All those things you’ve been hearing lately about the gut being central to our overall health? Accurate. In addition to breaking down food and absorbing vital nutrients, the gut is an important component of our immune system, preventing many harmful pathogens from invading the body. This means that an unhealthy gut can affect our ability to prevent or fight infections and contribute to inflammatory bowel diseases, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer, says Chicago-based gastroenterologist Andrew Moore, M.D.
A growing body of research also continues to explore the connection between our gut and our brain, illuminating a direct pathway of communication that explains why stress and bouts of anxiety can contribute to indigestion, cramps, constipation, and even diarrhea, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America.
Plain and simple: We should all strive to have a healthy, happy gut. Considering nearly two out of three Americans suffer from unpleasant GI symptoms, though, many of us aren’t prioritizing our gut health. Here, GI docs share what they do to keep their own guts moving and grooving.
1. They’re serious about fiber
Fiber is an essential nutrient we get from plant-based foods that supports our gut health in a number of ways. In addition to serving as food for the good gut bugs we know as probiotics, it also helps to keep the digestive process moving along.
Unfortunately, as many as 95 percent of U.S. adults and children don’t get enough fiber, according to a USDA survey. “A diet low in fiber can lead to constipation, diverticular disease, and higher rates of colon cancer, whereas a diet high in fiber can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” Moore says.
Moore personally tries to focus on eating a Mediterranean-inspired diet, which focuses on whole foods such as fiber-filled fruits and veggies, lean protein, and healthy fats. He also recommends that people who experience GI issues incorporate a fiber supplement to help move things along and support gut health.
2. They Avoid Highly processed foods
Despite their convenience, highly-processed foods like breakfast cereals, chips, baked goods, frozen meals, and fast food often contain a laundry list of chemicals and other ingredients that can be detrimental to our health, according to OHSU Clinical Assistant Professor of Gastroenterology Emeritus, David Clarke, M.D., President of the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association. “Our gut evolved over millions of years to respond optimally to food that was hunted or gathered,” he explains. “There were no foods with large quantities of added sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, or these other compounds that were introduced after your grandmother was a child.”
Since our gut hasn’t evolved to process these additives, Clarke believes many of them have the potential to do more harm than good. Whenever possible, he recommends opting for whole foods over the processed stuff.
3. They exercise several times a week
You know that exercise has countless health benefits, but you might be surprised to learn that it directly impacts your gut health. In fact, research, including one study published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, has shown that exercise can boost the levels of “good” bacteria in your gut, therefore improving the microflora diversity that is essential for overall wellness.
Exercise may also go a long way in reducing your risk of developing colon cancer, per research published in the World Journal of Gastrointestinal Oncology. For these reasons and more, Moore tries to fit in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or aerobics, around five days per week.
4. They find ways to manage stress
Americans have long known stress better than they know their neighbors, and recent pandemic-related spikes in stress have only made matters worse for our minds and our guts. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, as many as 80 percent of adults reported feeling regularly stressed during and after the pandemic, compared to just one-third prior to it. “Stress commonly impacts the gut because the gut is wired to the brain,” says Clarke. “You can notice this connection particularly when you experience a ‘knot’ in your abdomen during a tense situation.”
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To help mitigate the effects of stress, Moore recommends including exercise, meditation, and yoga in your routine. That said, because of the interplay between gut health and stress, it’s important to tune into whatever exacerbates your stress, whether it’s a current life event, childhood traumas, or triggering people or situations, in order to protect your mind and your gut, he says. Your best bet for identifying and working through these factors: meeting with a mental health professional.
5. They incorporate probiotics
Though we still have much to learn about the extent of the powers of the live bacteria in our guts, the growing pile of evidence we have suggests they boost our health in a number of ways. As such, Clarke tries to incorporate natural sources of probiotics, including fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha, in his diet regularly. Not a big fan of these foods? Consider a probiotic supplement to get more of these important critters into your system, instead. (This guide will help you choose the right probiotic supplement for you.)
6. They don’t ignore symptoms
If there’s one thing GI docs agree on, it’s that unpleasant gut symptoms (including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, flatulence, or unexplained weight loss/gain) should never be ignored. These signals are trying to alert you that something’s not quite right in your digestive system. “Symptoms should always be evaluated by a physician to determine if there is any underlying gastrointestinal disease,” says Moore. If you’re experiencing any new or regular issues, he recommends making an appointment with someone who specializes in gastrointestinal health to rule out more serious conditions and address lifestyle changes that can help soothe your system.