A healthy gut means being healthy from head to toe

How Do I Know if My Gut Is Healthy?

By: Liz Lotts, RDN; NASM-CPT

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

Contrary to popular belief, your body does not run on Dunkin'—at least, not entirely. Your body functions on many nutrients, including carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber and water, that come from the food, drinks and supplements you consume.

However, it's not enough to just fill your stomach. Your body has to digest and absorb the nutrients from food in order to use them.

Enter your gut.

Your gut, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is the system responsible for digestion and absorption. But that's not all your gut can do. It houses a collection of helpful microorganisms that may be small in size but monumental in health: the gut microbiome. The gut microbiome is the collective name of all the microbes (including bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms) within your GI tract that are both helpful and potentially harmful. Keeping your digestive organs humming and your gut microbes in balance is what constitutes a "healthy gut."

So, how exactly do you do that? Here's how to know the status of your gut health—plus how digestion works, why GI health matters, and what you can do (or eat!) to make your gut a happy home.

What does the gut do?

Since not everyone remembers high school anatomy class, let's recap the different parts of the digestive system. The main structures include the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine. The accessory organs are equally important to digestive health and include the pancreas, liver and gallbladder.

The main function of the digestive system is to take the nutrients from the food and drinks we consume to make use of them and eliminate waste from the body. Let's break down how that works:

  • Absorption and elimination encompass the digestion process.
  • Digestive enzymes, stomach acid and bile are all secreted into your GI tract to help break down your food and support absorption.
  • During absorption, nutrients are absorbed into cells mostly in the small intestines and then distributed throughout the body. This process is how you get the goodness from your food to give you energy and help you avoid nutrient deficiency so you can stay healthy.
  • During the digestive process, your body produces waste that must be eliminated. The digestive system is responsible for getting rid of all waste through fecal matter.

Why is digestive health so important?

The gut is about so much more than digestion. It actually impacts countless other parts of the body. Fun fact: 70% of the immune system is located in the gut! Let's look further into these gut health benefits.

Immune system—The digestive tract plays a prominent role in immune function. And probiotics to support immune system health have been hyped up for a reason: probiotics help keep your digestive tract in balance by helping your good microbes flourish.

Adequate amounts of different types of good gut microbes provide protection to the digestive tract by helping maintain a physical barrier against any unwanted substances that could pose a challenge to your body.

They also help maintain a healthy gut pH. And since the stomach needs to stay relatively acidic to play its role in digestion, this low pH serves another purpose. It creates an inhospitable environment for harmful bacteria, which in turn helps the immune system keep invaders and other challenges at bay.

On top of all that, certain good gut bacteria can even help inhibit inflammation to support immune health!

Nervous system—The enteric nervous system (ENS) in your gut is the largest part of the nervous system outside of your brain. But what does it do for gut health? It regulates the movement of food through your GI tract (called peristalsis) and the secretion of fluid and electrolytes into the digestive canal. But the ENS also is tasked with communicating with the central nervous system (CNS). And it plays a role in immune system function.

Mental well-being—As we previously mentioned, the enteric nervous system communicates with the central nervous system, which helps explain the important link between your gut and mental health. In fact, over 90% of the body's total serotonin is found in enterochromaffin cells in the gut, where it helps support the regular movement of the digestive system. Serotonin, known as one of the "happy hormones," is also one of the neurotransmitters that helps regulate healthy mood, cognition and concentration, key to emotional well-being.

What are the signs of a healthy gut?

Given how important the gut is to your overall health, perhaps you're wondering how to tell whether yours is in good shape. When it comes to a healthy gut, having no signs is a good sign. Occasional constipation or bloating is normal, but if occasional becomes frequent, that's your cue something is amiss. Generally speaking, someone with optimal gut health will experience little to no occasional digestive discomfort.

Important to note: you don't have to have a bowel movement every day to be considered regular. The average person has anywhere between three and 21 bowel movements per week. This means typically it's normal to experience a bowel movement between every other day to up to 3 times per day. Take note of your own schedule and look out for any conspicuous changes.

You should also be mindful of transit time (the time that passes between when you eat and when you have a bowel movement). It shouldn't be too short or too long (an average range is between 23-37 hours). If you're outside of this range, your gut may be telling you there's an imbalance somewhere. Listen to it.

And, if you want to get really technical, the Bristol Stool Chart is a good tool to use to assess color and consistency. Type 3 and Type 4 bowel movements are a sign of good gut health. Be curious if you're experiencing other types and stay aware of your frequency and transit time.

Digestion 101: How Food Is Digested and Absorbed

Not too surprisingly, digestion begins in the mouth, from the moment you open your mouth to take a bite. This stage triggers saliva production to help chew, dissolve and swallow food, making it easier to move down the throat and into the stomach.

At this point, your nervous system tells the muscles of the GI tract to contract and relax, creating a wavelike movement pattern that moves food down the digestive tract, called peristalsis. This allows the food to travel through the esophagus and enter the stomach.

