Anyone who has struggled with constipation, diarrhea, heartburn or bloating knows the toll digestive health issues can take on your overall health and well-being. Wendy Rabbenou, MD, a gastroenterologist with Atlantic Health System, explains what gut health is, why it’s important and simple ways you can improve it and feel better.
What is gut health?
The term gut health refers to your overall digestive health and how it affects the rest of your body. A healthy gut typically has a good balance of beneficial bacteria to aid digestion and help metabolize food, which results in regular bowel movements and steady energy levels.
“There are many factors that can affect your gut health,” says Dr. Rabbenou. “They can range from what you eat and any medications you take, to your activity levels and your mental health.”
What is the microbiome?
Your microbiome is made up of a complex community of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that live and work together in your digestive tract.
“Everyone has a unique combination of microbiota that changes over time,” says Dr. Rabbenou. “These organisms are linked to your entire body and can play a role in your health, and possibly play a role in the development of diseases involving your digestive, neurologic and immune systems.”
Probiotics and prebiotics
If you’ve walked into a pharmacy recently, you’ve surely seen probiotics and prebiotics as digestive supplements.
Probiotics are living microorganisms that can alter the balance of your gut bacteria. Prebiotics provide fuel to the microorganisms that already exist in your digestive tract. While probiotics and prebiotics are typically very safe and the side effects are minimal, Dr. Rabbenou says that data supporting their effectiveness varies. Probiotics and prebiotics may be most helpful for patients with specific conditions, including forms of irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, traveler’s diarrhea and diarrhea caused by antibiotic use.
Because supplements are unregulated, Dr. Rabbenou suggests food sources as an alternative and more natural option for prebiotics and probiotics.
“Prebiotics can be found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other fiber-rich foods,” says Dr. Rabbenou. “Fermented foods such as yogurt with live cultures, sauerkraut and kombucha are good sources of probiotics.”
Stress and gut health
When you experience stress, your body releases hormones that can affect or alter your gut function and microbiome. There is a very close relationship between the gut and the brain, explains Dr. Rabbenou. Prolonged inflammation in your gut can have a negative impact on your health, raising your risk for multiple conditions including stress, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, malignancy and rheumatologic diseases.
“At times anxiety, depression, or stress can produce symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping,” she says. “People who struggle with these conditions should seek help from their primary care doctor, mental health specialist or gastroenterologist.”
How can you improve your gut health?
When it comes to gut health, it’s true that you are what you eat. Dr. Rabbenou recommends following a Mediterranean-style diet consisting of whole grains and lean protein, as well as plenty of fruits and vegetables, as a general guideline for optimal gut health. In addition, she stresses the importance of quality sleep and regular exercise.
“When it comes to the health of your microbiome, it’s best to limit antibiotic use as much as possible,” says Dr. Rabbenou. “A diet high in sugar, alcohol and fried or fatty foods can also negatively affect your digestive health.”
The good news is that it only takes a few simple steps to monitor and boost your gut health. Doing so will reduce your risk for disease and metabolic disorders, as well as increase your energy levels.
“A healthy gut sets the tone for how well the rest of your body functions,” says Dr. Rabbenou. “As with so much of your overall health and well-being, simple steps can help you to see great benefits.”
Be Proactive About Your Health
To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.