You can think of your gut as a core system with connections to other aspects of your health. The gut microbiome, specifically, has been a hot topic in the wellness world as researchers continue to unpack its link to digestive function, mental health and more.
The microbiome refers to the trillions of microorganisms (also called microbes) living in your body, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. The gut microbiome refers specifically to the microbes in your intestines, notably the large intestine. These microbes help us metabolize food we can’t digest, boosts our immune function and controls inflammation. They also generate metabolites (substances our bodies use to break down food), including vitamins, enzymes and hormones, according to Gail Cresci, a microbiome researcher and registered dietician with Cleveland Clinic’s pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition department.
Cresci told CNET you should think of the gut microbiome as “little pets living inside your intestinal tract.” What we eat feeds them, which may affect our own health.
Here are some tips to keep your gut healthy and how to spot one that might be disgruntled.
Read more: 12 Probiotic Foods That Can Improve Your Gut Health
Signs of an unhealthy gut
“If you’re bloated or you have lots of gas, you may have a disrupted composition and function of the gut microbiome,” Cresci said, adding that the only way to know for sure is to have it measured.
Other signs of an unhealthy gut may include vomiting or stomach upset, fatigue, trouble sleeping, skin irritation, food intolerance and other symptoms. While it’s important to see a doctor to get to the root cause of your health concern and rule out other conditions, making changes to your diet or routine that may improve your gut, and your overall health, is a good first step.
But it’s also important to keep in mind that there’s no exact standard for the perfectly healthy gut microbiome, Cresci said, since everyone’s composition is so different.
1. Eat these gut-friendly foods
The gut microbiome prefers foods we can’t digest. This includes foods with a lot of fiber, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts — foods we already know we should eat for their nutritional properties.
According to Cresci, foods to remove from your gut, or eat in lower amounts, include foods high in sugar and fat and low in fiber.
“These are all associated with the consumption of a Western diet, which is also associated with a disrupted microbiome,” she said.
Beyond a gut-healthy diet, which not-so-coincidentally coincides with a heart-healthy diet, eating fermented foods can help replace the good microbes and their metabolites. Cresci lists yogurt, kombucha and kefir as examples.
2. Make note of the medications you’re taking
It’s a well-known fact that taking antibiotics disrupts, at least temporarily, the family of “good” bacteria thriving in your body. Some common side effects of taking antibiotics include nausea, diarrhea and developing yeast infections. If you’re prescribed an antibiotic or have recurring infections that have you taking antibiotics often, ask your doctor about what you can do to help minimize the disruption to your microbiome.
Other medications that can disrupt our microbiomes, Cresci says, include those that alter the PH of the stomach and take away acid. Examples include proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and histamine H2-receptor antagonists (H2 blockers), which are used to reduce acid reflux symptoms and might be available over-the-counter.
By keeping track of the medications that you’re taking, you can help pinpoint the cause of your symptoms and take the appropriate steps to improve your gut health.
3. Find the right probiotics or supplements
In addition to incorporating more yogurt or fermented foods into their diet, some people may seek a probiotic in hopes of balancing their gut, as they’re designed to mimic an intact microbiota. If you’re considering taking a supplement, including probiotics, Cresci told CNET it’s important to know that probiotics are strain-specific, and “each strain has their own method of action.”
For example, some probiotics are designed to help people with antibiotic-induced diarrhea, but that won’t work for a person taking it for bowel regularity.
“You want to take the one that has been studied for whatever it is your problem is,” she said.
Also, unfortunately, keep in mind that probiotics will not completely override what you eat.
“If you have a bad diet, and you want to keep eating a bad diet but want to improve your microbiome, a probiotic isn’t gonna help you,” Cresci said. “You have to do the other part too.”
4. Get more sleep and move your body
“Get better sleep” or “exercise more” might sound like tired advice, but improving your sleep hygiene and squeezing in more physical activity are tried and true ways to improve your health, including your gut health.
Getting good sleep is another general piece of wellness advice tied directly to the health of our guts. Specifically, according to Cresci our microbiome adheres to the circadian rhythm, too. And if we’re eating when our gut microbiome isn’t ready, we won’t be set up to properly process the nutrients of our food.
Lacking sleep also triggers an increase in stress and cortisol, which have negative mental and physical impacts.
“There’s a lot going on with the gut-brain interaction, so that signals back to the microbiome, and vice versa,” Cresci said.
Perhaps most fundamentally is the fact that when we’re exhausted, we don’t have the energy to check off many of the things that keep us healthy, including exercising or finding a nutritious meal – both of which impact our gut health.
“When you’re sleepy, tired, exhausted, you tend not to do the things we know are good for microbiomes,” Cresci said. “So it kind of perpetuates itself.”