What Your Gut Says About Your Health
Going with your gut feelings is a good practice.
See, when it comes to mood, it's not all in your head—it's in your gut, too. "The brain influences the digestive tract and vice versa," says Rebekah Gross, M.D., a clinical gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. In fact, new research has found that our esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon have a big say in how our minds and bodies function and how happy we feel. (Speaking of which, did you hear you can actually think yourself into feeling happier, healthier, and younger?)
"The gut is a critical group of organs that we need to start paying more attention to," says Steven Lamm, M.D., the author of No Guts, No Glory. "Doing so may be the secret to improving our overall wellness."
All of this is why you might be hearing a lot about probiotics benefits...
The Link Between Hormones and Your Stomach
If it seems as if your stomach sometimes has a mind of its own, that's because it does. The gut's lining houses an independent network of hundreds of millions of neurons—more than the spinal cord has—called the enteric nervous system. It's so complex and influential that scientists refer to it as "the second brain." In addition to being in charge of the digestive process, your gut lining is the core of your body's immune system (who knew?) and defends you against such foreign invaders as viruses and bacteria. "It's a very important barrier, as important as the skin," says Michael Gershon, M.D., the author of The Second Brain and the pioneering gastroenterologist who coined the term.
Cells in the gut lining also produce 95 percent of the serotonin in our bodies. (The rest occurs in the brain, where the hormone regulates happiness and mood.) In the gut, serotonin has a range of functions, including stimulating nerve-cell growth and alerting the immune system to germs. (Related: How to Balance Hormones Naturally for Lasting Energy)
Thanks to serotonin, the gut and the brain are in constant contact with each other. Chemical messages race back and forth between the brain's central nervous system and the gut's enteric nervous system. When we're stressed, scared, or nervous, our brain notifies our gut, and our stomach starts to churn in response. When our digestive system is upset, our gut alerts our brain that there's a problem even before we begin to feel the symptoms. Scientists suspect that our moods are negatively affected as a result. "The gut is sending messages that can make the brain anxious," Gershon says. "You're in good mental shape only if your gut lets you be."
How Gut Bacteria Affect Your Entire Body
Other key — and minuscule — players in all this brain-and-bowels communication are the microbes that line the walls of the gut, says gastroenterologist Gianrico Farrugia, M.D., the director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine. There are hundreds of types of bacteria in the gut; some of them do helpful things like break down carbohydrates in the intestine and produce infection-fighting antibodies and vitamins, while other, destructive bacteria secrete toxins and promote disease. (DYK there’s such a thing as the “mircobiome diet?”)
In a healthy gut, the good bacteria far outnumber the bad. But what's going on in your head can affect the balance. "Emotional issues can help influence what lives in your GI tract," says William Chey, M.D., a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. Being under a great deal of stress or feeling depressed or anxious could change the way your bowels contract and how your immune system functions, which in turn can change the type of bacteria in the small intestine and colon, he explains. Symptoms can include cramping, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. (The latter can be a legit issue on certain diets, such as keto.)
For instance, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder that causes abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation, often accompanied by gas and bloating and sometimes by anxiety and depression, can be related to an overabundance of bad bacteria in the small intestine. Women are particularly susceptible to this, especially if they experienced sexual abuse or psychological trauma as a child. It's not known if the stress causes the symptoms or vice versa. "But the two definitely feed off each other, and IBS flares in stressful circumstances," Gross says.
Score All of the Probiotic Benefits with This Rx
Our stressed-out lifestyle may be our stomach's biggest enemy. According to María Gloria Domínguez Bello, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, society's hectic pace, which leads to our reliance on junk food and overuse of antibiotics, is throwing our internal ecosystem out of whack; she believes that there's a link between our gut bacteria and the rise of food allergies (and probably intolerances, too) and autoimmune diseases—Crohn's and rheumatoid arthritis among many others—in the industrialized world. "When there is a loss of balance in the different types of intestinal bacteria, they send signals to our immune system to overreact and become inflamed, leading to disease," Domínguez Bello says.
Increasing the number of good bacteria in our GI tract, by taking supplements that deliver probiotic benefits and eating foods that contain probiotics, may help combat such health problems, a growing number of scientists say. Research indicates that specialized strains of these good bacteria could also alleviate mood and anxiety disorders.
