When it comes to your health, trusting your gut is more than just a catchphrase. The development of good and bad gut bacteria starts at birth, and, over time, diversifies based on diet, lifestyle, and environmental factors. So, even regular daily habits could be hurting your gut health.
“Gut health is critical,” notes Erin Akey, a certified nutritionist and health coach. “Your gut is the center of your immune system—70 to 80 percent of the serotonin used by the brain is actually produced there. The health of your gut plays a huge role in your overall well-being. [This] can range from struggles with weight to skin issues to mood and anxiety issues, as well as tummy troubles, and so much more.”
Good bacteria helps metabolize nutrients from food, protects against infection, and produces blood-clotting proteins, all of which keep your gut—and your body—safe. On the other hand, the prevalence of bad bacteria can cause weight gain and bloat. It can also increase your risk of insulin resistance, colorectal cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease. Learn more about nine common habits hurting your gut health today.
Not Eating Enough Fiber
“Inadequate fiber intake can lead to constipation and diverticulosis,” says Akey. “Fiber helps with digestion, feelings of satiety, and blood sugar stabilization. A fiber-rich diet may decrease the risk of colon and rectal cancers, and soft, fiber-containing stools are easier to pass.”
Akey recommends aiming for 25-35 grams of fiber per day. If you’re on the low side, be sure to increase those levels slowly and drink enough water to prevent digestive issues. High-fiber foods are primarily found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and can help improve your gut bacteria. Great options include oats, apples, bananas, beans, and artichokes—just to name a few.
“Water softens stool. It is an important component of gastrointestinal (GI) health,” explains Becky Kerkenbush, a registered dietician at Watertown Regional Medical Center with over 15 years of experience in clinical nutrition. “Aim for at least eight cups [of fluid] per day, with water being your best choice.”
If you suffer from chronic constipation, a regular side effect of poor gut health, then drinking more water can be a quick solution for more relief. Staying hydrated allows your intestines to function properly and keeps food waste moving through your body in order to exit. Without enough water, the stool becomes difficult to pass. This can cause you to feel “backed up.” It can even lead to more serious problems such as hemorrhoids or anal fissures. Those are about as pleasant as they sound. The solution? Fill up on H2O.
“Sugar and processed food consumption are two of the biggest things that harm the gut microbiome,” says Akey. “We eat so much processed fake food that does terrible things to the balance of bacteria in our guts. Our bodies were not designed to process all of these chemicals. Also, our livers and our guts were not designed to process the amount of sugar we are now consuming.”
Diets High in Fat
Dietary fats can damage your gut lining, which allows certain bacteria to leak into your bloodstream or create inflammation. “According to research, diets high in fat may increase your risk of colon cancer, and too much fat slows digestion,” says Kerkenbush. “This may lead to bloating, constipation, heartburn, and gas. Avoid fried foods like full-fat gravies, sauces and dressings, and processed meats. [This includes] brats, sausage, bacon, hot dogs, and salami.”
You don’t have to cut out fat entirely but err on the side of good fats, with choices like olive oil, fish, and avocados.
Rushed Dining Habits
“Eat in a quiet, relaxed environment (forget the car!) and make your meal the focus,” states Kerkenbush. “Take at least 20-30 minutes for meals. This is how long it takes our stomach to signal to our brain that we’re feeling full or satisfied. If we eat fast, we consume more food (more calories) before feeling full. [This] can lead to digestive issues.”
Lack of Exercise
Studies suggest that physical activity can alter your gut bacteria and support gut health. The more you move your body, the better. “A lack of exercise can definitely become a problem. When we are not moving, we are not giving our digestive tract a chance to move all of the waste through properly,” says Akey. “When we don’t have enough physical activity, we can start to see things like constipation, IBS, and much more. Moving your body three times a week, even with something like a walk, will help a lot.”
Too Much Alcohol
In a 2012 study, the gut bacteria of alcoholics versus individuals who did not drink (or drank very little) indicated that too much alcohol can cause dysbiosis. This is a bacteria imbalance inside the body.
“Too much alcohol can irritate the stomach lining and relax the lower esophageal sphincter,” says Kerkenbush. “The esophageal sphincter prevents stomach acid from flowing back into your esophagus, leading to heartburn. Alcohol is also dehydrating, which can lead to constipation. Drink in moderation: one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men.”
Increased stress has the capacity to change the balance of bacteria in your gut, and impact your immune system, based on research published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Similarly, a 2016 study found that a lack of sleep can also reduce the number of friendly gut bacteria within your body. Both of these provide yet another permission slip to practice self-care in the form of yoga, meditation, extra sleep, and rest days (or whatever works for you) to help lower stress levels.
Skipping Supplements, Like Multivitamins or Probiotics
“Because of the state of our soil, environment, and food supply, I think every human on the planet pretty much needs good gut health supplements,” says Akey. “I recommend at least a good methylated multivitamin because this will be the most bioavailable form, as well as [a] really good probiotic with enzymes and antifungals.
Probiotics, in particular, have been shown to boost the number of good bacteria in your gut. Some foods naturally offer probiotics, like yogurt or fermented items, such as sauerkraut or kimchi. If you do choose to take a supplement, chat with your health care provider first, as not all products require FDA approval.
“I always tell my clients to try and stick to foods that come from nature as much as possible and [to] avoid foods that were made in a lab,” advises Akey. “Nobody is going to eat perfectly. If you can follow the 80/20 rule, where 80 percent of your diet is from nature, your gut will thank you!”