You know your gut health needs fixing, but where to start?
If you've been asking yourself, “How do I get a more diverse gut microbiome?" or “How do I change my gut bacteria?” or "How do I restore gut health?", then keep reading because we've got some answers for you on how to improve gut health with 9 everyday habits.
Why a healthy gut is important
The Western diet is full of processed foods and refined sugars. The state of human health and our dietary choices have created the nutritional "perfect storm" for an unhealthy gut.
Inflammatory bowel disease, metabolic diseases, digestive system dysfunctions, and numerous other health conditions are being exacerbated by a poor diet.
But there's hope. Studies show that eating a balanced diet consisting of nutrient dense whole foods and plenty of fibrous vegetables supports our gut microbiota with healthy bacteria and improves gut health.
We know making diet and lifestyle changes can be overwhelming, so let's start with the basics.
Here are 9 Basic Daily Habits to improve your gut health and your overall health too.
1. Manage Stress (controlling your stress levels)
The health of your gut microbiome is strongly connected with your mental health.
Emotional reactions can trigger physical symptoms, as you know all too well if you've ever felt butterflies in your stomach, or thrown up before a big performance. That connection goes both ways, which you may have experienced the last time you caught a stomach bug and started to wonder if life was even worth living.
Many studies have shown that stressful life experiences are related to the increased risk of a set of gut-disrupting conditions including IBS, IBD, Crohn's disease and GERD.
Modern life means we're all under constant stress, but taking steps to manage and reduce it will benefit your gut microbiome and your overall health and mental health in positive ways.
Taking up yoga, meditation, or reflecting on what you are grateful for each day will lead to a better mood, positively impact stress level, and your gut health.
A simple breathing technique called ‘box breathing' (in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts) is a powerfully effective way to immediately change your state and bring stress levels down in the moment. Tapping is another method that is gaining in awareness and popularity, and it's worth checking out.
The point is: explore and discover stress hacks, add them to your tool kit and create habits around using them.
The kinds of foods we eat may also be an effective way of dealing with stress.
A medically reviewed study published in October 2022 titled 'Feed your microbes to deal with stress: a psychobiotic diet impacts microbial stability and perceived stress in a healthy adult population' showed that eating more fermented foods and fiber daily has a significant effect on lowering stress levels, which helps to improve mental health. (0)
Study participants were given a psychobiotic diet, meaning a diet with foods that are linked to better mental health. Fermented and fibrous foods are psychobiotic foods. After 4 weeks, those that ate the diet reported the greatest reduction in perceived stress levels.
While more research is needed to understand the gut-brain axis further, this is another great vote from science for daily consumption of fermented foods!
2. Get Enough Sleep
The constant feedback between the "gut brain connection" can affect your sleep as well.
Your gut microbiome produces many neurotransmitters including GABA, dopamine, and serotonin, which help regulate sleep and mood.
If your microbiome isn't operating effectively, your sleep cycles may be off too. A study was conducted on rats that were put in a condition to simulate obstructive sleep apnea. The rats had developed different gut bacteria by the end of the study!
Even while you sleep, your digestive tract continues to work. During this time, the tissues in your digestive system grow, repair, and rebuild.
Therefore, sleep is essential to give your body and digestive health a much-needed break and to ensure the proper balance and function of bacteria in the gut.
Lack of sleep can alter an otherwise healthy gut microbiome, leading to inflammation and insulin sensitivity, which leads to type 2 diabetes, and a decrease of the richness and diversity (1) of the microbiota in the colon.
Even just two nights (2) of lack of sleep can alter your gut microbiome.
The take-away from this: get your sleep. We know it can be difficult to find the time, but if good health and a healthy gut is a priority for you then getting enough sleep should be too.
To read all about how sleep and the gut microbiome are related, check out our article The Connection Between Gut Health & Sleep Quality which includes 8 tips to improve your gut health through sleep.
3. Drink Water to Improve Your Gut Health
Drinking enough water has a positive effect on the balance of good vs. bad gut bacteria in the gut and digestive tract. It helps stimulate digestion and the clearing of waste. Many experts recommend drinking half your body weight in ounces per day. That means that a 150lb person would aim for 75oz of water daily.
Do you find it hard to remember or make a habit of drinking enough water?
Any good habit relies on a system and tools so that you can set up automatic behaviors. Something as simple as having a good water bottle might mean the difference between hydration and dehydration. Access to a water supply is also important, so is access to a bathroom. Thinking about what it will take A-Z to support the habit and putting those things in place, rather than ‘trying to remember to drink more water' is the key.
Adequate hydration is vital for digestive health. It can help regulate your bowel movements, prevent constipation, aid in breaking down foods, promote the balance of good bacteria in the gut, and encourage your body's natural detox process.
Your body uses fluids to help move food through your system. If there is no fluid available, this can lead to slow digestion, constipation, and bloating. In some cases, this can even lead to stomach ulcers or acid reflux issues.
