Everything you need to know about gut health


Everyone knows that the gastrointestinal tract is important to your health—it transports food from your mouth to your stomach, converts it into absorbable nutrients and stored energy, and shuttles waste back out of your body.

In recent years, your gastrointestinal tract has been linked to numerous aspects of health, like emotional stress and chronic illnesses such as cancer and diabetes. We now know that the GI tract is full of trillions of bacteria that not only help us process food, but that also help our bodies maintain overall well-being.

The key to many health issues may lie in your gut (more formally known as the microbiome), which is the bacteria and other microorganisms in the stomach and intestines. Studies have found that certain environments, foods and behaviors can influence gut health. Here’s why that matters and what you can do to improve yours.

Why is gut health important?

All food is ultimately broken down in the gut to a simple form that can enter the bloodstream and be delivered as nutrients throughout our bodies. This is only possible with a healthy digestive system.

A healthy gut contains healthy bacteria and immune cells that ward off infectious agents like bacteria, viruses and fungi. A healthy gut also communicates with the brain through nerves and hormones, which helps maintain general health and well-being.

What are signs of gut health problems?

When your gut is thrown out of balance, it’s normally easy to tell. You’ll likely be experiencing bloating, gas, diarrhea, stomach pain or nausea. These imbalances often fix themselves after a short time but, if they become chronic issues, they might require medical attention. Gastroenterologists can test for specific conditions associated with your microbiome, like an overgrowth of certain bacteria.

For people curious about their microbiome, commercial testing kits will analyze a stool sample and provide information about the strains of bacteria detected. I normally don’t recommend doing these, as we don’t know enough to make results from these tests meaningful yet. It’s best to just save the money and see your doctor instead.

How to maintain gut health

I tell my patients to follow a balanced diet, stay hydrated, exercise regularly and get a good night’s sleep—basically all the things you need to do for overall health. Staying healthy will help you maintain a healthy gut.

The same habits that are bad for other parts of your body—like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption—can also hurt your microbiome. Avoid taking unnecessary medications and talk with your doctor about how your current drug regimen might be affecting your gut health.

Limiting dairy, red and processed meats, and refined sugars can also improve your gut health. It’s also important to get the recommended amount of fiber—20 to 40g a day, depending on your age and gender. Things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds are sources of healthy fiber that you can add to your diet. Most Americans don’t meet these guidelines, so I normally recommend keeping a food diary to track your intake.

Should I take a probiotic?

Surrounding probiotics are numerous health claims about what these “good bacteria” can do for the average person’s health and wellness. Learn more about how prebiotics and probiotics impact health.

In the last 100 years, we’ve learned through clinical studies that probiotics may be able to help ward off disease-causing microorganisms, aid digestion, help us absorb nutrients, improve immune function and reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, including constipation and diarrhea.

Some studies suggest probiotics can even help keep allergies and eczema in check, prevent vaginal and urinary tract infections, prevent pouchitis, and maintain remission of ulcerative colitis. They may also improve health outcomes for those with major chronic illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes.

Among the myriad strains of probiotics, there’s no known strain that acts as a cure-all or single preventive aid for these conditions. But the still-limited research has shown that a rich, internal microbiome—one that includes a variety of probiotics and nutrients—can support a healthy digestive system and a well-functioning immune system.

While we’re a long way from determining the particulars surrounding those individual strains, the research shows that probiotics are low-risk and likely beneficial, especially when consumed through a nutrient-rich diet. Because probiotic supplements aren’t for everyone, you should check with your health care provider first to see if a supplement would likely benefit you.

Tara Menon is a gastroenterologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

Subscribe. Get just the right amount of health and wellness in your inbox.