The gut—a.k.a. the bacteria in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, from your mouth and esophagus to your stomach and intestines—is having a moment lately. Whether it’s about the relationship between gut health and mental health or finding the best food for gut health, many of us are fascinated by the way the gut affects the rest of the body.
However, the truth is, “if you were to Google ‘gut health’ right now, you’d see a lot of articles with overly generalized, too-good-to-be-true claims,” says Amy Crees, a registered dietitian (RD) and One Drop health coach.
Maybe you’ve read that probiotic supplements are a “must” for good gut health, or that you need to focus on restricting certain foods in order to protect your gut. Regardless, Crees is here to set the record straight on what we do, and don’t, know about gut health.
Defining the Gut’s Role In Our Overall Health
First, let’s be clear on what the gut is, exactly. Gut health refers to “the balance of microbes that live in our digestive tract, and how those microbes interact in the body,” explains Crees. “The digestive system contains many working parts—all the way from when food enters our mouth to when it gets to the end of the road.”
But the gut influences much more than just digestion. For instance, researchers have looked into how the immune system interacts with different types of gut bacteria, and how those connections can lead to a number of health issues, such as autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
“There’s talk about the gut’s role with insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance,” says Crees, including the theory that a high-fat diet may affect the production of certain gut bacteria that are related to insulin responses. “But we don’t know exactly how we got from A to B,” she notes. “It’s not a direct path, necessarily.”
What we do know, continues Crees, is that “we see less diversity in gut bacteria in those living with obesity, as well as people with type 2 diabetes.” But, again, is it cause or effect? “We don’t know if the actual condition caused that lack of diversity, or if the lack of diversity existed before and increased the risk of those health conditions,” she explains. “That’s where we need more research.”
The Gut-Brain Connection
There’s a reason we talk about the power of “gut feelings” or notice “butterflies” in our stomach when we feel nervous. Inside the gut is something called the enteric nervous system (ENS), comprising over 100 million cells throughout your GI tract that not only regulate digestive functions, but also interact with the brain.
Specifically, researchers are studying whether GI irritation may send signals to the brain that lead to mood changes, as well as the reverse relationship: e.g. whether digestive troubles can be a product, rather than a cause, of mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
However, just because there’s a possible connection between mood and our gut, “that doesn’t mean every mood change is related to an ‘unbalanced gut,’” notes Crees. “We know that gut health and these microbes impact so many different areas, but how exactly they impact these areas, we don’t know.”
What You Can Do to Take Care of Your Gut
There isn’t necessarily a “perfect” gut microbiome environment you can strive toward. “But we do know that the more diversity you have in your gut bacteria, the better for your health overall,'' says Crees.
So, how do you increase diversity in your gut bacteria? First, increase the variety in the foods you’re eating, suggests Crees.
If you’re a creature of habit and struggle to switch up your food on a regular basis, Crees recommends focusing on what you can add to your meals instead of what you can eliminate.
“A lot of people talk about gut health in terms of removing this or that food,” she says. And while these types of changes might work for some, they definitely don’t work for everyone. “Oftentimes, it’s not about what we should remove, but rather what we can include more of,” she explains. “Can we include more fiber? Can we include more variety with our food? After all, it’s more fun to add food than it is to take it away.”
In addition to fiber—which encourages good gut bacteria to thrive, keeps your bowel movements regular, and can help keep blood sugar levels in range—fermented foods (think: yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, tempeh) can benefit gut health as well by enhancing your digestive function and fighting harmful bacteria.
It’s not just about the food you’re eating, though. Stress management, exercise, and even your sleep schedule can all affect gut health, too, explains Crees.
Considering how many different factors can influence your gut, it makes sense that “gut health isn’t black or white,” she says. “Someone might be great at managing their nutrition, but if their stress is out of control, they could deal with, say, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or they might notice they’re constipated, or more bloated after meals, and none of that is necessarily just about the food. “It could be, but it could also be about stress.”
Of course, not everyone likes to talk or think too much about bowel movements. But the fact is, “regularity is a sign of health,” says Crees. “And sometimes we don’t realize that something might not be working well, especially if we haven’t had someone ask the right questions or initiate a conversation about it,” she explains. “If we’re more aware of our symptoms and what our body’s telling us, then we’re more apt to talk about it, because the body tells us a lot.”
Plus, once you can see a connection between your everyday choices and how your health responds to those decisions, it becomes much easier to not only change your habits, but also stick with them, “because you actually notice that you feel better” and you understand how you reached that point, explains Crees.
If you’re ready to start uncovering some of the connections between your gut and the rest of your health, download the One Drop app, where you can not only track your meals, movement, blood sugar, and more all in one place, but also glean insight from health coaches like Crees, who are there to answer your health questions and help you thrive.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations at One Drop.