6 tips for a healthy gut

Ivan Harnden, MD is a board-certified gastroenterologist. He serves as the System Chief of Gastroenterology at Inova. Dr. Harnden focuses on a collaborative approach and strategic vision aimed at enhancing patient outcomes and delivering outstanding GI care to the community served by Inova.

Keep your gut healthy

We’ve all dealt with gut issues at one time or another: from an upset stomach after eating spicy food, to trouble having a bowel movement, to butterflies in the stomach from nerves before a big event. Our overall gastrointestinal (GI) health is linked to the rest of our health in many ways. We take in nutrition through our gut which is essential to our daily lives, and our intestines and liver are vital in our metabolism.

GI health can affect our overall long-term health and it has a big impact on how we feel daily. In addition to primary GI diseases, poor GI health has been linked to many health issues, including cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease and other neurologic conditions, and even our psychological health. Most of us know what it feels like to have an unhappy gut with bloating or discomfort and other digestive problems. We can have a positive impact on our health and how we feel through what we eat and by maintaining good gut health.

Exploring the gut microbiome

Over the last two decades the medical field has been exploring the gut microbiome – a set of genes from organisms living in the intestines – which is practically another organ in and of itself.  There’s still much to learn from this evolving field and it is not the only microbiome in our bodies.  We interact with bacteria, fungi and viruses in different parts of our body. Many of those live in our gut, and act as a vital part of our digestion and nutrition, even producing important vitamins.

The gut microbiome can help us as it works with the rest of our body and makes us healthier. It is an essential part of our body that interfaces with the outside world, impacting our nutrition, immune system, and overall health. If the microbiome falls out of balance, the result can mean GI and overall health problems. Despite extensive study of the gut microbiome, one problem in medicine at this point in our history is that not enough is known yet to understand how best to affect and manipulate the microbiome to achieve positive results.

Discover ways to maintain and improve your gut health:

  1. Eat enough fiber. The traditional American diet tends to run low on fiber. Most healthy adults should aim for 30 grams of fiber a day. You may benefit from taking an over-the-counter plant-based fiber powder supplement such as Benefiber, Citrucel or Metamucil. Some fibers are added to packaged foods (such as chicory root extract and inulin) and can cause bloating, so fiber powder supplements are typically recommended. Fiber acts as fuel for the bacteria already in the intestines and that helps to maintain healthy gut bacteria.
  2. Eat more whole foods than processed foods. Lean towards a plant-heavy diet including vegetables, fruits and whole grains. These are part of a healthful diet that should be low in processed foods.
  3. Foods to avoid. Steer away from foods that are processed or packaged. Limit refined carbohydrates found in white rice, white bread and white flour and sugars such as high-fructose corn syrup which is present in cereal, baked goods, candy, soft drinks and canned fruit.
  4. Lose weight. If you’re overweight, talk to your provider about creating a plan focused on diet and exercise to help you lose weight. Starting off by avoiding processed snack foods and reducing your food portions can be extremely helpful.
  5. Manage stress. Your hormones and nervous system interact with the bacteria in your gut. Stress can affect this interaction by altering how bacteria work and how your gut functions. In addition, stress can negatively impact digestion and the gut microbiome itself. If you have irritable bowel syndrome you may be even more prone to painful flare-ups or uncomfortable changes in bowel movements. Regular exercise can reduce stress, promote digestion and help with bowel movements.
  6. Get enough sleep. Sleep is a restorative process for your body – a time for healing. It’s also vital to a number of hormonal cycles. Maintaining your circadian rhythm (your day/night cycle) is also essential. Getting plenty of quality sleep is crucial to help keep your body and brain functioning well. Insufficient and/or low-quality sleep can affect your cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that impacts gut health and metabolism and affects inflammation and blood sugar. Cortisol levels that are too high or too low can lead to health problems.

Learn more about Inova’s gastroenterology care: https://www.inova.org/our-services/inova-gastroenterology

Leave a Comment