A recent study, published in January 2023 tested the hypothesis that optimal hydration may slow down the aging process in humans. Researchers found that, "proper hydration may slow down aging and prolong a disease-free life." (3)
For more on hydration and gut health, read our article Why Is Hydration Important For Your Gut Health. We include some tips for how to more easily include more water in your day.
4. Fiber Fiber Fiber (supporting your gut bacteria with high fiber foods)
Did you know the average American eats less than half of the recommended daily amount of fiber needed to support health? That's because so much processed food is stripped of its fiber.
Nutrient-dense whole foods and lots of plants are the way to go for a gut healthy lifestyle. Prebiotics are specific kinds of fiber, and are especially important to work into your diet. They are what your resident gut microbiome literally eats and subsists on.
Your gut microbiome needs to be well nourished in order to thrive.
There are multiple types of fiber, and each plays a different role in the gut. Understanding them and their importance to gut health is key to optimizing your fiber intake! To read more, check out our article The Best Types of Fiber for Gut Health, here.
5. Reduce Gut Health Villain #1: Sugar
While you're clearing out the nasty organisms, you also want to stop feeding them. Sugar is what causes pathogenic gut bacteria to flourish.
Harmful organisms such as Candida actually feed on sugar. If you can't quit sugar or artificial sweeteners cold turkey just yet, begin by replacing them with more natural sweeteners such as raw honey or fruit.
Did you know that fermented foods can help stop sugar cravings? There is some recent science that is beginning to explain why. (4)
6. Reduce Gut Health Villain #2: Gluten
Wheat gluten is another so-called food villain, because it can be very hard to digest, even for those who do not suffer from celiac disease.
Reducing bread intake or switching to sourdough bread, whose dough has been fermented and thus pre-digested, making it easier for the body to digest and absorb is one way to help your gut.
If you eat bread with seeds, be sure that they are sprouted. Unsprouted and/or raw seeds contain enzyme inhibitors, which actually block your body's ability to easily digest foods.
7. Reduce Gut Health Villain #3: Processed Dairy
Processed and pasteurized dairy can be extremely hard on the gut. If you eat cheese and find yourself overcome with torrential gas and bloating, you are lactose intolerant. One of the best ways to curb this is switching to raw dairy, consuming raw milk, raw kefir and raw cheeses.
The enzymes raw dairy contains (along with a host of vitamins and nutrients) make them easily digestible and bioavailable. It may be tough to find raw dairy where you live, there are typically sources at local farmers markets or online.
8. Reduce Gut Health Villain #4: Booze
Alcohol is another gut disruptor with studies showing that it promotes both dysbiosis and bacterial overgrowth. Reducing or eliminating booze entirely can be a hard step to take because it can disrupt social life.
At Olive My Pickle, we understand this so we promote moderation and smart consumption. Our article 5 Myths We Bust About Pickle Juice and Electrolytes has an entire section (see myth #3) about how to drink intelligently, and how to use pickle juice to help you do that.
9. Eat More Ferments (eating beneficial bacteria)
We saved our favorite tip for last.
You're eating a lot of fiber and cleaning out your digestive tract daily but you need to introduce the good type of bacteria too.
You can do this by taking probiotic supplements but a more natural way is to include fermented and probiotic foods like pickles, kraut, and kimchi.
Different people have varying tolerance levels depending on the state of their gut health so if you are brand new to ferments, a forkful once a day is a great place to start. Optimally, you'll work your way up to three servings a day, as snacks or with meals.
We delve into the many reasons why ferments support gut health in our article The 7 Principal Health Benefits of Fermented Foods.
From their lactic acid beneficial bacteria, to their live enzymes, to their electrolyte load, ferments boast an abundance of gut health benefits that increase the strength of the resident gut microbiome. They're also delicious, so integrating them into your lifestyle is easy and enjoyable.
How Do I Get Started With Fermented and Probiotic Foods for a Healthy Gut?
There are three principles to know when it comes to eating ferments.
First, the ideal amount to be consumed is three serving sizes a day, as snacks or with meals. This is a very reasonable amount, as serving sizes aren't that big (a quarter cup of sauerkraut, a half a pickle, etc.)
Second, is to consume a variety of different plant based ferments. Each vegetable has a different microbial composition, and your microbiome thrives on exposure to this microbial diversity.
Third, eat the ‘gut health trifecta' of fat, fiber and ferments at each meal. Eating fat with ferments enables easier absorption of the myriad micro nutrients and high B vitamin levels within ferments. Fiber is always important to consume, because it feeds your resident gut microbiome, nourishing it so that it can be as strong as you need it to be.
To learn more about how to creatively work more ferments into your daily routine, read our post on Creative Ways To Eat Fermented Foods with Every Meal.
Or if you're really looking for some gut healthy meal inspiration, download our free 50 page guide on How to Eat Fermented Foods for Optimal Gut Health.
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