In today’s oversaturated world, humans are as busy as they’re stressed out. One result of this is that we eat out and order in more than we cook due to our overbooked schedules. We scarf down junk food while slaving away at our desks, and think that a large coffee is a suitable breakfast. At the same time, we probably find that we suffer from a slew of health problems, however minor they may appear—from eczema or acne to constant exhaustion, even following nights when we pass out early. And chances are, we make excuses as to why we don’t have the time to get to the root of all these problems.
Okay—so when I say "we," I *might* be talking about myself here, but I’ve found that a good 80 percent of people I know are pretty much doing the same thing, and feeling the same way to some extent. And I wanted to get to the bottom of it.
I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter about the importance of gut health, the bacteria that lives in there, probiotics, and fermented foods, but really didn’t know how much an unhealthy gut could affect my everyday life. Is it true that my shitty mood and recurring eczema are actually a result of my digestive system failing me? The answer: yeah, pretty much.
I chatted with health experts to get the lowdown on what’s really happening inside that gut of ours and how to keep it—and, by extension, us—happy. From a list of symptoms of gut problems to solutions on how to fix it all (and what the deal is with fermented foods and probiotics), read on to learn how to make your belly a healthy one.
How do your gut health and well-being affect one another?
The state of your gut can greatly affect your well-being; at the same time, your well-being can greatly affect the health of your gut.
Regina, an Ayurvedic health and wellness counselor and yoga teacher behind Wolf Medicine, explained to me that you could essentially treat the health of your gut as an indicator of how the rest of your body is doing. “The state of your digestion is a significant window into your overall health,” she says “Your gut is actually linked to your brain, and the two work in tandem, processing food, emotions, experiences, and feelings that enter the body. Often, our guts and brains are overwhelmed. Your body is always sending you signals—also known as symptoms—as to how it’s doing, and your gut health is crucial to showing you how in balance your health is.” Therefore, when your health is good, you’re going to feel good. When your health is out of whack and off balance, you’re going to notice that something with your stomach and digestion is off.
It all has to do with the (good) bacteria that live inside of your gut. Catalina Martone, health educator, master herbalist, and chef, explains that the good bacteria that live in our gut are in charge of many tasks, like sending chemical messages to the brain to activate immune responses. The more we feed and nourish this bacteria (as well as our organs, glands, bones, and skin) with healthy foods, the better we’ll repair, grow, and heal ourselves. However, unhealthy food options begin to kill off good gut bacteria over time, as well as take a toll on our detox organs, causing us to gain unwanted weight and a slew of other symptoms.
While this is happening, the gut is still sending messages to our brain—and not ones we want it to. “When our microbiome, or gut health, has begun to degrade, those chemical messages being sent to the brain begin to affect our emotions, our moods, and our energy levels. We all know how hard it is to be happy and positive when we’re down in the dumps,” says Martone.
Stress is another major factor. In fact, Martone even refers to it as gut health’s number one enemy. “Simply put, stress requires us to be in a ‘fight or flight’ mode, and in this mode, the human body is not designed to optimally rest or digest,” she says. “If you’re not digesting properly, then your food—and everything else you consume—is left undigested in your gut, making it an inflamed, acidic, unfriendly hot mess and the ‘best spring break ever’ for the nasty bacteria that wreak havoc and degrade our health.” No thanks.
What are the signs of an imbalanced, unhappy gut?
So, how do we know when our gut is out of balance? Well, basically, everything else will go wrong.
Dr. Svetlana Kogan, holistic M.D. and author of Diet Slave No More, gave me a lengthy list of what symptoms to expect from poor gut health. “We get skin manifestations of it, from acne to an eczema flare-up; we feel fatigued and never well-rested, despite getting an adequate amount of sleep at night; we feel down emotionally and easily irritable; we feel bloated, gassy, and distended; we get extreme manifestations of bowel movement patterns, such as diarrhea or constipation, instead of normal regular bowel movements; and we may lose weight due to lack of an appetite or gain weight due to cravings for malabsorbed nutrients.
While this basically sounds like a nightmare scenario, fear not, my friends—there are ways to make your gut happy again if you’re suffering from the above.
How can you improve the health of your gut?
There are a number of ways to improve the health of your gut, number one being: You have to take care of what you put into your body. There are specific foods that you should strive to make part of your daily food intake, and others that you should avoid as much as possible—however, it’s not just about your diet.
“My top tip that I give everyone is to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate,” says Regina. “Drink a ton of room temperature or warm water, and then drink some more. Make sure it’s warm so that your agni [the Sanskrit term for your digestive fire] can stay in balance. Sip warm water throughout the day, and drink 12 ounces before meals in addition to your sips of water throughout.”
Of course, the food totally matters, too. Processed foods are a major culprit of an unhappy gut, so you’ll want to cut these out as much as possible. “The degree to which you [cut out processed foods], will depend on how much effort you want to put into improving your gut health,” says Regina. “In a perfect world, folks stop eating restaurant food and start growing their own organic food to cook all of their meals with.” However, that’s not possible for most of us, and with delivery app after delivery app making a slew of restaurants available at the click of a button, on top of all the temptation to go out with friends after work, it’s hard to want to cook for yourself all of the time. “Restaurant food is made in large quantities with saving money in mind—which usually translates to mystery ingredients and a low-quality product. Save your nights out for special occasions,” suggests Martone. We know it’s hard to resist the allure of Seamless or that new restaurant on the corner, but it’s all about the effort you put in to get the results you want to see.
Overall, a gut-friendly diet will consist of no processed sugars, grains, dairy, or meat. According to Regina, everything you do consume should be as close to organic as possible (especially meat and dairy, if you choose to eat it at all, which should also be grass-fed with no added hormones and antibiotics). Cook with coconut or avocado oil while absolutely avoiding canola, soy, or corn oils. Grains should be ancient grains and/or sprouted—such an einkorn, faro, spelt, amaranth, quinoa, millet, and hemp hearts. According to Ayurveda, raw or cold food puts out your digestive fire, so keep things cooked (or, cue in the warm water). However, cooking food can also remove its natural enzymes, making it hard to digest, so Martone suggests taking digestive enzymes along with your food. While this is pretty much a given, alcohol and coffee consumption should also be minimized.
Additionally, the intake of probiotics—aka good gut bacteria—is crucial to improving and maintaining gut health. “Because most of us can’t grow our own organic food, it’s vital to improve and maintain gut health via probiotics,” says Regina. She suggests getting your daily probiotics from foods like organic, grass-fed, non-GMO kefir, kombucha, beets, fermented veggies, and kimchi. The good gut bacteria in these foods can improve your ability to process hard-to-digest foods like wheat and dairy.
Pill forms of probiotics exist, however, they're not deemed as effective as getting them through food—at least, according to both Regina and Martone. “As a practitioner, I only recommend store-bought or prescription probiotics when a person is suffering from severe gut imbalances—in which case I usually recommend Premier Research Labs Probiotic,” says Martone. “Otherwise, I believe acquiring your beneficial bacteria from fermented and cultured foods is far superior.”
Also, since stress can negatively affect your gut health, try taking the time to relax and calm down. “This will balance our serotonin metabolism in the gut,” says Dr. Kogan. This means that you should feel okay about splurging on a nice massage, getting into yoga, or even planning a vacation, because these things will make some improvements to your gut and your overall well-being. Noted!