Gut health may not be the sexiest topic, but there’s no denying how crucial it is for our overall wellbeing. Not only is our gut responsible for digesting food, but it’s also in charge of absorbing nutrients, keeping out bad bacteria, and regulating our immune system—and unfortunately, most Americans don’t give it the love it deserves.
Approximately 72 percent of Americans regularly deal with GI issues like nausea, abdominal pain, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating. And many of us don’t even realize how these gut issues affect the rest of our bodies. “When our gut balance is off, all health is off,” says Lisa Ganjhu, D.O., a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health. “Our mind, body, and gut all intertwine together—so it’s a big component of our general wellbeing.” When our gut is compromised, we aren’t able to eat or poop as well, our immunity suffers, and even our peace of mind takes a hit.
Turns out, many of our everyday habits—even the ones we think are healthy—can sabotage our gut health and have serious repercussions for our health. Here are six common culprits—and expert advice for turning your gut around.
1. Stockpiling Drinks For The Weekend
Alcohol can affect gut health in a couple of ways. First: For many people, it causes inflammation in the stomach and colon, which leads to staple post-drinking discomfort like gas, bloating, and bathroom issues, says Ganjhu. Ever had the ‘beer runs’? Yeah, that’s a result of colon inflammation. Second: Alcohol alters our gut’s microbiome, with excess amounts even killing off some of the good bacteria (a.k.a. probiotics) we need to stay healthy.
Drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol (two drinks per day for men, one for women) in one sitting ups the potential for these gut dysfunctions, so if you pass on alcohol Monday through Friday only to down a whole week’s worth on Saturday night, it’s time to reassess your use of booze.
2. Popping The Wrong Type Of Probiotics
Probiotic supplements are great for boosting the good bacteria in your gut, but one of the biggest mistakes Dr. Ganjhu sees is people choosing a probiotic without realizing that different types of probiotics serve different purposes. “Probiotic supplements aren’t all the same,” she explains. “Certain bacteria are there for certain parts of your body.” For example, while bifidobacterium acts solely in the gut, lactobacillus works to keep both vaginal and gut health in tip-top shape.
If you’re constantly experiencing digestive issues and want to add a probiotic supplement to your routine, consider seeing a gastroenterologist who can evaluate your symptoms and suggest which probiotic might be best for you.
3. Ignoring Food Sensitivities
If a drop of dairy sends you running to the bathroom, you’ve probably already accepted that you have an intolerance and try to stay away from the stuff—but many of us may have subtle sensitivities to certain foods we’re not even aware of, and these sensitivities can lead to major issues over time.
“The more you eat foods that you are allergic or sensitive to, the more activated your white blood cells become,” says Vincent Pedre, M.D., medical director of Pedre Integrative Health and author of Happy Gut. This sends inflammatory signals throughout your body, and before you know it, issues you’d never associate with your gut—like allergies, asthma, joint inflammation and pain, and even anxiety and insomnia—crop up.
Whether you believe you have a sensitivity or not, consider trying an elimination diet like Whole30 or Pedre’s 28-day Happy Gut Cleanse, which remove the most common allergy culprits (including grains, dairy, legumes, and soy) for a month before reintroducing each food group one at a time. It’s a simple DIY way to identify any underlying sensitivities, says Pedre. You might be surprised by how differently you feel with certain ingredients completely out of your system—and how you react to reintroducing them!
4. Eating Sugar Like It’s Your Job
Americans today consume about 100 times as much sugar as we did 100 years ago. And considering research shows that high-sugar foods light up the same parts of our brain as drugs, it’s no wonder so many of us can’t kick the habit. Not only does over-consuming sugar wreck your blood sugar, but it also contributes to yeast overgrowth known as candida, which can damage your intestinal walls and cause leaky gut, according to Pedre.
Keep sugar from wreaking havoc on your body by limiting your added sugar intake (including refined carbohydrates) to 50 grams a day, tops, recommends Pedre. Start by cutting out obvious culprits, like dessert foods, soda, and refined carbs like white rice, pasta, and bread. Then swap out things like sweetened milks, fruit juices, and white wine (which often contains sugar to mask the grapes’ acidity) for unsweetened beverages, veggie juices, and red wine.
5. Staying At Your Stressful Job
According to the American Psychological Association, we’re more stressed than ever, and that’s not doing our gut (or our entire body) any favors. Whenever you get a pit in your stomach, feel nauseous, or lose your appetite because of something going on in your life, you feel stress’ impact on your gut.
Stress triggers the release of hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol, which shift your body into ‘fight or flight’ mode and sabotage your immune function. Research even shows that stress can increase gut permeability, allowing bad bacteria in and out of the gut and throwing the microbiome out of balance. This stress response can also trigger other issues, like bloating, heartburn, and acid reflux.
If saying sayonara to your micromanaging boss or gossipy co-workers really isn’t an option, Pedre recommends integrating more stress-reducing practices—such as meditation, yoga, Tai chi, and hiking—into your day-to-day routine.
Pin this infographic to keep your gut health in good shape: