Gut issues are incredibly common, with an estimated 40 percent of Americans’ daily lives being disrupted by some type of digestive trouble, whether it’s stomachaches, heartburn, acid reflux, food intolerances, or nutritional deficiencies.
What we consider as part of “the gut” includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine, as well as the liver, the gallbladder, and the pancreas. This complex system works synergistically and is responsible for digesting food, absorbing nutrients, eliminating wastes from the body, and playing an important role in the immune system, explains Chicago-based gastroenterologist Andrew Moore, M.D. “Given all of these important processes, having a healthy gut is crucial to having a healthy, well-functioning body.”
Unfortunately, all sorts of inputs can contribute to an unhealthy gut. A few big ones: a diet that’s high in sugar, processed foods, and saturated fats but low in fiber, a lack of exercise, and overuse of antibiotics, explains naturopath Kiera Lane, N.M.D., MSAc, L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., director of Arizona Natural Medicine. All of these factors can disrupt the healthy flora of the G.I. tract and increase harmful bacteria that can negatively affect mood and immune function.
And then there’s stress. “When people are under stress, the nervous system becomes activated and signals the body to shut down digestion, which is an ancient adaptive response that comes from our history of either needing to fight or run away from wild animals,” explains Moore. “Today, if we live in a chronic state of stress, our digestive ability is continuously shut down, which leads to decreased ability to digest food and more inflammation.”
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Given how rampant gut health issues are, it’s certainly not surprising that supplements and other natural solutions for supporting the digestive system are abundant. And, thankfully, many of them really can promote normal gut function. “Certain supplements can normalize bowel movements, ease bloating, soothe the gastrointestinal lining or help it repair itself, and promote healthy microflora,” shares naturopathic doctor Judith Thompson, N.D.
Not sure how to navigate the vast landscape of gut support? Here are some of the most noteworthy supplements you can take to get your gut health on track.
This essential nutrient is found in so many of the foods we eat, including lentils and beans, leafy greens, pears, avocados, and whole grains—yet a mere five percent of Americans get their fair share, according to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. “Adequate fiber intake promotes a healthy gut microbiome, helps keep your bowel movements regular, and is associated with lower risks of colon cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes,” explains Moore.
The Institute of Medicine recommends 25 grams of fiber for women and 38 grams for men per day. If you’re not meeting your needs (which, statistically, is likely), consider a fiber supplement. There are a variety of options out there these days made from a variety of fiber sources, but one popular and common option is psyllium, which often comes in either powder or pill form.
Psyllium is a soluble fiber, which means it attracts water and can help balance bowel movements by bulking up stool, Thompson explains. (That’s right, it can be beneficial both for those with loose stool and those who feel backed up.) If you decide to supplement with psyllium, just be sure to drink enough water—at least a full eight ounces alongside your supplement, suggests Thompson. “It is very water-loving, so if a constipated person takes it without drinking enough water, the constipation can get worse,” she explains.
Start on the lower end of the dosage spectrum (five grams per day) and gradually increase your intake up to 10 grams per day to minimize any digestive upset that sometimes accompanies ramping up fiber really quickly, suggests Thompson.
Probiotics are tiny living microorganisms that can help protect the gut and keep it healthy. There are many types of probiotics, but the most common are bacteria belonging to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. So many factors can cause our gut to be out of balance, from illnesses to taking certain medications like antibiotics. When this happens, probiotic supplements can help you reestablish and maintain a healthier balance of bacteria.
The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) generally recommends probiotics for preventing diarrhea while taking antibiotics. However, there may still be some benefits to reap in certain situations outside of that, says Moore. For example, research has shown probiotics to be beneficial for some people experiencing digestive issues, such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. Other studies, meanwhile, suggest they have very real immune health payoffs. If you decide to use probiotics for the management of gastrointestinal trouble, speak with your healthcare provider in advance to ensure these good gut bugs won’t interact negatively with any medications you may be taking.
FYI: Each probiotic supplement measures the bacteria it contains in CFUs (colony-forming units). Typical dosages range from five to 10 billion CFUs for children and 10 to 20 billion CFUs for adults, per Moore. Since different strains of probiotics have been linked to specific and varied health benefits (such as immune function versus gastrointestinal comfort), look for a product whose formula matches your specific health goals and needs, experts suggest.
While the data is mixed when it comes to peppermint’s gut-boosting abilities, one study found it to be effective for individuals suffering from digestive upset. “It’s noted to have some smooth muscle-relaxing properties, so it may help improve symptoms of abdominal cramping, bloating, and gas,” says Moore. “However, because of these same properties, peppermint can also relax the sphincter between the esophagus and stomach and potentially worsen acid reflux.”
If you’ve talked with your primary care provider about trying a peppermint supplement for certain gastrointestinal symptoms and decide to go for it, Moore recommends enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules or softgels taken one to three times per day.
4. Lactase enzyme
Lactose malabsorption, also known as lactose intolerance, is a common problem, especially in older individuals. Sufferers often face symptoms like nausea, gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea after eating dairy. “Simply avoiding milk products can prevent these symptoms, but if lactose cannot be avoided, supplementing with a lactase enzyme replacement may help reduce the symptoms,” says Moore. “Typically tablets are taken at the same time as the ingestion of lactose-containing foods.”
5. Slippery elm
Slippery elm is one of Thompson’s favorite herbs for soothing the gut when people have heartburn or pain due to a wounded gut lining. “It is an herb that has a gel-like texture, like oatmeal or okra, and coats the top layer of the gut,” she says. “This gel-like component of the herb gives the gut a protective coating so it can start to heal the tissue underneath.”
Thompson’s preferred method for taking slippery elm is in lozenge form, but the herb is also available in capsules and even herbal teas. “Sucking on this herb slowly disintegrates it and disperses it into your body,” she shares.
This herbal supplement has recently come into the spotlight because of its benefits for weight management, but it also offers impressive digestive health benefits to boot. First, berberine’s bitter taste comes from plant constituents that stimulate enzyme production, which is good news for both liver function and healthy digestion, suggests Thompson. What’s more, the herb also works to inhibit the DNA replication and protein synthesis of harmful bacteria, making it a friend to the balance of your gut microflora.
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You can take anywhere from 500 to 1,500 milligrams of berberine per day, Thompson says. You’ll typically find it in capsules.
Fennel is an herb that many of us eat, whether in soups or salads, without realizing that it provides a pretty powerful gut health benefit: helping us break up gas after meals, thanks to an essential oil called anethole, which works to shorten the amount of time it takes to digest food, Thompson explains.
“Additionally, fennel’s essential oil constituent supports calm and thus decreases the effect stress has on a person’s digestive system,” she points out. “This herb is gentle and effective enough to work for anyone at any age and can be taken as a tea or in capsule form.” Thompson prefers to sip fennel as a tea since doing so gives the body continuous exposure to the herb. However, you can also take fennel in capsule form.