If your gut has been bugging you, you’re not alone. Recent studies suggest that nearly two thirds of the U.S. population struggle with digestive issues, ranging from heart burn and acid reflux to bloating and diarrhea.
According to Dr. Chris Meletis, N.D. and medical advisor to Notch, the road to wellness starts with understanding the complexities of the digestive system.
“Every time you eat, you’re not just feeding yourself, but your entire microbiome,” Meletis says. “Not only does this affect your gut health, but your brain chemistry and immune system as well.”
With that in mind, below are seven simple tips to help you balance your microbiome and gain control over your gut health:
1. Slow down before (and during) meals.
Often referred to as “intuitive eating,” slowing down before a meal and pacing yourself as you eat is one of the simplest ways to improve your digestive health.
"In today’s world of uncertainty and unrest, we’re often operating in a sympathetic nervous system state,” says Meletis. “Fast eating leads to poor digestion and is not conducive to thriving.” By incorporating mindfulness into your eating schedule, he says, you’re not only learning how to connect with your food, but your body as well.
2. Add fermented foods to your diet.
This most likely isn’t the first time you’ve heard of kimchi or kombucha, and for good reason. Consuming fermented foods is one of the easiest ways to encourage the “good” bacteria – or probiotics – in your gut.
Yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir and tempeh are just a few popular options that can help balance your gut’s microbiome. There are additional health benefits that are often attributed to probiotic-rich foods as well, including improved immunity, normalized blood pressure, better bone health and more.
3. Break a sweat.
As with many other aspects of health, few things are as beneficial to the gut as working out. Not only does regular exercise help improve cardiovascular health and build stronger bones, but it can stabilize the gut-brain axis by altering your gut’s microbiome as well. It’s also a natural way to help reduce stress and bring your hormones into balance, which is a crucial aspect of the gut-brain connection.
“If you are in fight-or-flight mode, healthy digestion is simply not going to happen,” says Meletis.
4. Monitor consumption of ultra-processed foods.
Let’s be clear: there are many different avenues to healthy eating and we’re definitely not proponents of food shaming. However, since many ultra-processed foods have inflammatory properties, it’s only natural that consuming them too often could irritate your gut.
Research shows that limiting your consumption of ultra-processed foods such as bagged potato chips and energy drinks can help preserve gut health over time. There also is a negative correlation between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and consumption of fiber-rich foods (such as fruits and vegetables), which can contribute to digestive distress as well.
5. Get tested for food sensitivities.
If you have persistent gut issues that may be attributed to your diet, it’s worth considering a food sensitivity test. Like with ultra-processed foods, there are often specific ingredients that may not agree with your gut, which is where IgG testing comes in. By measuring the presence of IgG antibodies in your blood and pinpointing your body’s most reactive foods, IgG testing provides you with actionable information and is a great place to start if you’re considering an elimination diet.
6. Take nutritional supplements.
There are many essential nutrients you can find in dietary supplements that promote a healthy gut, including collagen, fiber and zinc. If food sensitivities or other dietary limitations keep you from consuming probiotic-rich foods in their original form, taking probiotic and prebiotic supplements are another great way to balance your gut’s microbiome. Herbal supplements such as peppermint oil and licorice root have also been attributed to easing IBS and other GI-related inflammation.
7. Listen to your body.
Though planned meal times might be convenient and seem relatively logical, they’re not always conducive to optimal health, Meletis says.
“The westernized idea of breakfast, lunch and dinner is somewhat of a human construct,” he says. While it’s crucial to make sure we’re getting the right amount of fuel to get through the day, each person is going to operate on a different eating schedule. For this reason, learning to listen to your hunger is the best route to take, he says.
“Some individuals with low cortisol levels, hypoglycemia or other medical conditions need to eat in a very structured manner,” he says. “It’s important to prioritize our own biochemistry and internal cues.”
In summary, every person is different...and so is every gut. If you’re struggling with GI issues and think that your diet might be playing a role, then upping your fiber intake, limiting processed foods or getting a food sensitivity test are likely to help you on your wellness journey. What's most important is to find out what works best for your body and come up with a plan that is sustainable for your lifestyle.