You’ve probably heard quite a lot about gut health lately—and that’s because emerging research is discovering new ways in which our gut impacts so much more than just our gut. Throughout the past decade alone, studies have confirmed links between the health of your microbiome (the trillions of bacteria and other microbes living in the gut) and everything from anxiety and depression, to digestion, to immunity and even metabolism.
Though you may best know your microbiome for digesting food, absorbing its nutrients, and then removing any waste from the body, it does so much more, notes The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N. “The gut is referred to as ‘our second brain’ because irritation in the digestive tract may send signals to the brain that trigger mood changes and other body system disruptions,” she says. This is no surprise, seeing as the American Psychological Association estimates that as much as 95 percent of our serotonin, the feel-good hormone, is produced in the gut.
In fact, this gut-brain connection also impacts our digestion, immune system activation, the permeability of our intestinal lining, and more, Michels notes. And it’s influenced by both internal and external factors.
Meaning: All sorts of things you do—and don’t do—have an impact on your microbiome and its ability to thrive. Here, experts break down some of the major ways in which you might be messing with your microbiome without even realizing it—and how you can change your ways for better gut (and overall!) health.
1. eating too much highly processed food
We’re surrounded by processed foods—which include pretty much anything that isn’t in its whole, natural form, like fruits, vegetables, or grains, notes naturopath Anna Mitsios, N.D., founder of Edible Beauty Australia. And while minimally processed foods (think almond flour and your favorite unsweetened coconut yogurt) don’t pose much of a threat, highly processed foods (which contain added sugar, artificial flavors and preservatives, refined carbohydrates, and trans fats) could be seriously messing with your microbiome.
“These foods are devoid of fiber and nourishment for our gut bacteria, and encourage yeast overgrowth, which is when yeast in the gut starts to outweigh the good gut bacteria,” she explains. This can then lead to a more permeable gut lining, which then often leads to increased inflammation.
Whenever possible, Mitsios recommends sticking to minimally processed foods and a variety of whole, plant-based foods that contain fiber (which promotes a healthy balance of good and bad gut bacteria), such as whole fruits and vegetables.
And don’t forget to include the skins and peels, which contain unique compounds known as polyphenols. “Polyphenols contain mild toxins that, in nature, repel bugs and insects from the sugars of fruits, but in our belly work to stave off bad gut bacteria and provide good bacteria with a healthy environment to grow in,” she says.
2. Stressing Out
When we’re dealing with high amounts of stress, whether from work, family drama, or whatever else, the signaling pathways between the gut and the brain are negatively impacted, ultimately messing with your microbiome. “The gut produces and releases neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, and dopamine—and when you’re stressed, these levels can go haywire, impacting your mood, sleep, and more,” says Michels. Fluctuating levels of these different chemicals also directly impact the gut microbiome. It’s no wonder excess stress leaves you with knots in your stomach.
Ultimately, the best way to remedy this is to identify stressors in your life and work to eliminate or decrease them, according to Michels. For example, if work is causing you a great deal of stress, consider speaking with your boss about ways to alleviate some of the pressures or to take to-do’s off your plate.
We know, we know—easier said than done. “Some chronic stressors, such as being a caregiver to a sick loved one, are not controllable—so in these cases, consider adding a stress-relieving activity to your routine, such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or keeping a gratitude journal,” Michels suggests. “Including a stress-relieving activity can decrease overall stress hormones, which may positively impact your gut-brain signaling pathways.” (These acts of self-care take five minutes or less.)
3. Staying Still
You know how important exercise is for your overall health, but you may not realize how much it impacts your gut, in particular. “Regular physical activity promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, including Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, which both play a role in keeping your gut healthy,” explains naturopath and clinical nutritionist David Friedman, N.D., D.C. In fact, animal research—including one study published in PLoS One—has shown that six days of consistent exercise increases levels of both Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.
You don’t have to run a marathon to gain the perk of this good gut bacteria, though. Just 30 minutes of walking, gardening, swimming, and cycling per day is enough for you to reap the gut benefits of exercise.
4. late nights with Netflix
Your microbiome and brain-gut signaling pathways both suffer when you’re short on sleep. “One example: The production of our satiety hormone, leptin, decreases with sleep deprivation,” Michels warns. This increased appetite and decreased satiety make you more likely to reach for processed foods because they’re so convenient.
Her best advice: Get the seven to nine hours of slumber per night recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. To help ensure you get a good night’s rest, avoid caffeine, alcohol, and screens within a few hours of crawling into bed, she adds.
5. microwaving food in plastic containers
Inconvenient truth: “Most microwavable food containers contain BPA (Bisphenol A) and phthalates, which are chemicals used to make plastic harder but also more flexible,” notes Friedman. “When heated, these chemicals leach into the food and into our gut, where they destroy our microbiome.” Animal research suggests that ingesting BPA both diminishes the diversity of the gut microbiome and makes the lining of the gut more permeable.
When heating food or beverages in the microwave, always do so in a glass, porcelain, or ceramic container, Friedman recommends. You’ll also want to avoid putting hot food straight into plastic storage containers or keeping plastic water bottles in a hot car, both of which could ultimately be messing with your microbiome.
6. overdoing antibiotics
Sometimes—namely when you have a sort of bacterial infection—antibiotics are necessary. However, overusing antibiotics has been known to kill off good gut bacteria, according to research published in Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology. “Antibiotic use is the classic cause for alterations in the gut microbiome, as these medications often eradicate the good bacteria from our intestines, leading to an increase of pathogenic bacteria,” says Arpan Patel, M.D., a Boston-area gastroenterologist. “Using antibiotics for clinically documented infections is completely appropriate, but we are seeing higher uses of antibiotics in patients who may have a viral issue like the common cold or a stomach gastroenteritis.”
If you do need antibiotics, Patel recommends replenishing your good bacteria by consuming at least one serving of probiotic-rich foods (think yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso) daily. “Additionally, taking a probiotic supplement that is rich in multiple species of ‘good’ bacteria can also help reconstitute the gut microbiome,” he adds. “While most probiotics contain lactobacillus, a bacterial strain found in many dairy products, finding one that also has other species such as bifidobacterium or saccharomyces is crucial. “ (New Chapter’s Complete Gut Health Probiotic All-Flora offers all three of these species.)