Gut Health

Gut Health 101- What is gut health and why should I care?

July 5, 2023

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Do you suffer with feeling bloated all the time? Do you have problems with constipation or diarrhea? Or, do you often have embarrassing gas that might clear a room? These can all be signs that your gut is out of balance. When you have a well balanced, or “healthy” gut, this means that your digestive system is working properly and you have a good ratio of helpful bacteria to those that are not as helpful (believe it or not, we need them all!). Sometimes we suffer because harmful pathogens have crowded out beneficial bacteria, or we may have an overall lack of diversity in our gut. When we’ve got a variety of beneficial probiotic bacteria that outnumber the pathogens, they are easily able to carry out their work in delivering important health benefits to our bodies. 

Two of the most common factors that can cause unhealthy shifts in our microbiome are: chronic stress and antibiotic use. When we are in a constant state of “fight or flight” our bodies react in many ways. Some of the obvious symptoms might be increased heart rate or you might feel irritable. But, deep down in our guts there are things going on too. When we are stressed there are certain hormones released which can ultimately change the environment in our gut, making it easier for the bacteria that are not as helpful to crowd out the “good guys”. And, while no one can argue that antibiotics are absolutely necessary at times, unfortunately they can “kill” the helpful bacteria along with the bad bacteria that is causing infection. This is why your doctor may recommend that you take a probiotic during or following antibiotic use.

How do I know if my gut is out of balance (gut dysbiosis)? What are the signs of gut dysbiosis?

Oftentimes, the signs can be subtle and pretty broad, but some major red flags of gut dysbiosis include:

  • Bloating/gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Inflammation/aching joints
  • Skin issues like acne or rashes
  • Fatigue
  • Food intolerance/sensitivities
  • Heartburn or reflux
  • Even anxiety/depression or brain fog

What are some causes of dysbiosis?

  • Inflammation
  • Eating a very processed, high-sugar, low fiber diet 
  • Not eating enough of a variety of foods
  • Antibiotic overuse/misuse
  • Infections
  • Chronic stress

“Taking steps to support a well balanced and diverse microbial community helps the immune system to better prevent, respond, and recover from stress and illness. This is why maintaining a healthy gut is so important for overall health.”

Mandy Rodriguez

How do I improve my gut health?

  • Increase the variety/diversity of foods, particularly produce, that you consume daily
  • Cut down on sugar and processed foods 
  • Take a probiotic- work with your doctor or RD to find the probiotic that may be best suited for you
  • Eat both prebiotic foods* and probiotic fermented foods
  • Maintain healthy sleep habits
  • Manage stress levels 

What is a Prebiotic?

Prebiotics are special plant fibers that beneficial bacteria feed off of to help them flourish. The following foods have prebiotic fibers in them:

  • Green banana (less-ripe banana)
  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Garlic
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Asparagus
  • Apples
  • Oats
  • Wheat Bran
  • Flax Seed

What is a Probiotic?

Probiotics are a mixture of live bacteria and/or yeast that live in your body and carry out many functions to keep you healthy. The following foods contain probiotics: 

  • Sauerkraut (refrigerated, fermented kind)
  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi

What type of probiotic is recommended for a healthy gut?

Different strains of probiotics can provide different benefits. Depending on your specific condition or health goals, your provider may recommend a targeted probiotic supplement. A favorite of the RDs on the NDD team is Megasporebiotic. We recommend this probiotic because it acts differently than traditional probiotics. Rather than simply repopulating the specific strain of bacteria, the Megasporebiotic acts like a gardener to rebalance and repopulate the bacteria within the gut by weeding out the less beneficial bacteria and helping the good bacteria to flourish. There are cases where this type of probiotic might not be the best choice, however, and more specific strains are warranted. This is why it is best to discuss with your doctor or trusted provider before starting a probiotic supplement.

Can everyone take probiotics?

Probiotics are generally safe, however, you should always check with your healthcare provider before introducing probiotics to your routine

Can kids take probiotics?

Yes! Probiotics can be helpful for kids who struggle with constipation, have a history of antibiotic use, food sensitivities, or food aversions/picky eating. Prior to starting a probiotic, the best approach is to introduce a variety of produce and consult your pediatrician.

How does gut health impact our immune system?

Surprisingly, 70-80% of our immune cells reside in our gut. Because of this, there is a very close and bi-directional communication between the gut microbiota and the immune system. If you have a negative stress response to something that causes inflammation, it can disrupt the microbiome. Taking steps to support a well balanced and diverse microbial community helps the immune system to better prevent, respond, and recover from stress and illness. This is why maintaining a healthy gut is so important for overall health.

How does gut health impact our mental health?

Have you ever gotten excited or nervous and felt “butterflies” in your stomach? Or, what about that “gut feeling” that you had that turned out to be true? This isn’t an accident – the reason this happens is because the gut and brain are intricately connected to the point where they are in constant communication with each other, which has a profound impact on both your physical and mental health. When we are challenged with changes in diet, chronic stress, or antibiotics, the environment in our microbiome changes and this can lead to our bodies becoming more susceptible to allowing inflammatory processes to occur throughout, including in our brains. This can lead to things like anxiety, depression, or memory loss.

How does stress impact our gut health?

Have you ever felt so stressed out or anxious that you’ve gotten a stomachache or cramps? Again, this is no coincidence. Because of the gut/brain connection mentioned above, there can be shifts made within the microbiome over time, especially when you experience prolonged or chronic stress. Changes in the hormones that are active in the gut and brain during stressful periods can impact gut motility, nutrient absorption, the immune system, and cause big shifts within the community of gut microbiota. You can think of it as a cycle – if you’re constantly feeling stressed out you might experience GI discomfort which makes you feel anxious, which might keep those stress levels elevated, which may lead to shifts in your microbiome, and the cycle keeps going. This is why managing stress can be so important when working on overall gut health.

Do you have a personal/client example of how gut dysbiosis affects mental health?

Years ago I gave up gluten because of my Hashimotos diagnosis since it can be a trigger for autoimmune disease. Though it did result in me feeling less bloated, along with other benefits like my skin clearing up and my antibodies going down, I started to notice a decrease in gut health. I started experiencing a lot of discomfort and diarrhea. My theory is that I was previously likely getting most of my prebiotics through wheat bread, without being mindful about increasing other foods high in prebiotics. I started eating more prebiotic foods, taking probiotics, and paying better attention to my overall GI health. Within months I noticed an improvement in my gut symptoms as well as my mental clarity (less brain fog), I had better energy, and overall my mood was more stable. 

How can working with a Registered Dietitian help me heal my gut?

Working with a Registered Dietitian is a great way to determine what works best for YOU! We can help you understand what nutritional interventions may be most beneficial, whether further testing should be done, or if probiotic and/or fiber supplementation might be helpful. We will review your symptoms and your goals, and work with you on a holistic approach to help you feel your best.

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