Learn how to improve your gut health to live a healthier lifestyle.

Why is gut health important?

The gut’s “brain” is revolutionizing our understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way we think.

“We have a cerebral brain, but what we’re learning is our gastrointestinal tract (GI) has a brain of its own,” said Omar Khokhar, MD, a gastroenterologist with OSF HealthCare.

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This means how your gut acts impacts other processes in your body. It’s the most central organ that other organs depend on for life-supporting nutrition. That’s why your gut health is so important.

The GI tract is where food is digested, where nutrients are absorbed and assimilated and where waste is segregated and eliminated.

It primarily consists of the digestive tract, which can be 20 to 24 feet long from top to bottom beginning with the mouth and moving through the esophagus, stomach and small intestine.

It continues to the large intestine, which includes the colon and rectum, and ends at the anus. Organs that are part of the digestive system include the liver, gallbladder and pancreas.

Signs of poor gut health

If you experience signs of an unhealthy gut, you could have digestive issues, Dr.Khokhar said. Those signs include:

  • Heartburn
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

“A lot of what occurs with digestive issues is related to what we eat,” he said.

The phrase, “you are what you eat,” carries more truth than you may realize, Dr. Khokhar said.

The types of bacteria – bad bacteria and gut microbes, the good bacteria, have on the digestive process is as individualized as our fingerprints

“One food for you may not be a good food for another,” he said.

Gut-brain axis

Many people with gastrointestinal disorders – such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease – perceive pain more acutely than others because their brains are more responsive to pain signals from the GI tract.

Research is showing that the gut is deeply connected to the brain, and one influences the other in positive and negative ways.

“With irritable bowel syndrome, for example, we’re always digesting. We’re most aware of the first six inches of the GI tract and the last six inches. But in between, you don’t know what’s going on and you don’t have control,” Dr. Khokhar said.

“Things are being absorbed, things are being excreted. But someone with IBS will perceive those processes as pain and bloating – as symptoms. There is some type of amplification from your gut to your spine and from the spine to the brain.

“It all refers to the gut-brain axis,” he said. “We’re now learning that our GI tract has a brain of its own.”

Traditional thinking has always been focused on how the brain impacts the gut. In reality, the two mutually affect and depend on each, thus the gut-brain axis.

In other words, the gut and the brain “talk” to each other. The trillions of microbes in our gut “talk” to our brain via blood circulation, the gut’s nervous system and the gut’s immune system. In turn, the brain “talks” to our gut using the same pathways.

People often say, “I have a gut feeling” or “I just feel it in my gut.” That’s because when you feel anxious, scared, excited or nervous, you feel it first in your gut. The cool thing is we can influence how the brain in the gut operates through our own behaviors.”

How to fix gut health

Improving your gut health naturally can be as simply as “eating on the outside aisles of the grocery store,” Dr. Khokhar said.

“If you can, try to avoid eating anything out of a box, a wrapper or a can … What do I mean by this? Instead of eating the applesauce, eat the apple. Instead of eating the potato chip, eat the potato.

“Look at what is natural and what is not natural. Look at the label – it’s not just sugar and corn syrup listed, it’s the 16 things after that.”

In addition to avoiding processed food, you can improve your gut health by eating foods such as:

  • Apples
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Barley
  • Edamame
  • Garlic
  • Mushrooms
  • Oats
  • Wheat bran
  • Root veggies such as onions and leeks

Other steps to improve your gut health

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. In addition to eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and healthy oils, additional habits that can help improve the health of your GI tract include:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Exercising
  • Drinking enough water
  • Reducing stress
  • Eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and
  • kombucha
  • Taking the right supplements, such as probiotics to help rebalance the gut

“I usually tell folks to have a baseline of healthy eating,” Dr. Khokhar said.

“If you have something you want to eat, eat it. Just know you may have a consequence (gas bloating, constipation, heartburn) in 24-48 hours.”

Last Updated: January 23, 2023

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About Author: Lisa Coon

Lisa Coon is a Writing Coordinator for OSF HealthCare, where she has worked since August 2016.  A Peoria native, she is a graduate of Bradley University with a degree in journalism. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor at several newspapers in Iowa and Illinois.

She lives in Groveland with her husband and son. In her free time she likes to cook, bake and read. She freely admits that reality TV is a weakness, and she lives by the quote, “The beach is good for the soul.”

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Categories: Diet & Exercise, General