Our gut plays a vital role in our overall health. While it’s easy to simply think of gut health in terms of how our stomach feels on a day-to-day basis—we specifically tend to notice digestive distress—it actually has an impact on other functions, too. While some of these are related to food, such as the regulation of energy from the food we eat, studies have found links between gut health and mental health as well. Our gut microbiome “modulates risk” of some diseases, as well, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, meaning your gut health can actually impact functions throughout your entire body.
If you are regularly experiencing gastrointestinal distress—symptoms such as heartburn, nausea and bloating, for example—there is a good chance your gut is trying to tell you to make some dietary changes. However, given what we know about the gut’s impact on other systems in the body, sudden changes in mental wellbeing or even skin conditions could be a sign that your gut health should be considered (in addition to treatment plans discussed with your doctor). If you’re wondering how to restore gut health with a few small changes that will have a big impact, we’ve turned to the pros.
10 tips to restore gut health
Here are the top things dietitians and nutritionists want you to know about the “food first” approach—no, you don’t need expensive supplements—to restore your gut health.
1. Understand your current gut health. If you’re wondering where to start, getting familiar with your gut health as is can be the most insightful place to start. In order to make valuable changes to your gut, you have to know your current condition. “No two people have the same gut or gut microbiota,” explains Megan Rossi, PhD, RD, known as The Gut Health Doctor, author of Love Your Gut, “and what’s right for you will depend on what your gut health is like currently.”
She’s right: Studies have found that gut microbiota can vary based on things such as geography and genetics. There are tests out there to help you get more data on your gut, giving insights into everything from food sensitivities to the types of bacteria currently found in your gut. All of this information can help you as you plan how to restore gut health and what foods will best help you find the ideal balance.
Related: How to Create a Gut-Healthy Diet
2. Look beyond your gut. As stated, our gut plays a huge role in our overall health. It is easy to think that if you don’t experience any gastrointestinal distress that your gut is in tip-top shape; however, based on recent studies, that often isn’t the case.
“Over 90% of our bodily functions are impacted through the gut microbiome and research is now showing that less than 10% of chronic disease is due to genetics,” explains Kimberly Griffith, MS-HNFM, a clinical research partner for Thryve. “The gut microbiome and associated gut health is strongly tied to mental health, skin imbalances, digestion, cardiovascular health, autoimmune risk and even fertility—far more than just gastrointestinal symptoms.”
If you’re not experiencing stomach discomfort but have symptoms and conditions presenting elsewhere that may be related, it could be a sign that your gut health needs improvement during treatment as well.
3. Avoid restrictive diets. You don’t need to start a restrictive diet in order to improve gut health. In fact, experts say you likely won’t find success by limiting yourself. Part of making your gut health a priority is integrating it into your lifestyle—one that is accessible—and you won’t do that with an all-or-nothing dieting mentality.
“All of the misinformation out there about ‘detox teas’ and cutting out foods for gut health can be very damaging,” notes Rossi. “You do not need to drink green juice, go vegan or do a ‘detox’ for good gut health.”
Rossi adds that you don’t want to have any nutritional deficiencies or starve your gut bacteria (they need to eat, too!), so having a diet full of variety is actually the best course of action.
Related: Could This Be The End of Diet Culture?
4. Remove inflammatory foods. Inflammation can wreak havoc on multiple parts of the body—think: arthritis—but it can also impact the gut. Inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome, for example, are two disorders directly impacted by inflammation in the gut. Griffith encourages people to limit inflammatory foods, such as processed foods, trans fats and high-glycemic foods. “These foods inhibit gut health by feeding the bad bacteria that contribute to elevated weight gain [and] increased inflammation resulting in a slew of imbalances and a general decline in health,” she adds.
This is where going gluten-free can be of benefit, as gluten can result in an inflammatory response. While that may sound restrictive, there are luckily a lot of options—both in stores, online and restaurants—for people eating a diet devoid of gluten.
5. Eat a wide variety of plant-based foods. Again, variety is key. Studies have found that a plant-based diet is beneficial in populating good bacteria in the gut.
“I recommend aiming for 30 different types of plant-based foods every week including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds,” specifies Rossi. “Getting more plant-based variety in your diet is associated with having a more diverse range of gut microbes, which in turn is linked to the health of pretty much every organ in the body, including your skin, heart and brain.”
6. Increase fiber intake. Fiber has been said to regulate the gut microbiota (there’s a reason it is recommended for people who may be experiencing constipation). If you do decide to go gluten-free, the good news is that you also have options for whole grains; quinoa, for example, is a grain that has a lot of fiber. Dietary fiber is an important energy source for many of the bacteria in the colon and intestine.
“That means changing some foods like white bread and white pasta to a whole grain option, which typically has more fiber; another way is increasing nuts and legume consumption,” shares Tony Castillo, MS, RDN, performance dietitian and founder of Nutrition for Performance. “Both are good sources of fiber which also feed the gut bacteria.”
7. Eat fermented foods. In order to add additional healthy bacteria to the gut, eating fermented foods has been found to cause significant benefit on gut microbiota. “Foods such as yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut contain bacteria that can help the gut proliferate with healthy bacteria,” notes Castillo.
Rossi adds that fermented foods can also lower blood pressure and support immunity. While the fermentation can change vitamin content in some foods, they can act as a probiotic of sorts, populating the gut with good bacteria.
Related: What Are Probiotic Foods?
8. Take a “food first” approach. You don’t need to add a dozen different supplements in order to restore your gut health. In fact, Rossi recommends getting your nutrients from whole foods versus supplements. Griffith agrees, noting that we can’t survive without food and for good reason.
“Food can be enough if we consume adequate nutrients and we have good gut health,” adds Griffith. “So where do supplements play a role? They are health ‘boosters’ and many times, dependent on your current health symptoms—micronutrient deficiencies, absorption issues, diet or imbalances—may be extremely essential and necessary.”
9. Don’t rely on a one-size-fits-all probiotic. If you do choose to use a supplement to boost your gut health, a probiotic is often recommended. However, since not all guts are created equal, looking to a friend or quick internet search won’t be the best option to find one that will work for you.
Related: The Health Benefits of Probiotics
“A lot of practitioners are overprescribing, and research shows that not everyone benefits from probiotics; some people’s guts may be resistant to probiotics,” reveals Castillo. “This should lead us to see that probiotics need to be personalized and not a one-size-fits-all.”
For example, studies have found that some antibiotics can affect the efficacy of probiotics (and vice versa), helping solidify that in some cases, probiotics don’t work for everyone. This is why following a food first approach with fermented foods can be beneficial, and if you do decide to take a probiotic, having one created specifically for your gut is recommended.
10. Try this trick to make the transition easier. The key to using healthy food to restore gut health is making it a true lifestyle change. All of these steps listed above play a role in that, but most importantly, keeping foods you love in your diet can make this a much more accessible change. Once you know what you need more of in your diet, you can make a list of foods you enjoy that fall within each category, and use those as a starting point.
“We all tend to incorporate and adhere to those things in life that we like, and food is no different,” advises Griffith “A simple starting point to improving gut health is to outline all your favorite high fiber and high-polyphenol foods (especially those that are dark in color such as blueberries). Try to incorporate these items daily.”
Again, you don’t need to go on a diet or detox in order to improve your gut health. Making a few mindful changes can help populate your gut with more beneficial bacteria (and feed those bacteria), leading to improved overall health and wellbeing.
Next up, here’s a list of some of the best foods for gut health.