What is Gut Health?
Your gut health refers to the health of your entire digestive system and the health of the microorganisms living in your digestive tract.
Your digestive tract, also known as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is the largest section of your digestive system. Comprised of a series of connected hollow organs that run from your mouth to your anus, it includes your esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine (colon). When you consume food or liquid, your body breaks those items down into nutrients, such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and vitamins as they pass through your digestive tract. Those nutrients are then used to fuel your body’s various biological cycles and processes.
This process of metabolism is greatly facilitated by the friendly bacteria that make up the flora of the gut, specifically in the colon. Unfortunately, they are joined by some common species of harmful bacteria as well. A healthy gut means that there are more good bacteria than harmful bacteria. Bacteria form a mucosal layer that strengthens the gut wall and good digestive health is the result of a balance of good and bad bacteria. Gut health also affects more than just your digestion. It can have substantial effects on your mood, immune system, and more. Hence, maintaining good gut health is crucial for the proper functioning of the digestive system.
What are the Ways to Improve Your Gut Health?
You may be able to improve your gut health through diet and lifestyle changes.
Gut health and diet appear to be very closely connected. Avoiding high-fat foods, processed foods, and foods high in refined sugars is important for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, as these foods may promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Some of the foods that can actively promote the growth of beneficial bacteria include:
- High-fiber foods: Research has shown that high-fiber foods have a positive impact on gut health. These foods include:
- Fruits, like peaches and apples
- Vegetables, like asparagus and broccoli
- Nuts, like pistachios and almonds
- Whole grains, like quinoa and oats
- Legumes, like chickpeas and black beans
- Garlic: A small study in 2018 noted that aged garlic extract increased diversity and levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
- Fermented foods: Fermented foods are great dietary sources of probiotics. These include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi
- Collagen-boosting foods: Collagen-rich foods may be beneficial for both gut health and overall health. These include meat, eggs, citrus fruits, broccoli, and nuts
Some of the lifestyle changes that can significantly improve your gut health include:
- Lowering your stress levels: High-stress levels are detrimental to your gut health, including your whole body. A few ways to lower stress may include:
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Spending time with friends or family
- Spending time with your pet
- Getting sufficient sleep: Not getting sufficient quality of sleep may seriously affect your gut health. Try getting at least 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
- Eating slowly: Chewing your food thoroughly and eating it slowly may help you reduce digestive discomfort and maintain a healthy gut.
- Staying hydrated: Drinking plenty of water is one of the simplest ways of promoting gut health. Staying hydrated is connected to increased diversity of gut bacteria. One study found that people who drank more water had less of a type of bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal infections.
- Taking a probiotic or prebiotic: Adding a probiotic or prebiotic supplement to your diet may assist in improving your gut health. Prebiotics provide “food” meant to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, while probiotics are live good bacteria.
- Checking for food intolerances: You may see a positive change in your gut health if you are able to identify and avoid food or foods that contribute to your foot intolerance symptoms, such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea, acid reflux, and nausea.
- Changing your diet: Decreasing the consumption of high-fat, high-sugar, and processed foods may lead to better gut health. You may also positively impact your gut health by consuming foods high in micronutrients called polyphenols, such as fruits and vegetables, tea, wine, and coffee.
How Does Fasting Affect Gut Health?
Fasting can be one of the many ways to improve your overall gut health by helping the gut microorganisms thrive. Initial evidence suggests that intermittent fasting may benefit your gut health, specifically by increasing the diversity of your gut microbiome. There are several intermittent fasting patterns, but the two common types are:
- Weekly fasting, where you eat normally for 5 days of the week and greatly restrict food calories for 2 non-consecutive weekdays
- Time-restricted fasting, where you fast for 12 to 16 hours and eat anytime during the remaining hours.
Certain foods may improve your gut health while intermittent fasting, as well as help support you during fasting periods. These include fermented foods containing probiotics, as well as plant foods and whole grains, especially those with prebiotics that provide fuel for your gut bacteria. A fasting regimen on a 24-hour cycle like a 16:8 or 14:10 breakdown enables you to align your fasting with your natural sleep/wake cycles. Of note, there's no negative effect on gut diversity when you fast for a short time. However, if you fast for too long you can decrease the diversity of bacteria in your gut.
How Should You Care Your Gut Health During Ramadan?
Fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is a spiritual practice and is known to improve health. Nonetheless, if one fails to follow a proper diet during Ramadan, it can lead to digestive issues. Ramadan is a time when digestive problems are common, due to the changes in the timing, types, and quantity of food consumed during this period. During the month of Ramadan, digestive problems like bloating, belching, constipation, and heartburn are rather common. However, following a proper diet pattern can help mitigate these symptoms and improve your gut health. Some of the different ways in which you can help your digestive symptoms and promote gut health include:
- Focus on fiber: Easy ways to increase fiber during Ramadan include:
- Add a tablespoon of flaxseed to meals
- Consume wholegrain/wholemeal carbohydrates such as brown rice, wholemeal bread, and oats
- Add hummus to meals
- Add pulses and beans to meals
- Consume half a plate of vegetables with your Iftar
- Use fiber supplements like Psyllium husk and Fybogel to boost intake
- Avoid large portions: It is easy to consume large portions at the time of Ramadan as you go so long without eating. Large portions can result in acid reflux. Hence, weigh out your portions. Try to have a snack before you go. This may help avoid the urge to overeat. Using your mobile to time your Iftar meal over 15 to 20 minutes may also help. Giving yourself more time will enable your body to convey your brain when you are full before it is too late.
- Avoid fatty foods: Foods that are high in fats require a long time to digest and can lead to nausea and other digestive issues.
- Use dates judiciously: Dates are one of the traditional foods eaten at both Suhoor and Iftar. Even though dates are one of the high-fiber and nutritious food, it contains a component called fructan that ferment in the bowel and produce gas. It can also cause diarrhea in some people. Hence, have them in moderation.
- Choosing the right fluids: Avoid fruit juices, smoothies, and caffeine as they can cause bloating and diarrhea. Stick on to plain water for your hydration needs.
How Can You Look After Your Gut Health When Taking Antibiotics?
When it comes to managing bacterial infections, antibiotics are a remarkable innovation. However, these powerful medications can also come with some powerful side effects. Antibiotics work by eliminating the bacteria from the body responsible for infection. However, at the same time, the medication may inadvertently also eliminate some of the good bacteria in the body. As we know that antibiotics can sometimes indiscriminately wipe out good bacteria, we can take some steps to help restore the good bacteria.
Adding yogurt to your diet is one of the common ways to restore good gut bacteria. Yogurt is packed with bacteria, including Lactobacillus acidophilus, which can help restore your bacterial balance while you are on antibiotics. You can also have other foods comprised of probiotics or prebiotics, which are both linked with improved gut health. Fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut contain probiotics. If these foods do not appeal to your taste or are found to be insufficient, then you can talk to your primary care physician about taking a probiotic supplement in a tablet or capsule form. These supplements contain good bacteria to help keep your body and gut health balanced.