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4 Simple Steps to Improve Your Gut Health

 4 Simple Steps to Improve Your Gut Health

Think of your gut microbiome as a half-teased tangle of connections to other aspects of your health and body. Researchers are still unpicking its links to digestive function, mental health, your skin and more. 

In some cases, they’re figuring out whether an unhealthy gut microbiome is a cause of a symptom or health condition, or a reaction to one.

The microbiome refers to the trillions of microorganisms (also called microbes) living in your body, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. The gut microbiome, specifically, references the microbes in your intestines, notably the large intestine. These microbes help you metabolize food you can’t digest, boost your immune function and control inflammation. They also generate metabolites (substances that your body uses 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. 

You should think of your gut microbiome as “little pets living inside your intestinal tract,” Cresci told CNET in 2023. What we eat feeds them, and our internal environment dictates how well they thrive.

As we learn more about the gut microbiome, here are some beginner tips to keep it as healthy as you can.

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, food intolerance and other symptoms. Skin irritation or problems may be one particularly visible sign, as some research links skin issues like acne and psoriasis to the gut. 

Researchers are also looking into how it impacts reproductive health and hormone levels. 

Read more: The ABCs of Apple Cider Vinegar: Benefits, Precautions and Proper Dosge

An illustration of the gut microbiome, magnified by a magnifying glass An illustration of the gut microbiome, magnified by a magnifying glass

Carol Yepes/Getty Images

How to help your gut 

It’s important to see a doctor to get to the root cause of your health concern and rule out other conditions. But making changes to your diet or routine that may improve your gut, and your overall health, is a good first step. 

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. That said, here are four things you can do to help keep it on the right track. 

1. Eat these gut-friendly foods

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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. 

Here’s our full list of the best probiotic foods for gut health. 

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, aka PPIs, and histamine H2-receptor antagonists, or H2 blockers, which are used to reduce acid reflux symptoms and might be available over-the-counter. 

By keeping track of the medications you’re taking, you can help pinpoint the cause of your symptoms and (with sign-off from your doctor) take the appropriate steps or substitutions if gut health is an issue.

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.” 

A sketch of intestines surrounded by healthy foods A sketch of intestines surrounded by healthy foods

Whole grains, fruits and vegetables are great food choices if you want to start healing your gut.

piotr_malczyk/Getty Images

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. And according to Cresci, our microbiome adheres to the circadian rhythm, too. So 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 fundamental 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.”

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