circadian clock. The circadian clock is your biological clock that controls metabolism and sleep rhythms according to a 24-hour cycle. Hooper hopes that future studies will show how interconnected the gut microbiome is with the risk of conditions of conditions stemming from high body fat, such as obesity and diabetes.

"Our hope is that these studies will provide new insight into the underlying causes of obesity in humans, and may identify gut bacteria that either promote or inhibit fat storage through their interactions with the circadian clock," Hooper added.

This healthy gut flora has already been shown to improve immune health, improve mood and mental health, increase energy levels, improve cholesterol levels, regulate hormone levels, reduce yeast infection occurrences, help maintain a healthy weight, improve oral health, and increase longevity.

So, how does one get their gut in tip-top shape to reap these benefits? CareDash asked Boston-based registered dietitian and founder of The Well Essentials, Megan Faletra, for input on the matter. Below are her top 6 hacks for getting the healthiest gut possible.

 

1. Choose Fermented Foods

Fermented foods.

Whole foods that are fermented encourage the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut, which is beneficial for overall gut health. Common fermented foods include yogurt, cottage cheese, whey, kefir, sauerkraut, a variety of pickled vegetables, miso, soy sauce, and fermented tofu. In addition to encouraging good bacteria, fermented foods have been shown to produce compounds that inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Traditional fermented foods also help balance the production of stomach acid and help the body produce acetylcholine, which helps reduce constipation. The carbs found in probiotic foods have already been broken down, making them easy on the pancreas, making them ideal foods for people with diabetes. 

Megan suggests "beginning slowly with fermented foods and not necessarily consuming them every day at first until you understand how your body responds." Though some people may feel fantastic eating probiotic foods daily, other may feel bloating and may need to introduce fermented foods slowly.

 

2. Try High-Quality Probiotics

Probiotic supplements.

Adding a high-quality probiotic to your diet should be a daily ritual for everyone, especially those who may have recently taken antibiotics. Antibiotics have done incredible things for modern medicine and fighting disease, but they leave our guts particularly vulnerable afterward by wiping out both the good and bad bacteria. Probiotics give your gut a boost by replenishing the good bacteria that antibiotics may have swept away. Even if you haven't taken antibiotics recently, "for most people, there is no downside to giving their guts a little extra help by adding a high-quality probiotic." Megan suggests Floras Super 8 High Potency probiotic to her clients, but any high-quality probiotic can help. 

 

3. Avoid Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners are notorious for being gut irritants — research has shown they have the potential to decrease good bacteria, which can negatively affect digestion and immune response. Megan recommends using small amounts raw honey for sweetening or choosing Stevia or Monk fruit extract as a natural sugar-free replacement for sucralose and aspartame. She also suggests adding cinnamon or powdered vanilla to coffee drinks for a more subtle sweeter taste. For those with diabetes or related issues, Xylitol is a natural sugar alcohol that doesn't affect blood sugar; however, it can cause some digestive unrest so should be used sparingly. 

 

4. Pay Attention to Dietary Intolerances

Gluten intolerance.

Anyone facing digestive difficulty should be sure to keep a journal of everything they eat. Megan suggests keeping track of the symptoms you experience while eating and after a meal. Sometimes, removing certain foods from your diet is all the gastrointestinal tract needs to feel its best. By keeping track of symptoms, you can keep track of which types of foods are bothersome. Those that are extremely irritating should be removed entirely from the diet but may be reintroduced later on, while those that are less bothersome may be able to be eaten in moderation. 

If writing down everything you eat seems like too much work, try investing in an app that allows you to track meals on the go. Another alternative is getting an intolerance test; however, these tests can be costly and may over-diagnose.

 

5. Stay Hydrated

Pitcher of ice water.

Water is essential to digestion because it is primarily absorbed in the intestines. Adequate water intake prevents constipation by softening stools and helps move food you've eaten through your digestive tract. All these digestive benefits make minerals and nutrients more accessible to the body and the gut. 

 

6. Cook Your Veggies

Cooked vegetables.

Vegetables are full of fiber and known contributors to gut health. Megan says, "Think of fiber as the broom going through your intestine that is making sure your body's digestion runs smoothly and efficiently." As previously stated, when properly dissolved, fiber benefits the bowels by making well-formed, easy-to-pass stools. For some, raw vegetables can irritate the digestive tract, causing bloating or upset. If that's the case, try lightly steaming or roasting your veggies. According to Faletra, gently cooking your favorite vegetables makes their natural fiber more digestible, supporting a healthy gut.

These six tips are great examples of ways to start improving your gut health. Do you have any other health hacks for the digestive system? Let us know in the comments below!