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Looking to heal your gut? Do these simple steps first

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Think of your gut as a carefully balanced machine with connections to other aspects of your overall health. The gut microbiome, specifically, has been a hot topic in the wellness world, as researchers continue to unravel its link to digestive function, mental health and more.

The microbiome refers to the trillions of microorganisms (also called microbes) that live in your body, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. The gut microbiome specifically refers to the microbes in your intestines, particularly the large intestine. These microbes help us metabolize foods we cannot digest, boost our immune function, and control inflammation. They also generate metabolites (substances our bodies use to break down food), including vitamins, enzymes and hormones, according to Gail Cresci, microbiome researcher and registered dietitian in the department of gastroenterology, hepatology and pediatric nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic.

Cresci told CNET that you should think of the gut microbiome as “little pets that live inside the intestinal tract.” What we eat feeds them, which can affect our own health.

Here are some tips for keeping your gut healthy and how to spot one that might be unhappy.

Signs of an unhealthy gut

“If you’re bloated or have a lot of gas, you could have disrupted gut microbiome composition and function,” Cresci said, adding that the only way to know for sure is to measure.

Other signs of an unhealthy gut can include vomiting or stomach pain, 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 issue and to rule out other conditions, making changes to your diet or routine that can improve your gut and overall health is a good first step.

But it’s also important to keep in mind that there’s no exact pattern for the perfectly healthy gut microbiome, Cresci said, since everyone’s makeup is so different.

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

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1. Eat These Gut-Friendly Foods

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The gut microbiome prefers foods that we cannot digest. This includes high fiber foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts – foods we already know we should be eating for their nutritional properties.

According to Cresci, foods to be removed from the intestine, or consumed in smaller amounts, include foods high in sugar and fat and poor in fiber.

“All of these are associated with eating a Western diet, which is also associated with a disrupted microbiome,” she said.

In addition to a healthy diet, which does not coincidentally coincide with a heart healthy diet, eating fermented foods can help replace the good microbes and their metabolites. Grew up lists yogurt, kombucha, and kefir as examples.

2. Write down the medications you are taking

It’s a well-known fact that taking antibiotics disrupts, at least temporarily, the family of “good” bacteria that thrive in your body. Some common side effects of taking antibiotics include nausea, diarrhea and the development of yeast infections. If you’ve been given an antibiotic or have recurring infections that cause you to take antibiotics frequently, ask your doctor about what you can do to help minimize disruption to your microbiome.

Other medications that can disrupt our microbiomes, says Cresci, include those that change the stomach’s pH and remove acid. Examples include proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and histamine H2 receptor antagonists (H2 blockers), which are used to reduce acid reflux symptoms and may be available over the counter.

By keeping track of the medications you’re taking, you can help identify the cause of your symptoms and take 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 look for a probiotic hoping to balance your gut, as they are designed to mimic an intact microbiota. If you’re considering taking a supplement including probiotics, Cresci told CNET that it’s important to know that probiotics are strain-specific and “each strain has its 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 them to regulate their bowels.

“You want to get the one that’s been studied for whatever your problem is,” she said.

Also, unfortunately, remember that probiotics will not completely replace what you eat.

“If you have a bad diet and you want to continue eating a bad diet, but you want to improve your microbiome, a probiotic is not going to help you,” Cresci said. “You have to do the other part too.”

A sketch of intestines surrounded by healthy food

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

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4. Sleep more and move your body

“Sleep better” or “exercise more” may sound like tired advice, but improving sleep hygiene and squeezing in more physical activity are proven ways to improve your health, including your gut health.

Sleeping well is another general wellness advice directly linked to the health of our intestines. Specifically, according to Cresci, our microbiome adheres to the circadian rhythm, also. And if we’re eating when our gut microbiome isn’t ready, we won’t be prepared to properly process the nutrients in our food.

Lack of 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 many of the things that keep us healthy, including exercise or finding a nutritious meal — both of which affect our gut health.

“When you’re sleepy, tired, exhausted, you tend not to do the things that we know are good for the microbiomes,” Cresci said. “So it kind of perpetuates itself.”

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare professional with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.