There’s no question gut health is a hot topic right now, and for good reason. Although the science is still emerging, ample research has already pointed to how the microbiome — the network of bacteria living in the gastrointestinal tract — can affect the immune system, inflammation control and even risk-levels for diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Researchers have noted that your gut also plays a role in metabolism and mood, which means it can be a powerful ally for your fitness and weight-loss goals.
To achieve a healthier microbiome, the first step is to make sure your diet is on track with foods that help to diversify the “good bugs” in your gut. But in addition to a robust balance of probiotics, prebiotics and fiber, there are lifestyle behaviors that can also bolster the strength of your belly bugs.
Consider these four strategies to get your gut as healthy as possible.
GET MORE SLEEP
Much like other systems in your body, your gut has a circadian rhythm. That means its function changes throughout the course of a day and through the night. When that rhythm is thrown off, it can alter how the good bacteria operates.
A recent study found there’s a relationship between gut microbiome composition, sleep habits and cognitive flexibility. Gut health is often linked to brain function — it’s actually sometimes called your “second brain” because it contains so many neurotransmitters — so it’s not surprising to see the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation would cause your brain to take a hit.
Not only does sleep help your microbiome, but it works the other way as well. A healthy gut gives you a better night of sleep, according to sleep science coach and nutritional therapist Christine Hansen. She notes that gut microbes can effectively reduce levels of cortisol, the hormone that regulates wakefulness. The good bacteria also synthesizes GABA, an amino acid connected to deeper sleep.
KNOCK OUT STRESS
In addition to lowering cortisol so we sleep better, that mechanism of hormone regulation connected to gut microbes also benefits the amount of stress and anxiety we experience.
Much like sleep, gut health and stress is a two-way street. Lower your stress, improve your gut. As your good bacteria proliferates, it can greatly assist in the effort to keep stress levels low.
This can have a significant effect on your emotional health. According to Harvard Medical School experts, the gastrointestinal tract is involved in emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness. Not only can you experience “gut-wrenching” moments when you feel tension, but an imbalance in the digestive system can actually cause you to be more distressed. Employing more chill-out strategies — for example, taking a walk outside, doing yoga and being more mindful — can benefit both mind and belly.
As the extent of the microbiome is uncovered, researchers are starting to express concern that we may be cleaning too ferociously for our own good, especially with antibacterial products that can kill the beneficial bugs as well as the bad.
As our homes, workplaces, schools, cars and retail areas get more sanitized, we may be reducing our exposure to bacteria that could positively influence our gut function.
That could create a situation where the immune system overreacts to once-harmless substances, according to Jordan Peccia, a professor of environmental engineering at Yale University. He notes that a result could be allergies and asthma, since the immune system doesn’t function as well without a healthy microbiome.
But that doesn’t mean you have to live in a mud pit to get a happy belly. Studies have pointed to easier tactics like gardening more, petting dogs and reducing use of antibacterial products. An occasional mud run wouldn’t hurt, though.
In addition to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, your gut loves a good workout. A recent study found exercise alone can change the composition of microbes in the gut, independent of diet or antibiotic use.
Researchers found exercise increases the microbiome’s production of short-chain fatty acids, which have been linked to metabolic health, regulation of food intake and insulin sensitivity.
The key is to keep on grooving once you start. In the recent study, some participants were sedentary and then returned to that behavior once the research was completed. Although they had beneficial gut changes during the six-week exercise period, their microbiomes returned to a previous state once they stopped working out.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The more you can do to make your belly happy, the better your body will function in numerous ways — from sleeping deeper to fueling weight loss to fighting off colds. Put solid strategies in place that include beneficial food choices in addition to lifestyle changes, and you’ll get a more gleeful gut as a result.