When we experience digestive discomfort, our first thought is to our last meal. Was something a little undercooked? Are we intolerant to something in the meal? The truth is, our digestive comfort isn’t entirely dictated by the food we eat, it’s down to the health of our gut microbiome.
Our gut microbiome consists of hundreds of different types of bacteria that live in our gut and help us digest our food and take up nutrients. That is… they do their job if they’re happy and balanced. If our microbiome is knocked off balance, and the “bad” bacteria start taking over, we can experience problems, even if what we’re eating hasn’t noticeably changed.
So, what impacts your gut health?
5 Things That Impact Your Gut Health
1. Sleep Deprivation
One thing that can impact your gut health is sleep deprivation. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can lead to an overgrowth of bad bacteria and an undergrowth of good bacteria, negatively affecting your gut microbiome.
This is partly because sleep deprivation increases levels of stress, which results in the release of hormones that increase appetite (especially for unhealthy foods) which also negatively impact the gut environment
We now know that all the bacteria within our gut not only affect how we feel in day-to-day life but also contribute to our likelihood of developing more serious problems in the future.
We can all suffer from sleep deprivation, and if you’re not getting 6-8 hours of quality sleep a night (few people can function well on 6, most work well on 7, and many people need more than 8 to feel fully rested), you’re likely not operating at full capacity.
This sleep deprivation does not only affect how you feel the next day but also hurts the gut microbiome, making everything worse.
Stress is another thing that can impact your gut health, which you may well have noticed through a change to your digestive system during stressful situations.
Studies show that the overgrowth of certain bad bacteria is associated with low mood, low energy, and a slow metabolism. There is also high likelihood of developing diabetes, suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, premature aging, and more.
When you live a high-stress lifestyle, your cortisol levels will always be high, and this will negatively impact your gut microbiome. Cortisol is the hormone that is secreted by the adrenal gland when your body is in a high-stress state, known as a sympathetic state or “fight or flight”, as opposed to a parasympathetic state when you are “resting and digesting.” When your body is in this ‘fight or flight’ state it releases more cortisol to enable you to push through and get out of a bad situation.
Of course, in our modern lives, our “bad situations” are rarely the kind where you need to run from a threat, and so we “sit” in our stress for far longer than our bodies know how to handle. This ongoing high-level stress often leads to an overgrowth of bad bacteria.
3. High Sugar Diet
The third thing that impacts your gut health is having a high sugar diet. Consuming too much sugar causes an overgrowth of bad bacteria as it effectively acts as a fertilizer for harmful bacteria.
Reducing the amount of sugar in your diet is a really simple lifestyle change, and although it may not seem like it at first, you will thank yourself in the long run! Start by making your own food from scratch whenever you can, including things like dressings and condiments. The products you can buy in the stores are stuffed full of preservatives and sugar to make them more flavorful and make them last longer on shelves. However, if you use fresh, good quality ingredients you can create great flavors with a fraction of (or even no) sugar or preservatives. If you must satisfy your sweet tooth, look to natural sweeteners (like Stevia) for that sweet hit, or eat just a little dark chocolate after meals.
4. Processed Foods
Much like a high sugar diet, processed foods will also negatively impact your gut health. This is because they contain a lot of chemicals and unnatural ingredients, as well as processed sugars, and fats, which often disrupt the environment of the gut by actually causing inflammation.
Inflammation contributes to poor diversity within the gut microbiome and therefore poor gut health. Processed foods are also linked to obesity and poor general health, so you must steer clear of these types of foods wherever you can.
The final thing on this list that can negatively impact your gut health is sitting, or remaining inactive, for extended periods.
When you are inactive for long periods, your body doesn’t have the gastric motility that is necessary to move your stool through your bowels. When this occurs, that static state leads to the stool sitting within your bowel and can ultimately lead to constipation.
This constipation will negatively impact the gut bacteria and then contribute even further to constipation.
When you’re sitting, your body is not moving, and your gut is not working optimally. You need to make sure that you get up and move your body regularly so that your bowel movements are regular.
Those are the five things that are most likely to impact your gut health in day-to-day life and they are all super easy changes that you can make to your lifestyle to ensure that your gut health is as good as it can be. Make sure you eat well, get your sleep, stand up and move around often, and don’t live in bad situations for longer than you have to. There are times in life when you have to live with a stressful situation, such as when a family member is sick, but if you’re choosing to stay in a stressful situation, think about your health. Is there a way you could change your life so you can experience less stress and better health? You’ll thank yourself in the long run for these small changes!
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.