Your gut health impacts your immune system, your mental health and your overall well-being.
When you have a healthy gut, your gastrointestinal tract has a good balance of gut bacteria and is able to properly digest and absorb nutrients.
But when there is an imbalance in your gut bacteria, it may trigger unwanted gastrointestinal symptoms, like diarrhea, as well as mental health issues.
Here are the basics of gut health – and what you can do to improve yours.
What foods can affect gut health negatively or positively?
Eating a large amount of sugar is linked to an overgrowth of bad bacteria in your gut. Processed foods, as well as alcohol, can also negatively impact gut health.
Prebiotic and probiotic foods like whole grains, onions, garlic, fermented foods, miso and yogurt feed the good bacteria in your gut. A diet rich with fiber and prebiotics ensures that the bacteria grows.
If you don’t want to completely cut out things like sugar, alcohol or artificial sweeteners, moderation is important.
“It’s all about balance,” says Lori Chang, associate director of Clinical Nutrition at MD Anderson. “What can really impact your gut in a beneficial way is eating the rainbow.”
Is there a link between gut health and mental health?
There’s a reason that your gut is called your “second brain.” “There is a lot of crosstalk between your gut and your brain through the nerve that connects them,” explains Chang.
An imbalance in gut bacteria can result in psychological symptoms, like brain fog and irritability. “Organisms that like to feed off sugar can communicate to your brain to eat more sugar,” Chang adds. “And sometimes this communication can override logic.”
Can medications or certain cancer treatments alter gut health?
Anything from antibiotics to antidepressants can impact gut health. Some medication can even wipe out some bacteria, leading to an imbalance.
“The more antibiotics you’ve taken, the more it can affect your gut,” Chang says. “Medications that decrease the amount of acid your stomach produces can lead to an imbalance as well since your stomach acid is the first line of defense against pathogens.”
Radiation therapy or chemotherapy treatments can cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal side effects. But it’s important to consult with your care team before adding supplements to your diet.
“Certain strains of probiotics can help with these side effects, but it’s important to consult with your care team before adding supplements to your diet,” says Chang.
What can you do to support the good bacteria in your gut?
Eating a plant-based diet that includes fermented foods and fiber from colorful fruits and vegetables, having healthy sleep habits and managing stress levels are other ways to support a healthy gut.
If you want to adopt a healthier lifestyle, start easy with small diet changes and build from there.
“Your body is like a spider web. You can’t touch part of a web without impacting the rest,” says Chang.
Taking a small step toward eating healthier can be as simple as eating seasonally. Fruits and vegetables that are in season are tastier and have more nutrients.
What are the signs or symptoms that there are problems with your gut health?
Constipation, weight gain, diarrhea, bloating and gas are signs that something is off. Some people have bad breath or skin irritation. You may notice these symptoms affecting your quality of life.
“If you can’t break down the nutrients that you eat, you can’t absorb them,” Chang says. “Digestion starts in your mouth with chewing and your saliva. The breakdown of nutrients continues in the stomach, and most of your nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine.”
So, it’s important to chew your food thoroughly to start and optimize the digestive process.
Chang encourages patients to start being what she calls “a poop detective,” noting that your stool can tell you a lot about what is going on with your gut health.
“You know what your normal bowel function is. If you’re outside of it, your body will tell you what it’s lacking or what you have too much of,” adds dietitian Sheila Vo.
When should you see a doctor about gut issues?
If your bowel habits have been abnormal for a few weeks to a month, talk to your doctor.
Patients undergoing cancer treatment should always tell their care team when they notice bowel changes or are experiencing rapid weight loss or gain.
Anything else people should know about gut health?
Healthy bacteria already exist in your gut. But you have control over creating the environment for it to grow.
“You can usually get what you need from whole foods. We try that first before moving to a supplement or medication,” Vo says. “Keeping a food diary is beneficial to identifying where there may be holes in your diet.”