Gut health: the ultimate guide
Over the past few decades, gut health has become an increasingly studied topic, as research continues to find a connection between digestive, mental, and physical health. So how can you help your nutrition clients eat for their gut and improve their overall health? Keep reading to find out.
Did you know that mental health, immunity, stress levels, sleep quality, and dietary choices all play a role in digestive health? As a nutrition professional, you can help your clients improve their gut microbiome with certain diet and lifestyle choices.
But is there anything else you should be aware of? Let’s dive right into how gut health impacts the body, what factors influence dysbiosis, and how you can help your clients boost their digestive health.
The gut and its impact on health
Gut health is defined as the function and balance of bacteria in the GI tract. A healthy gut communicates with the brain through nerves and hormones, which helps maintain general health and well-being. It also contains healthy bacteria and immune cells that ward off bacteria, viruses, and fungi, all of which are necessary for a well-functioning body.
Research shows that having a variety of good bacteria in your gut can improve psychological symptoms, combat obesity, and boost immune system function. Gut bacteria have also been shown to produce neurotransmitters (such as serotonin), with additional anti-inflammatory effects. However, when this is imbalanced, you can experience dysbiosis, which can cause a wide range of ailments from mild discomfort to chronic health conditions. Here are some other ways in which dysbiosis affects overall health.
- GI distress. The most common symptom of dysbiosis is gastrointestinal distress, which includes discomfort, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
- Decreased immune function. The bacteria of the GI tract play an important role in strengthening the immune system. Since immune-supporting vitamins and minerals are absorbed in the digestive system (and primarily in the small intestines), an overgrowth of harmful bacteria is negative. It prevents their absorption, decreases bioavailability, and lessens the ability to fight off illness and disease.
- Increased risk of chronic disease. The risk of chronic disease increases with dysbiosis. These bacteria present in the GI tract enhance the positive effects of certain compounds (such as lignans and isoflavones). This causes a decrease in the bioavailability of these compounds which can lead to inflammatory bowel disease, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.
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Factors that impact gut health
As a nutrition professional, you can work with your clients to determine what may be causing dysbiosis. While there are numerous causes, here are some common ones that impact gut health.
- Diet. Diet is one of the biggest contributors to digestive health, as it determines which bacteria will thrive in the gut. Overall, a diet that lacks a variety of nutrient-dense foods is detrimental to the diversity and balance of the microbiome in the digestive tract.
Pre- and probiotics are chronically absent in diets that are high in processed foods that support the proliferation of harmful bacteria. Furthermore, diets that are high in saturated fats increase bile-resistant bacteria (Bacteroides) which also leads to dysbiosis.
- Medications. These can be harmful to even the healthiest of microbiomes. Antibiotics are vital for the treatment of infections, but they do not distinguish between good and bad bacteria. As such, they can cause a shift in the gut flora.
Other medications such as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and metformin have also been shown to alter the digestive microbiota. They reduce the overall diversity which can increase the risk of gastrointestinal distress.
- Stress. Research indicates that stress plays an important role in overall health, and more specifically, gut health. Elevated stress levels can cause fluctuations in hormone levels and increase inflammation, which can lead to changes within the microbiome and disrupt the homeostasis of the GI tract. To learn more about the relationship between gut health and inflammation, check out this article.
- Physical inactivity. A sedentary lifestyle also impacts gut health as it decreases gastrointestinal motility. This slowing of the digestive process increases the exposure time to harmful bacteria and allows it to flourish in the colon.
- Negative health symptoms. If your client is experiencing stomach upset, increased fatigue, unusual food cravings, or intolerance to certain foods, they may have gut imbalances. Be sure to pay close attention to any of these symptoms should they come up in your nutrition sessions.
Ways to improve gut health
Now that we’ve covered what can cause dysbiosis, here are some ways that you can help improve your clients’ digestive health and balance their gut microbiome.
Eat a well-balanced diet
Good gut health starts with what you put on your fork. You should create a well-balanced diet for your clients that includes plenty of fiber, probiotics, and prebiotics.
- Fiber: An important byproduct of fiber digestion is the release of short-chain fatty acids through fermentation. This process lowers the pH levels in the colon which will prevent harmful bacteria, such as Clostridium difficile, from growing. Some high-fiber foods include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, and lentils.
- Prebiotics: These are non-digestible foods that are beneficial to gut health by acting as a food source for bacteria. Inulin is a prebiotic fiber that supports probiotics such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli . It can be found in a variety of vegetables (such as asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, leeks, and savoy cabbage). Also, it can be found in legumes, fruits (bananas, watermelon, and grapefruit) and whole grains (like oats and barley).
- Probiotics: Foods that contain live microbiota promote diverse gut flora. This includes yogurt with live cultures, and fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha, miso, and kimchi. If you are looking for more gut-friendly foods, check out this article.
You can also work with your clients to reduce their consumption of processed food, excess alcohol, and added sugar. All of these have been associated with poor digestive health.
Promote positive lifestyle changes
In addition to diet, here are some ways in which you can encourage your clients to make positive lifestyle changes that promote health and well-being.
- Regular moderate-intensity exercise. Physical activity can offer significant health benefits, especially in regard to gut health. It can decrease inflammatory markers and improve gastrointestinal microbiota (by increasing Firmicutes and Actinobacteria).
- Stop smoking. Research indicates that smoking increases the risk of Crohn’s disease and peptic ulcers. As such, it’s recommended for your clients to quit smoking. This will improve their gut health and reduce the risk of inflammation, heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes.
- Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep negatively affects gut health, so encourage your clients to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night.
- Eat slower. You can encourage your clients to eat their meals slower to promote better digestion and nutrient absorption.
- Reduce stress. You can work with your clients to manage their stress levels through meditation and diaphragmatic breathing. These approaches have alleviated stress and managed gastrointestinal symptoms.
Digestive health can be overwhelming, but making a few changes can have a significant impact on your client’s health. As a nutrition professional, you can help your clients eat more gut-friendly foods, manage their stress, and engage in more regular exercise. This will improve their gastrointestinal health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
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