Imbalance Effects and Foods to Eat vs. Limit

Balancing your gut health through foods, supplements, and lifestyle habits is about so much more than improving digestion. Gut health is linked to physical and mental health, and an imbalanced gut microbiome can lead to chronic health conditions.

Improving gut health may also improve quality of life. A gut-healthy lifestyle considers the food and drinks you’re consuming, and how you’re managing daily stressors.

This article will explore the role of bacteria in gut health and explain how to improve gut health naturally.

Terms to Know

  • Gut microbiome: The helpful and harmful microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses living in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract 
  • Prebiotics: A nutrient that feeds and balances your gut microbiome
  • Probiotics: Probiotics are supplements containing live organisms to improve balance in gut health
  • Vagus nerve: largest nerve in the parasympathetic system linked to stress, rest, breathing, mood, and digestion
  • Noncommunicable diseases: Noncontagious chronic health conditions

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Improving Gut Health Through Diet

Recent studies demonstrate dietary changes can have significant effects on gut health in as little as 24 hours. The following are foods to eat and avoid to improve gut health.

Foods to Eat

Focusing on foods rich in fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics can help support a healthy gut microbiome.

Food to include:

  • Beans and legumes
  • Whole grains like oats and wheat
  • Vegetables and fruits, specifically garlic, onions, asparagus, seaweed, and bananas
  • Some fermented foods and drinks like yogurt, cheese, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi
  • Nuts 
  • Water 

Foods to Limit

Diets high in processed foods are linked to poor gut health and the development of noncommunicable diseases.

Foods to limit include:

  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Emulsifiers (includes margarine, ice cream, salad dressings)
  • Deli meats
  • Foods high in saturated fats 
  • Sugary breakfast cereals
  • Packaged foods
  • Desserts and pastries
  • Convenience or ready-made meals

Supplements 

Research on dietary supplements including prebiotics and probiotics for improved gut health continues to evolve. Probiotics are said to work by improving gut lining and barrier function.

How Effective Are Probiotics?

The most-studied probiotic species include Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces. However, there’s a lack of evidence sufficient to determine the ideal type and dose for specific GI diseases or improving gut imbalances.

Expert-recommended gut health supplements include:

  • Omega-3s for anti-inflammatory effects and improved gut health balance
  • Collagen for reducing bloating and mild symptoms of digestive upset
  • Vitamin D to help support a healthy gut lining and immune system functioning

Non-Diet Gut Health Improvements

Some gut health issues may need more than dietary modifications to see relief.

Stress Management

Managing stress is essential for improving gut health. Research has linked stress to leaky gut, which is gut lining permeability (capable of being penetrating). Stress also contributes to food cravings and digestive dysfunction.

Try the following ways of reducing stress in ten minutes or less:

  • Write down three things you are grateful for.
  • Get active with walking, lifting weights, or dancing.
  • Practice deep breathing or mindful meditation.
  • Find humor in everyday situations.
  • Listen to your favorite inspiring song or podcast.
  • Connect with others by starting a conversation with someone in your social circle.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

If managing stress feels insurmountable, it may be time to consider reaching out to a mental health professional for additional coping strategies and stress management skills. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of talk therapy, works by addressing and changing underlying thinking and behavioral patterns that may be contributing to or exacerbating stress.

Therapy Comes With Its Own Risks

Psychological treatment isn’t risk free. It’s said that your overall health and any special circumstances such as pregnancy may affect the safety of these non-diet approaches to treating gut health.

Acupuncture

The research on acupuncture for gut health is growing, but not yet conclusive on whether or not acupuncture is an effective treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Acupuncture may work on the vagus nerve to promote relaxation.

More clinical research is needed, but several clinical studies on humans have demonstrated improvements in IBS symptoms and gut microbiome health after acupuncture treatments.

Whole-Body Effects of Gut Health

Improving the health of the gut can help the whole body in various ways.

Mental Health

Working on improving gut health may have a positive impact on mental health. Experts say mental health challenges including excess stress, anxiety, and depression can be the cause or product of gut health and digestion distress because the gut and brain are constantly communicating.

Noncommunicable Diseases

Gut health research has also consistently found links between gut microbiome health, chronic inflammation, immune system health, and the following noncommunicable diseases:

What Causes Gut Health Changes?

The gut-brain connection explains why stress, anxiety, or depression, for example, cause and contribute to gut health changes. One review from 2023 published in the journal of Gut Microbes says other influencing factors include environmental pollution, overall diet, and lifestyle.

Medications, especially antibiotics for bacterial infections, and age also play a role in gut health.

Imbalanced Gut Health Symptoms

Gut health imbalances affect every bodily system, so there are many signs and symptoms to watch for.

Common symptoms associated with imbalanced gut health include:

Methods of improving gut health naturally may not be suitable for everyone due to known or unknown underlying health conditions, food allergies, or specific dietary needs. If you’re wondering how to heal the gut, and you’re not seeing improvement with supplements and following which foods to eat and avoid, consult with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian for more a more individualized approach.

Signs of Balanced Gut Health

Balanced gut health looks like the absence of symptoms associated with imbalanced gut health. Research suggests a healthy or balanced gut microbiome includes a diverse and stable collection of microbes and doesn’t include pathogenic or overtly harmful organisms.

Summary

Gut health is directly related to your physical and mental health. The foods you eat and other factors like stress, pollution, and lifestyle all impact gut health. Improving gut health comes down to eating a diverse diet of whole foods rich in prebiotics, probiotics, and fiber to support a healthy gut microbiome, considering the role of supplements in your diet, and managing stress. If stress or mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, are making it more challenging to eat for gut health, it may be time to consult with a healthcare and/or mental health professional.

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By Michelle Pugle

Michelle Pugle, MA, MHFA is a freelance health writer as seen in Healthline, Health, Everyday Health, Psych Central, and Verywell.