If you often find yourself with an upset stomach, constantly feeling bloated, having trouble sleeping, feeling restless and craving sweets, it’s possible that the problem may lay in your gut, and the solution might be found by restoring your gut flora.
With this in mind, I decided to gain a better understanding of gut health — both by looking to experts and by trying a few hacks out myself.
Disclaimer: This advice is not intended to substitute as advice of a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek medical advice that is specific to your situation.
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What is the gut — and how can it impact how we feel?
The gut can affect almost every element in the human body, from our mood and hormones to our weight, our ability to absorb nutrients and our overall immune system.
“The easier question is what does gut health not affect! Having an unhealthy gut leads to irritable bowel syndrome, which is characterized by pain such as bloating and gas, constipation or diarrhea,” Dr. Jennifer Luck told us.
“On a physical level, having an unhealthy gut could lead to nutrient deficiencies of key vitamins like B12 and serotonin, which can affect your mental health leading to depression and anxiety. Malabsorption of nutrients like calcium can lead to osteoporosis over time. Our gut is essential to our survival, and there isn’t an aspect of our health that isn’t affected by our gut health,” Dr. Luck added.
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While the foundation of good or bad gut health often lies in family and genetic history, stress and diet also factor a big role in maintaining this health.
“During the sympathetic/fight-or-flight mode [often associated with stress], we also have less blood flow going to our gut, as it’s redirected to our muscles, heart and brain. The consequence is that we will not absorb as many nutrients when we are in a stressed state, and the lack of blood flow can also alter our bowel movements leading to symptoms like constipation or loose stools,” said Elizabeth Miller, M.Sc., Naturopathic Medical Graduate, Masters of Nutrition Science.
“The food we put into our bodies can either feed the good or the bad bacteria, and can either be pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. Fast food, sugar and alcohol are the top three things that can ruin your gut health over time. Whereas antioxidant and fiber-rich foods like berries and leafy greens, wild-caught salmon, or probiotic-rich foods like kimchi are great for gut health,” Miller added.
Poor gut health can be caused by many things and effects of this show in many ways, from digestive issues and stomach bloating to fluctuating weight and acne breakouts, much of our overall health relies on a balance in the gut — more specifically balancing our microbiome.
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“The microbiome is a collection of bacteria, fungi and even viruses that cohabitate in the intestinal tract. The bacteria present can be very helpful in digestion, producing key nutrients like vitamin K or short chain fatty acids, neurotransmitters like serotonin, keep the lining of our gut healthy as well as boosting our immune system. If we have the wrong microbes present, it can lead to poor gut health and lowered immunity, which can affect the whole body,” said Miller.
Or more commonly explained, microbes are mood elevators that help produce serotonin and dopamine in the brain, amongst many other things.
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How can we create gut balance?
Guided by Dr. Luck, Miller and the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF), we found a few ways to help find a balance of microbiome.
Reducing stress via meditation
Through calming, anti-anxiety meditation and yoga practices, the vagus nerve [a nerve that runs from your brain to your gut] becomes stimulated and, if stress is a main cause of poor gut health, meditation is an effective fix.
Improving digestion with ginger
Known for its digestive benefits, ginger helps sooth the gastrointestinal tract. Having ginger stimulates motility and continues along the digestive process — ensuring food doesn’t sit in the gut.
Eating less sugar more veggies
A whole foods diet — or one that focuses on eating more plants, vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, and cutting back on added sugars and processed foods — can also be extremely beneficial to a healthy gut.
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Incorporating more fermented foods into the diet
By adding things like yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, aged cheeses, kefir and even pickles to your diet, otherwise known as fermented foods that contain both prebiotics and probiotics, may help restore and diversify your microbiome.
Giving your intestine a break
By aiming to eat three meals a day (and spacing them out four hours apart), we can make time for our digestive tract to have a break and restore its mobility. Some people find that doing this, and practicing overnight fasting, leaving 12 hours between breakfast and dinner, may help reduce bloating.
With most of the solutions being lowering your stress levels, getting a good night’s rest, drinking tons of water and being all-around healthy, Itried out a few simple solutions to better gut health. While my experience is personal to my body and my health, they may help give context if you are working with your doctor on your own journey.
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I tried 3 gut health hacks — here’s what I found
With this in mind, I decided to try three of these gut health supporting strategies for myself.
Gut health hack #1: Meditation and yoga
As an avid yoga enthusiast and a newfound meditation lover, this to me felt simple and efficient. While yoga and meditation are great for all-around mind and body health and wellness, I figured they must be helpful for gut health as well, so it was time to put my practice to the test.
By practicing yoga and meditation once a day, I recognized less bloating in my abdomen and saw myself having more energy to out towards everyday tasks. Not only this, but I also felt more grounded with myself, and more in tune with what my body needed. I woke up earlier and looked forward to the practice daily. This was a yes for me.
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Gut health hack #2: Meal spacing
While this idea — AKA spacing your meals out by four hours — seems realistic, and I’m sure with time might become more natural, I found myself craving snacks mid-day, in between my three meals. So, this strategy was not for me, yet.
Gut health hack #3: Trying a whole foods diet
As a vegetarian, the whole foods diet called to me as a way to support my gut health. Prioritizing vegetables, legumes and whole grains? Yes, please!
During this practice, I found myself reaching for fruits and healthy snacks, which led to a reduced amount of bloating, less breakouts on my face and I was motivated to continue eating clean, healthy foods. I felt excited for my next meal, because I knew I was putting nutrient-rich food into my body, and for me, food is fuel. This strategy was a definite yes for me.
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The body talks
Of all the tips and tricks I learned, the number-one thing that helped me the most was learning to watch for the signs and signals my body was giving me.
Dr. Luck summed this up perfectly for me: “Listen to your body. It will always send you little warning signs long before your health crisis. I see so many patients who for years ignored their heartburn, diarrhea or their gas. When treated early, your gut health can be restored much easier and faster than if you ignore these symptoms for years.”
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