The expression “you are what you eat” is fairly accurate, considering that your gut health has been shown to impact more than just your digestion; it also can influence other aspects of your health and overall well-being.
If being healthier is on your New Year’s resolutions list, you may want to focus on your gut health.
Kailey Napolitano, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Atlantic Health System, explains good gut health. Learn why it’s important for your overall health and how you can improve and protect it.
What is gut health?
Gut health refers to your entire digestive, or gastrointestinal (GI), system and the health of your gut microbiome.
The gut microbiome is made up of trillions of microorganisms that live in your small and large intestines. It includes both good (beneficial) and bad (linked to diseases and health disorders) bacteria, fungi and viruses. The exact makeup of your gut microbiome is unique to you, just like fingerprints.
The key to good gut health is having a diverse gut microbiome made up of a variety of different strains of bacteria, with the good types outweighing the bad.
Why is it important to have good gut health?
Gut health is still being researched, but there are findings connecting the quality of your gut microbiome to various health conditions.
According to Kailey, your gut health impacts a host of areas, including your immune health, mental health, inflammation levels and risk of disease.
An overabundance of bad bacteria can negatively affect your well-being. Too much bad bacteria has been linked to increased inflammation and a compromised immune response (both associated with autoimmune disorders) and an increased risk for metabolic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
On the other hand, having more good bacteria than bad has been shown to decrease levels of inflammation and strengthen the gut-brain axis, thereby reducing anxiety and other mental health conditions.
“Having more good bacteria increases the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for satisfaction and happiness,” says Kailey. “It also helps with the production of various vitamins and minerals such as vitamins K (important for blood clotting) and B12 (helps with red blood cell production and nerve health), which are needed for good overall health.”
How can you improve your gut health?
Kailey recommends taking the following actions to improve your gut health:
- Increase your fiber intake. Plant foods are rich in fiber, which is a prebiotic that feeds the good bacteria. Eating a variety is best — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans (legumes), nuts and seeds are all good choices. Some prebiotic fibers — such as onions, garlic, bananas, artichokes, oats and chia seeds — produce short-chain fatty acids, which have additional immune health benefits.
- Add in fermented foods. Fermented foods like Greek yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and tempeh are considered probiotics. For the most benefit, look for live and active cultures (of good strains of bacteria).
- Exercise regularly. Daily activity helps with overall health and keeps your bowels moving, an important aspect of good gut health.
- Improve your sleep quality. Good quality (and quantity of) sleep has been proven to improve your heart health, gut health, weight and more.
- Manage your stress. You may not be able to avoid all stressful situations, but learning to manage your stress can help in all areas of life, including your gut health.
A word about supplements
As a dietitian, Kailey promotes a food-first approach over using supplements such as probiotics. She points to the added benefits provided by the vitamins, minerals and micronutrients found in fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.
“Because supplements aren’t regulated, I suggest you choose one that’s third-party tested, and always talk to your doctor first,” advises Kailey.
What should you avoid to protect your gut health?
When it comes to things to avoid to protect your gut health, alcohol and ultra-processed foods high in sugar and saturated fats top Kailey’s list.
“Alcohol feeds bad bacteria, and so does sugar and saturated fat,” she says. “Prioritize plant foods, opt for fish and lean meats, switch to low-fat dairy, and use healthier fats like extra virgin olive oil when cooking.”
The impact of your nutrition on your gut health — and in turn your overall health — is huge. Good gut health is linked to a decreased risk of many diseases, so make it a priority.
As Kailey says, “The key is consuming a variety of plant foods with different fibers and nutrients. Food is medicine, but good nutrition is most beneficial when we prioritize healthy choices before diseases develop.”
If you’re ready to take control of your gut health, talk to an Atlantic Health System registered dietitian nutritionist today.
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