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Importance of Gut Health

Gut health influences our immune system, our digestion and metabolism, and even how we think and feel. Did you know almost 80% of our immune system is located in the gut? No wonder the microbiome has grown in popularity with the research community over the last several years. 

Research supports the importance of nourishing our gut and the health-promoting bacteria that live there. You’d be surprised to learn the human body is comprised of trillions of microorganisms, most of them being bacterial cells, outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1. However, you don’t have to think of yourself as a walking petri dish. Due to their small size and weight, bacterial cells make up only about 1 to 3 percent of the body’s mass but play a vital role in human health.

Our bodies are full of a balance of both “friendly” and “not-so-friendly” bacteria. When your gut is healthy, you have a larger proportion of the friendly bacteria supporting your digestive and immune systems, and you feel great! When this balance is out of whack, you’ll begin to notice some signs and symptoms of a not-so-healthy gut. If you’re consistently experiencing some of these symptoms, your gut health may be out of balance: upset stomach, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, sleep problems, and/or unintentional weight loss or weight gain.

How To Improve Gut Health

1. Probiotics

Probiotics can play a powerful role in restoring our internal ecosystem. Probiotics are the “friendly” bacteria that support a healthy microbiome and provide benefit to the following: improve protein absorption and utilization, boost immune health, improve symptoms of bloating and abdominal pain in people with or without digestive disorders, and improve stool consistency and stool regularity. Probiotics can be found in various foods or in supplement form and are measured by the colony-forming units (CFUs). As part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, digestive health claims are based on 1 billion CFU/day of probiotics, while immune claims are based on 500 million CFU/day of probiotics. 

2. Prebiotics

Another important component of a healthy microbiome is prebiotics. Prebiotics are indigestible fibers that feed and promote the growth of probiotics and are found naturally in plant foods. Root vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and some fruits like bananas and apples are great sources. Ultimately, prebiotics and probiotics work together synergistically, restoring and improving gut health. Food products that provide a combination of these are called synbiotics. 

3. Fermented Foods

Fermented foods are synbiotics, containing natural prebiotics, probiotics, and enzymes beneficial for our gut. These include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, kimchi, and sauerkraut. The probiotic content varies among these foods. Be on the lookout for the claim, “live and active cultures”, on food labels.    

4. Exercise

Physical activity gets the digestive system moving, which can help with more regular bowel movements. Start by finding an activity you can enjoy and make sustainable. Consistency is key for good gut health. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week to reap these health benefits. 

5. Diet and Hydration

What, how much, how often, and how fast we eat can impact our gut health. It’s recommended to eat smaller, more frequent meals to avoid overwhelming the digestive tract, while eating and chewing food slowly can help ease digestion. Consuming a high-fiber diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other plant-based foods can support digestive health by keeping food moving through our system. This promotes stool regularity and can help treat IBS and hemorrhoids. It’s also important to stay adequately hydrated and limit alcohol and caffeine to moderate amounts. 

6. Sleep Habits and Stress Management

When it comes to gut health, we often think about changing our habits related to food and physical activity. While these two factors are important, quality of sleep and stress management have been shown to have just as much of an impact. Our digestive system is closely connected to our brain function through a network called the “gut-brain axis”, linking cognitive function, circadian rhythms, and mental health to the health of our gut. Understanding this interconnection increases our awareness to the importance of good quality sleep and following stress management techniques like mediation, deep breathing, and exercising regularly.  

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