The gut microbiome has become a buzzy topic, and for good reason: The trillions of microbes in your gastrointestinal tract play a pivotal role in many body functions, including your immune system and mental health.
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The thing is, what you do — from your diet to other everyday habits — can inadvertently affect the makeup of these microorganisms and shift the balance from benevolent to bad bugs in your gut.
Here, Suzanne Devkota, PhD, an assistant professor in the Cedars-Sinai division of gastroenterology and a scientific advisory board member for the American Gastroenterological Association Center for Gut Microbiome Research & Education, points to four common things that can mess with your gut, and explains how to make your friendly flora flourish.
Mistake 1: Not Eating Enough Fiber
Most Americans don't eat enough fiber. As a matter of fact, only a measly 5 percent get the recommended daily amount (which is between 25 and 38 grams for adults), according to a July 2016 article in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
"If you eat well below that, you could potentially be starving out beneficial bacteria in your gut," Devkota says. That's because these good bugs nosh on certain types of fermentable fibers, which, in turn, create healthy byproducts that your gut absorbs, she explains.
But there are also benefits to eating the fibers your gut bacteria can't "eat."
"These fibers are 'bulking agents' that promote motility, or normal bowel movements," Devkota says.
Here's why this matters: If there isn't much movement of material through the GI tract, all your fecal matter stays in contact with your gut cells and bacteria, which can lead to an overproduction of bacterial waste products and, ultimately, cause local inflammation in the gut, she explains.
"That's why eating a mix of fermentable and non-fermentable fibers is important for keeping things moving and keeping your bugs happy," Devkota says.
Types of fermentable fibers include:
- Citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, grapefruit)
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils, peanuts)
And non- or low-fermentable foods include:
- Vegetables with tough stems like broccoli
- Chia seeds
Keep in mind: Highly fermentable fibers can produce uncomfortable gas and bloating in some people, says Devkota, who adds that choosing low-FODMAP fibers, which provide the beneficial effects of fiber without the bloating, is a good option.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, high-fiber, low-FODMAP foods include:
- Grains such as oats, quinoa and rice
- Vegetables like cucumber, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes and zucchini
- Fruits like blueberries, grapes, oranges, pineapple and strawberries
Mistake 2: Not Drinking Enough Water
When you don't hydrate with enough H2O, you might be inadvertently creating constipation, Devkota says. And remember, a lack of movement in the GI tract can generate an unideal environment for your gut bacteria.
"The longer your gut has contact with your poop, the higher the chance of inflammation," she says.
To avoid this, aim to drink at least 64 ounces of water (or eight glasses) per day. "If you have constipation due to irritable bowel syndrome, however, drinking more water than this hasn't been shown to improve constipation," Devkota notes.
Mistake 3: Being Stressed Out
Have you ever felt the urge to poop when you're stressed or butterflies in your stomach when anxious?
"Many people know anecdotally that when you're nervous, you might need to go to the bathroom," Devkota says. This simple example demonstrates how signals from the brain affect the gut.
What's more, stress can affect communication between the brain and the gut, prompt pain, bloating and other stomach discomfort and may even be linked to changes in gut bacteria, which can affect mood, according to the American Psychological Association.
All this is to say, learning to cope and manage your stress in healthy ways will also help to keep your gut bacteria in good shape. Getting adequate sleep, meditating and fitting in regular exercise are a few tried-and-true strategies to relieve stress.
Mistake 4: Not Getting Enough Sleep
When you're not logging sufficient shut-eye (that is, between seven and nine hours a night for adults), your gut might bear the brunt.
"There's a natural clock inside us that governs all aspects of our biology," including our gut and immune system, Devkota says. So, when your circadian rhythm is off, your gut will likely suffer too. "There is a lot of research into how the body's 'clock' and gut microbiome are intertwined," she adds.
Case in point: An October 2017 study in Sleep Medicine found a connection between sleep quality and greater proportions of good gut microbes. Similarly, an October 2019 study in PLOS One discovered that microbiome diversity promotes healthier sleep patterns (including less waking during the night). What's more, the researchers also noted a connection between diversity in the gut microbiota and the presence of interleukin-6, a protein involved in immune responses that's been linked to sleep.
"There is no question that the body follows a light/dark cycle like most animals, and thus our microbes do too," Devkota says. "So, the closer you can stay to a consistent daily sleep/wake pattern, the better you can support your body's natural functions."
Need help drifting off to dreamland? Take a warm shower or bath before bed. Doing so can boost your sleep quality and help you doze off an average of 10 minutes faster, according to an August 2019 review in Sleep Medicine Reviews.
And before you hit the sheets, do a quick bedtime meditation. Practicing mindfulness meditation enhanced sleep for older adults with sleep disturbances, per a 2015 article in JAMA Internal Medicine.
A Final Note on Gut Health
Every person's gut is different. "The gut microbiome is unique like a fingerprint, so I always advocate for people to listen to their own bodies," Devkota says. In other words, there's no one-size-fits-all solution for a healthy gut.
"Binning things into 'good' and 'bad' when it comes to the microbiome is oversimplifying because what may alter one person's microbiome may have no impact on another person's," she says.
- PNAS: “Dietary sugar silences a colonization factor in a mammalian gut symbiont.”
- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine: “Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap”
- American Psychological Association: “Stress Effects on the Body.”
- PLOS ONE: “Gut microbiome diversity is associated with sleep physiology in humans”
- Sleep Medicine Reviews: "Before-bedtime passive body heating by warm shower or bath to improve sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis."
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "FODMAP Diet: What You Need to Know"