Your microbiome, the community of around 100 trillion bacteria, viruses, and fungi inhabiting your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, plays a pivotal role in health and disease.
Your microbiome has a direct impact on how you think, feel, and act too.
We know that the gut microbiota undergo significant fluctuations over the course of one’s lifetime … and these modifications are frequently associated with undesirable effects on your health.
But, these fluctuations are influenced by several controllable factors, such as lifestyle, stress, nutrition, and antibiotic use. A 2021 study showed “how little of the microbiome is predetermined by our genes and therefore how much is modifiable by diet,” according to researcher Sarah Berry.
In this guide, we will cover four proven strategies for improving your gut health. We will talk about some exciting research that will show you how to 1.) breathe, 2.) move, 3.) exercise, and 4.) sleep better to create long-term, sustainable changes to your microbiome and in turn, your overall health and wellness.
Let’s get started …
You know that feeling you get when you’re stuck in traffic and late for a meeting? Or somebody cuts you off then has the audacity to honk at you?
These types of stressful events cause emotional responses like anger or fear, which prompt an immediate physical reaction within your body: your heart beats faster, your breathing gets quicker, and your stomach tenses up.
This “fight or flight” response causes blood to move from your gut to the larger muscles, which hampers digestion, weakens your immune system, and increases inflammation.
The changes may not last long, and in the short term they aren’t harmful and may even be helpful in certain situations. But when they happen repeatedly, over time they can cause dysbiosis (when your gut bacteria are out of whack).
The good news is, you can learn to recognize and turn off these automatic responses through deep breathing.
Before you dispel this as New Age mumbo jumbo, here’s some science to quell your skepticism.
According to the University of Michigan Health System:
For those suffering from GI symptoms, diaphragmatic breathing offers specific benefits: Activating the diaphragm creates a gentle massaging action felt by internal organs like the intestines and stomach, which can reduce abdominal pain, urgency, bloating and constipation. While diaphragmatic breathing, you are facilitating the activation of the parasympathetic system, which can be thought of as the relaxation response of the body or the “rest and digest” state.
Deep breathing has additional benefits, including:
- Reducing anxiety and stress.
- Improving your mood and sense of well-being.
- Support your respiratory, cardiovascular, cardiorespiratory and autonomic nervous systems.
- May help lower your perception of pain.
- Boost brain function and performance.
- Read this primer on how to breathe better.
- Practice deep breathing each day. Start with just 1-5 minutes then work your way up from there (I personally aim for 10-30 minutes each day, spread out over 2-3 sessions depending on the day). There are many different deep breathing techniques (progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, repetitive prayer, guided imagery, the Wim Hoff Method, to name a few).
Eating for better gut health is a highly individual affair.
In this section, we’ll cover some different dietary approaches that may be beneficial for those GI issues.
First, it’s important to talk to a specialist if you’re having digestive issues to make sure it’s not something more serious. I also highly recommend getting tested for food allergies and getting a gut intelligence test. These two tests will tell you exactly what foods you should and shouldn’t be eating, based on your unique physiology.
Now let’s unpack a few dietary approaches that may (or may not) help improve your gut health.
The FODMAP Diet
FODMAPs (fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols) are a collection of short-chain carbohydrates (sugars) that aren’t absorbed properly in the gut, which can trigger symptoms in people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other gut disorders.
These substances include lactose, fructose, fructans, galactans, and polyalcohols (sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, xylitol, and isomalt).
Clinical trials suggest that most patients with IBS report a reduction in symptoms from following a low-FODMAP diet.
Also, people with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) seem to benefit from a low-FODMAPs diet and often experience a reduction in gastrointestinal symptoms.
But despite the demonstrated beneficial effects, low-FODMAPs diet have generated some concerns, namely:
- IBS patients have been shown to have a dysbiotic microbiota, which might predispose them to additional pathological dysbiosis (a gut that’s out of balance that can lead to other health issues).
- In one clinical trial, microbiota of IBS patients submitted to 4-week dietary intervention was compared with that of an IBS patient with a habitual diet. The authors demonstrated a reduction in concentration and proportion of Bifidobacteria after the carbohydrate restriction.
- Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) patients on the low FODMAP diet experienced a reduction of beneficial Bifidobacteriaceae and an increase of disease-promoting Lachnospiraceae were observed in their gut microbiota.
Taking probiotics might help offset some of this. According to this 2019 study:
Supplementation of the diet with probiotics could help in maintaining the beneficial component of gut microbiota, especially considering the inverse correlation between Bifidobacteria and the symptomatology of IBS.
The Impact of Ketogenic Diets on Gut Health
Low carbohydrate diets like keto, Paleo, and Atkins focus on drastically reduced carbohydrate intake in favor of fats and protein.
More research is needed on the long-term effects of these diets on gut health. Here’s what we know so far, based the current body of evidence:
- A few human and animal studies have shown different results demonstrating positive effects on reshaping bacterial architecture and gut biological functions, while others reporting negative effects as a lowered diversity and an increased amount of pro-inflammatory bacteria.
- According to several different studies, better strategies are needed to maximize the benefit of ketogenic diets. Here’s what they recommend:
- Introduce the use of whey and plant proteins (i.e., pea protein).
- Reduce the intake of animal protein.
- Implement fermented food and beverages (yogurt, water and milk kefir, kimchi, fermented vegetables).
- Introduce prebiotics and probiotics.
- Reduce omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids ratio (increase omega 3 while decreasing omega 6).
- Introduce an accurate quantity and quality of unsaturated fatty acids.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners and processed foods.
- Test your microbiome if needed (analysis of 16S rRNA to identify biodiversity and richness).
Gluten Free Diets and Gut Health: What We Know So Far
What about a gluten free diet? It’s a low-carb world, and many people are pushing grains off their plate in an effort to control their waistline and improve GI symptoms.
Gluten-free diets are essential for people with celiac disease and other medical conditions that are negatively affected by gluten.
But for most people, gluten is unjustifiably vilified.
A 2019 meta analysis published in the scientific journal Nutrients reported that in patients with cardiovascular disease, after two years on a gluten-free diet, the “imbalance of duodenal mucosal microbiota were not completely restored with a worsening in the reduction of bacterial richness.”
And while some potentially pathogenic bacteria such as E coli and Staphylococcus may decrease on a gluten free diet, levels of beneficial species as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus also remain low.
Anti-nutrients: Good or Bad?
Anti-nutrients are natural substances found in certain plant- and animal-based foods that can block the absorption of nutrients. A common refrain you hear from people who swear off grains is that anti-nutrients are terrible for you and cause all types of issues.
That may not be the case though.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health:
- The pros and cons of anti-nutrients on long-term human health is an area of active research.
- Though certain foods may contain residual amounts of anti-nutrients after processing and cooking, the health benefits of eating these foods outweigh any potential negative nutritional effects.
- Eating a variety of nutritious foods daily and avoiding eating large amounts of a single food at one meal can help to offset minor losses in nutrient absorption caused by anti-nutrients.
- Many anti-nutrients have antioxidant and anticancer actions, so avoiding them entirely is not recommended.
Why Most People Should Not Give Up Grains
Based on the current body of evidence, whole grains have some unique digestive health properties that make them a valuable addition to the diet for most people. The pros outweigh the cons.
Teresa Fung, adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says