5 Ways to Support Gut Health
By Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, mom of three and cookbook author who works with Clif Bar & Company
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health and nutrition-related activity.
What is Gut Health and Why Is It Important?
The buzz about gut health is real. But what does it mean and what is the importance of gut health? Your gastrointestinal system (also known as your “gut”) includes the organs in your body that are involved in digestion. They’re responsible for what happens to food when it enters your mouth all the way until it leaves your body. To understand how you can keep this system working at its best, let’s take a look under the microscope.
Your digestive system is home to a complex ecosystem of tiny microorganisms that include beneficial bacteria to help fight off harmful ones that may make their way into your body. Science shows that having a balanced gut microbiome (enough beneficial bacteria to ward off the harmful ones) can support overall digestive health.1
How to Get a Healthy Gut
Did you know that your food and lifestyle habits can affect your gut? Below are five strategies to help support digestive health. Try making each one a daily priority!
1. Include Prebiotics in Your Diet
Prebiotics (plant fibers) feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut so that they can flourish and do their job as described above. Research shows that 5g of prebiotic fiber daily increases the beneficial bacteria in your gut.2 And there’s definitely power in numbers! You can get prebiotic fiber in plant-based foods like apples, bananas, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, whole grains, seeds, and snacks like LUNA with 2.5g prebiotics. Aim to include these prebiotic-packed foods in your daily meal and snack routines.
2. Include Probiotics in Your Diet
Prebiotics and probiotics are the dream team that work together to support your digestive health. Probiotics are the good bacteria that live in your gut and by consuming foods that include them, you can add more to your system. Probiotics can be created when certain foods, like vegetables and milk, are fermented.1 In addition to yogurt and kefir (both dairy and non-dairy), you can also get probiotics in fermented vegetables, like kimchi and sauerkraut, as well as miso (fermented soybean paste) and kombucha. Start your day with a bowl of yogurt or a kefir smoothie, top a salad with some crunchy kimchi, or add miso to a recipe for a delicious way to get more probiotics in your diet. For more ideas on how to include prebiotic and probiotic foods into your daily routine, check out this list of Best Foods to Support Gut Health.
3. Get Regular Exercise
Daily movement, whether you like to run, walk, spin, or practice yoga, is beneficial in so many ways. It helps keep your heart healthy, improves muscle strength, and is a reliable mood lifter.3, 4 Surprisingly, it can also help support gut health. Exercise increases the diversity of good bacteria in your gut and boosts the production of those that support immune function.5 Get exercising on your own or connect with a friend or neighbor who also wants to move more. Having someone to be accountable can help you stick to a fitness routine.
4. Work on Your Sleep Hygiene
Are you getting enough sleep? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that one in three adults don’t get the recommended amount of sleep needed to stay healthy.6 Sleep supports brain health and gives our body (including your gut!) time to heal and repair after a long day.7 When you’re not sleeping well, your health can take a hit. And new studies are finding that when your gut is out of balance, your sleep can become disrupted.8 While some things are beyond your control, like being a new parent or working the night shift, when it comes to getting a full eight to nine hours of sleep nightly, there are things you can control. Try one of these strategies to help you get a better night’s sleep:
- Turn off tech at least an hour before bed
- Limit caffeine in the afternoon
- Go easy on alcohol — it may relax you at first but can disrupt your sleep later
- Make sure your bedroom is nice and cool9 — ideally 65 degrees or so
5. Prioritize Stress Relief
Work, kids, chores, the news—there are many reasons why you might be feeling stressed. But it’s important to find strategies to help unwind and relax. Research has established a link between your gut and your emotions.10 Your brain influences the gut and vice versa. It’s smart to include stress relief and self-care practices in your daily routine for overall health, including taking care of your gut. Try these stress-reduction practices:
- Meditate: If you don’t know where or how to start, try just sitting quietly with your eyes closed in a comfortable spot for 10 minutes. Let thoughts come and go, like waves. It will get easier over time!
- Breathe: Focusing on your breath, as you might in a yoga class, can help calm the nervous system. Try breathing in for four counts, holding your breath for four counts, and then slowly breathing out for four counts.
- Journal: Getting your thoughts on paper regularly can help you feel better and manage stress.11 You can journal every morning, or simply keep a notebook by your bedside table to jot down feelings in the moment.
- Socialize: Feeling isolated can make everyday problems seem worse. Having close connections to family and friends can help. Spending time with people you trust can also help boost our self-confidence and promote a healthy lifestyle.12 Get in touch with a friend today or set up a time to meet soon—even if it’s virtually!
- Clean (but not too much!): Emerging research is looking at the “hygiene hypothesis,” a theory that living in an environment that is too clean and doesn’t provide exposure to a diversity of microbes (both beneficial and harmful).13 So while certain surfaces, like bathroom tile, deserve antibacterial treatment, try using milder cleaning products in other areas of your home.
- Cleveland Clinic: Probiotics. Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14598-probiotics.
- Brennan D. 8 Foods High in Prebiotics and Why You Need Them. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/diet/foods-high-in-prebiotic#1. Published November 5, 2020.
- Harvard Health Letter. The many ways exercise helps your heart. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-many-ways-exercise-helps-your-heart. Updated February 15, 2021.
- Sharma A, Madaan V, Petty FD. Exercise for mental health. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2006;8(2):106. doi:10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a.
- Monda V, Villano I, Messina A, et al. Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017;2017:3831972. doi:10.1155/2017/3831972.
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at National Institutes of Health. Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/sleep-deprivation-and-deficiency.
- Sleep Foundation: What Happens When You Sleep. Available at: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep.
- Li Y, Hao Y, Fan F, Zhang B. The Role of Microbiome in Insomnia, Circadian Disturbance and Depression. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:669. Published 2018 Dec 5. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00669.
- Pacheco D. The Best Temperature For Sleep: Advice & Tips. Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/bedroom-environment/best-temperature-for-sleep#:~:text=The%20best%20bedroom%20temperature%20for,for%20the%20most%20comfortable%20sleep. Updated October 29, 2020.
- Foster JA, Rinaman L, Cryan JF. Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome. Neurobiol Stress. 2017;7:124-136. Published 2017 Mar 19. doi:10.1016/j.ynstr.2017.03.001.
- Journaling for Mental Health. Health Encyclopedia - University of Rochester Medical Center. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentID=4552&ContentTypeID=1.
- Your crew matters: How to build social support. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/social-support/art-20044445. Published August 29, 2020.
- Is it possible to be too clean? Vital Signs - UCLA Health. https://www.uclahealth.org/vitalsigns/is-it-possible-to-be-too-clean. Published 2016.
Photos by Frances Largeman-Roth