The stomach produces acidic gastric juices that further break down food, particularly proteins. The stomach then empties into the upper portion of the small intestine. The small intestine is the main site of nutrient digestion and absorption.

The pancreas then secretes electrolyte-rich juices into the upper part of the small intestine in order to neutralize the stomach's acids while also secreting the digestive enzymes necessary for the digestion of carbohydrates, protein and fats. While this is going on, the gallbladder is releasing bile, a yellowish fluid that emulsifies fat. Bile is produced in the liver but gets stored in the gallbladder until it's ready for action.

At this point, what we think of as digestion is pretty much complete, and most of the nutrients have already been absorbed into the bloodstream. Absorption occurs when the nutrients diffuse into cells, with the majority of nutrients being absorbed in the small intestine.

Meanwhile in the colon, some electrolytes, B vitamins, and vitamin K are absorbed. After this process is complete, any unabsorbed material is eliminated as waste matter.

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How can I improve my gut health?

There are several ways you can improve your gut health through nutrition and lifestyle changes. Each and every one of these tips provides TLC to your digestive organs and supports a healthy gut. Don't try to implement everything at once, though. Choose one or two to start, and then once it's become a habit, add more.

1. Sit down to eat

Mealtime should be a thoughtful event, where you sit down and focus on the food you're eating and your body's response to it. Take your time. Each meal or snack should take at minimum 15 minutes to complete. This allows you time to chew, swallow and assess how you feel.

2. Chew your food thoroughly

The more you mechanically break down food in your mouth, the less work your digestive organs have to do later. Give your stomach and intestines a break by chewing your food into tiny, mushy pieces. Chewing thoroughly will also force you to spend more time at the dinner table, so you can focus on those hunger and fullness cues.

3. Don't overeat

Eating past the point of fullness can overwork your GI tract. Not to mention, overeating can impact your healthy blood sugar levels and weight.

4. Eat a healthy diet

The typical American diet is heavy in processed foods, which can lead to an imbalance in gut microbiota. This can be easily countered with a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. The Mediterranean Diet is a great example of this eating pattern and has repeatedly been shown to promote heart health, cognitive function and healthy aging.

5. Increase your fiber intake

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American is eating 8.1 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories, which is only 58% of the recommended intake. Women should aim for at least 25 grams of fiber per day, while men should consume about 38 grams of fiber per day. Reaching these targets is not only good for gut health and a healthy microbiome, but also for maintaining already-healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

Pro tip: If you can't quite hit your fiber goals, fiber supplements may be added to your daily nutrition. Be sure to increase your water intake when you increase your fiber intake, so as not to cause digestive discomfort.

6. Stay hydrated

Drinking water is good for every cell and system in your body, but it's especially beneficial for gut health. Adequate hydration helps maintain regularity—particularly for those who experience occasional constipation. Make sure you are drinking enough hydrating liquids daily.

7. Try fermented foods

Fermented foods are loaded with good bacteria that can support the natural diversity of your own gut microbiome. Common fermented foods include sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, miso and yogurt. Bear in mind, however, that not all of these foods contain live cultures. Read the labels and make sure you're getting the best probiotic foods.

Pro tip: Whole grains are good sources of prebiotics, which serve as energy for the probiotics. All the more reason to eat a balanced diet!

8. Supplement if needed

Digestive enzymes and probiotic supplements are a great complement to your other healthy habits. Start by taking a supplement quiz to identify the formulas that are best suited for your specific gut health needs. It takes less than 30 seconds and can help better guide you toward what you need!

9. Avoid alcohol

Frequent consumption of alcohol can diminish the number and diversity of beneficial bacteria in the gut. In fact, studies have shown alcohol consumption can directly impact the health of your gut.

10. Get quality sleep

Recent research reveals there's a two-way relationship between the gut microbiome and sleep. One genetics analysis found that changes in sleep-associated traits impacted the volume of gut microbiota.

11. Exercise regularly

Physical activity helps improve peristalsis. Efficient peristalsis keeps food moving along the GI tract for proper digestion and elimination.

12. Manage stress

When you feel stressed, it triggers a fight-or-flight response in your nervous system. This response slows digestion in order to divert blood flow and energy to parts of the body that you can better use in a fight-or-flight situation. There is such a strong gut-mind connection that even a temporary disruption can lead to occasional GI discomfort. Therefore, making an effort to manage stress has a huge impact on gut health.

About the Author: Liz Lotts is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer. She has a passion for helping people achieve their health goals through personalized nutrition and effective fitness programs. In her free time, Liz enjoys running, lifting weights, watching live sports with her husband and traveling to new places.

Credentials/Degrees: RDN; NASM-CPT; Certified Orangetheory Fitness Coach; TRX Qualified Coach; Bachelor’s in Advertising, Marketing & Communications; Master of Science in Dietetics.


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