While many factors contribute to a person’s overall level of health, research is increasingly finding that there is one big factor that greatly impacts one’s health.
Organisms contained with the gut can either contribute to one’s wellness or contribute to illness and is a critical factor to health.
The connection between the gut and health
Harvard Medical School explains that the gut impacts health largely due to its two-way connection with the brain. In other words, if the brain sends distress signals to the gut, it can create a negative response, causing issues such as nausea, headaches, insomnia, restlessness and shakiness.
And if the gut sends distress signals to the brain, it can result in greater feelings of anxiety, stress or depression.
The gut microbiome can also be impacted by other factors. For instance, the American Gut Project—the world’s largest crowd-sourced microbiome research project to date as it involves more than 11,300 people—reports that exercise frequency and antibiotic use can change the gut microbiome as well. Age appears to have an impact, too.
So what can one do to create a healthier gut, and thereby feel better both mentally and physically? Here are five strategies to consider.
Strategy No. 1: Diet modification
One simple way to improve gut health is to eat foods designed to enhance good gut bacteria and inhibit unhealthy gut bacteria. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Bananas
Medicine, this involves consuming more:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, cabbage and cauliflower)
- Fermented, plant-based foods (tempeh, miso and polenta)
All of these foods can help foster a healthy gut, with some also reducing inflammation and reducing the risk of various other major medical conditions.
Strategy No. 2: Stay hydrated
According to the Gut Health Project, staying hydrated helps improve the digestive process, further improving gut health. It does this by keeping the intestines flexible, while also helping foods move more smoothly through the intestines so they can exit the body more easily.
The Gut Health Project adds that signs of dehydration include being constipated and having dark urine. Headaches, lightheadedness, rapid heartbeat and cramping muscles can also signal that the body needs more water.
The average woman should consume about 90 ounces of water per day (11.5 cups), whereas most men need 125 ounces (15.5 cups) according to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Even more water may be necessary when exercising or in warmer climates.
Strategy No. 3: Lower stress levels
Research has found that exposure to stress can change the gut microbiota. Therefore, finding ways to keep stress down can help lead to better gut health.
Healthline states that reducing stress levels can be achieved by engaging in regular physical exercise, using stress-relieving essential oils (such as lavender, rose, frankincense and sandalwood), and by reducing caffeine intake as high doses of this ingredient can lead to increased feelings of anxiety.
Other ways to lower stress include seeking support from family and friends, writing down worries, and making it a point to laugh more often. Even chewing gum can help lower stress according to Healthline, partially by increasing blood flow to the brain.
Strategy No. 4: Get enough sleep
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the amount of sleep needed for maximum health depends largely on age. For instance, most adults should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, with those 65 years of age and older needing often needing slightly less, or seven to eight hours.
If getting the minimum level of sleep is problematic, Harvard indicates that exposure to too much light, having a chronic pain condition, struggling with anxiety and shift work may be to blame. Some medications, alcohol and nicotine can also negatively impact sleep quality.
One way to make getting to sleep and staying asleep easier is to establish a nightly pre-sleep ritual that relaxes your body. This may include taking a warm shower or bath, reading, listening to soothing music or meditating.
Strategy No. 5: Take prebiotics or probiotics
Another strategy for creating a healthier gut involves taking prebiotics or probiotics. The Mayo Clinic indicates that prebiotics are specialized plant fibers that stimulate the gut’s healthy bacteria, whereas probiotics contain live organisms that add to the healthy microbes already in the gut.
Prebiotics and probiotics can both be found in a number of food sources—ranging from asparagus to yams and yogurt to sauerkraut—but they can also be taken in supplement form. In the case of the latter, the Mayo Clinic recommends choosing supplements designed specifically for the conditions one hopes to address. And, as with taking any new supplement, it is always advised to consult with one’s doctor first.
Implementing these five strategies can help improve gut health, subsequently improving overall health too.