Gut Health Extends Beyond Your Belly to Your Overall Health
"Gut health" is not the most eloquent term in the medical dictionary, nor is it clearly defined, but it is a popular and important health topic: As many as 25 million Americans have a gastrointestinal disorder.
In medical terms, the word "gut" refers to the entire gastrointestinal tract, including the esophagus, stomach, and small and large intestines. Your gut is home to trillions of microorganisms that are collectively referred to as a "microbiome." The microbiome is currently an area of intensive study, and the bacteria, yeasts, and other live microbes that make up your microbiome now are known to influence far more than your digestive health.
"Research has revealed that the bacterial content of the gut may impact overall health, particularly the risk of certain chronic diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease), irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes, as well as the strength of your immune system. Factors such as age, genetics, environment, and diet may influence the makeup of these microorganisms," explains Alexandra Weinstein, RD, CDN, a clinical dietitian at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell.
Foods that impact gut health
Weinstein says that little research is available regarding foods that do not support gut health, but foods that contain antibiotics (some meats and dairy products) may contribute to the destruction of gut microflora and would not be good for the gut.
Probiotics: "Good" bacteria
Although not all experts agree on the effectiveness of probiotics, numerous studies have shown that consuming more probiotics is linked with better gut health.
Some foods, such as yogurt and kefir, contain probiotics, which are a natural product of the fermentation process. And, there are many varieties of probiotic supplements available.
"Look for an expiration date when shopping for probiotics," suggests Weinstein. "This will help guarantee that the supplement contains live cultures."
She also says to look for probiotics with multiple strains of bacteria. Select products that contain at least 1 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) per dose--this information is provided on the label. Store supplements in a cool, dry place, out of sunlight. Some probiotics require refrigeration.
Prebiotics support probiotics
According to a review of studies published in the April 2013 issue of Nutrients, prebiotics may reduce the risk of diarrhea, decrease symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, help prevent colon cancer, and lower some risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
People who have irritable bowel syndrome may not be able to tolerate prebiotics. Other than that, side effects are rare, and most healthy adults can safely consume foods and supplements that contain probiotics and prebiotics.
Stress, exercise affect gut health
For a healthier gut, eat foods that contain "good" bacteria, consider taking a probiotic supplement, exercise regularly, and find ways to reduce stress--simple meditations that involve focused breathing and guided imagery can help.