10 Ways to Improve Gut Health

If you’re reading this, likely you’ve already realized that gut health is a really big deal.

Maybe you may suspect you have gut health issues or you may have been recently diagnosed with a digestive condition.

Whatever your situation, you will benefit from learning how to care for the  trillions of organisms that make up our gut microbiome.

Here are 10 habits to support a healthy gut:

#1 Dietary diversity

Nutrition is critical to establishing and maintaining a healthy microbiome. We now know that a shift in diet can change the gut bacteria in a matter of days.1

A diverse diet helps to establish desirable diversity in the microbiome,2 so don’t be afraid to try new things.

This becomes a challenge for people on uber restrictive diets, which is why I preach that there’s a time and a place for elimination diets, but they are only short-term solutions.

Next time you go to the grocery store or Farmer’s Market, buy that weird looking radish you’ve never seen before.

#2 Prebiotics

A healthy gut relies on a wide variety of foods; especially plant-based fibers.

The most essential for gut health are prebiotic fibers (like “fructans” and “galacto-oligosaccharides”) provide food for the beneficial bacteria in the gut and help increase their levels dramatically over time.

Prebiotics are found naturally in foods like:

  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Asparagus
  • Sunchokes
  • Artichokes
  • Leeks, etc.

You can also add a prebiotic supplement like this one.

Note: If you’ve been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), your doctor may have recommended a low-FODMAP diet. This diet limits many prebiotic fibers and can be helpful short term.3 However I usually try to work with patients to treat the underlying issue (often bacterial overgrowth) so that at least some of these foods can be reintroduced—because as you can see, they’re important for gut health!

#3 Resistant starch

Resistant starch is a specific type of prebiotic fiber that has been shown to stimulate good gut bacteria by way of short chain fatty acids called butyrate.4

Resistant starch is abundant in

  • Green bananas
  • Plantains
  • Cooked and cooled rice
  • Cooked and cooled sweet potato
  • Cooked and cooled grains
  • Legumes and beans

My favorite way to get resistant starch is by adding frozen green bananas to my smoothies—I buy them green, peel, slice in half, and freeze them before they ripen.

Read more about resistant starch and how to prepare it in my article for MindBodyGreen.

#4 Probiotics

Eating fermented probiotic foods with live active cultures can also help increase beneficial gut bacteria.

Probiotic-rich foods include:

  • Yogurt (natural, no added sugars etc)
  • Kefir
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tempeh
  • Miso

Note: look for raw unpasteurized lactofermented vegetables in the refrigerator section, or make them yourself. And not everybody tolerates fermented foods, as they are high in histamine.

I also take a daily probiotic supplement (you’ll find my favorites listed in this article).

#5 Exercise

The simple act of moving has been shown to alter the diversity and capacity of your gut microbiota (independent of diet!).5

There are many potential mechanisms at play, but one that I find particularly interesting is:

“Trained athletes have lower levels of circulating bacterial endotoxin lipopolysaccharide at rest than sedentary individuals and a greater heat shock protein response to heat stress. Increased heat shock proteins in the gut have been shown to prevent breakdown of tight junction proteins between epithelial cells. Thus, it is plausible that exercise represents a hormetic stressor to the gut that stimulates beneficial adaptations and improves the long-term resilience of the gut barrier.”6

Basically, exercise can help improve “leaky gut.”

Interestingly, over-training is known to cause gut dysfunction and is common among high level athletes.7

So, as per usual, moderation is key.

#6 Gardening

Direct contact with dirt, soil, compost, etc. is a wonderfully effective and cheap way to diversify your gut microbiome8 (plus it’s great for stress management).

#7 Pet ownership

Research has shown that exposure to pets may influence the gut microbiota in a positive way, and that early life exposure may lessen the impact of allergic disease in children.

#8 Intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting (IF) is hypothesized to influence metabolism via effects on the gut microbiome, in part.10

An easy way to start practicing IF is by restricting your eating window between 9 am and 7 pm (this would give you a 14 hour overnight fast).

#9 Drink tea!

Polyphenols have been shown to favorably influence the gut microbiota mostly through the inhibition of pathogenic bacteria and the stimulation of beneficial bacteria.11

One of my favorite ways to incorporate more polyphenols is with a daily cup (or two) of my favorite toxin-free tea. Polyphenols are also abundant in dark chocolate (yay!), red wine, blueberries, and other superfruits.

#10 Eat the rainbow

Eating a variety of colorful whole, organic fruits and vegetables helps boost antioxidants— these are your vitamins A, C, and E—which fight cell-damaging free radicals and may help restore gut-liver function.12

Preformed vitamin A is abundant in cod liver oil, organ meats, and pastured egg yolks; while it’s provitamin beta-carotene is abundant in orange fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin C is found in citrus, kiwi, mango, berries, and brassica vegetables.

Vitamin E is found in leafy greens, sunflower seeds, and nuts.

Concerned about your gut health?

When it comes to gut health, what you do is just as important as what you don’t do.

I cover some of the most important things to avoid for better gut health in my article How to Heal Your Gut 101.

Remember, if you have digestive symptoms and/or don’t tolerate high fiber foods and probiotics, that might be a sign of an underlying gut infection.

Find a functional medicine physician (like me) who can help you first identify the underlying problem, so that you can find real solutions.

Contact my office to learn more about functional medicine consultations, as well as holistic nutrition consultations.


About Dr. Maren

Christine Maren D.O., IFMCP is a board-certified physician and the founder of a virtual functional medicine practice in Colorado, Michigan, and Texas. She is also the co-founder of Hey Mami, a platform dedicated to helping women navigate a healthy and happy motherhood. She is best know for her work in thyroid, gut and reproductive/ preconception health. Dr. Maren is board-certified by the American Board of Family Medicine and is an Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner (IFMCP). Read more

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