6 Ways to Get Probiotics Benefits to Improve Your Overall Health
We may all soon be popping designer supplements with probiotic benefits tailored to our particular stomachs to fix any ailments. (Personalized protein powder is a thing now, after all!)
In the meantime, take these actions to keep your gut—and your entire body—happy and healthy:
1. Clean up your diet.
Consume more fiber from fruit and veggies and cut back on processed foods, animal protein, and simple sugars, all of which feed harmful bacteria and contribute to obesity and disease, says Carolyn Snyder, R.D., a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. Choose foods that have the fewest ingredients listed on their labels, and chow down on those that contain probiotics (including milk, sauerkraut, and yogurt) and prebiotics, which are certain nondigestible ingredients (found in high-fiber fruit like bananas; whole grains, such as barley and rye; and vegetables like onions and tomatoes) that act as “fertilizer” for the bacteria in our guts for more probiotic benefits.
2. Avoid unnecessary meds.
These include laxatives and NSAIDs (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen) as well as broad-spectrum antibiotics (like amoxicillin or tetracycline), which wipe out the good bacteria with the bad. Anyone on an antibiotic should take a probiotic for twice as long as the antibiotic prescription to prevent the nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramping that the medicine can cause, studies suggest.
3. Go easy on alcohol.
Research from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center found that as little as one drink a day can increase your risk of an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the small intestine and cause GI distress. If you have diarrhea, bloating, gas, or cramping and drink regularly, cut back on cocktails and see if your symptoms ease up, says study author Scott Gabbard, M.D. (See five more things that might change if/when you give up booze.)
4. Exercise stress management.
Get in a 30-minute daily sweat session, such as this half hour weightlifting workout that maximizes your rest time, especially when you're feeling frazzled. "To function optimally, the gut needs exercise," Gross says. "It likes to be jiggled to help move food through your system." When you don't have time to squeeze in a walk, jog, or yoga class, take at least a few minutes a day for some deep breathing or anything else that helps you relax.
5. Eat Happy (Gut) Meals
Eat your way to a healthier GI tract with this probiotic- and prebiotic-packed menu created by Carolyn Snyder, R.D., a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. (Related: New Ways to Add More Probiotic Benefits to Your Daily Menu)
- Breakfast: An omelet with onions, asparagus, and tomato, and a slice of rye or whole wheat toast
- Midmorning snack: Lowfat Greek yogurt and a banana (For the most probiotic benefits, look for brands with the strains Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus, such as Chobani, Fage, and Stonyfield Oikos.)
- Lunch: Mixed greens topped with 4 ounces grilled chicken, artichokes, onions, asparagus, and tomatoes and dressed with a mixture of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and garlic, and a whole-grain roll
- Afternoon snack: Hummus and baby carrots or bell pepper strips
- Dinner: 3 ounces grilled salmon with lemon-yogurt sauce, brown rice, and a green salad with onions and tomatoes (To make the lemon-yogurt sauce, stir together 3/4 cup plain whole-milk yogurt, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, 1 tablespoon chopped chives, 3/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.)
- Nighttime snack: A slice of whole-grain bread with peanut butter (or your preferred nut butter) and banana
6. Consider a probiotic supplement.
If your GI system is a well-oiled machine and you feel great, you probably don't need a probiotic, Gross says. But if you have symptoms of a condition, like IBS, or your doctor recommends it, seek out a supplement. "If there's an indication for which a probiotic could be useful, I typically suggest looking for formulations containing Bifidobacterium or strains of Lactobacillus," Gross says.
How to Pick a Supplement with the Most Probiotic Benefits
It's important to remember that these biggest probiotic benefits can only be found in bacteria with live organisms—they won't do you any good if they’re dead. When buying and using a gut-healthy supplement...
- Check the expiration date. You don't want a supplement that has exceeded the lifespan of the organisms it contains. (Related: Your Guide to the Best Pre- and Post-Workout Supplements)
- Get enough CFU. Probiotic potency is measured in colony forming units. Look for a dose of 10 to 20 million CFUs.
- Store them properly. To preserve their integrity, probiotics need to be kept in a cool, dry place away from air. Many probiotics are sold refrigerated and kept in your fridge at home (check the label for storage instructions).
- Be consistent. Your digestive tract is a volatile environment and daily probiotic use will ensure that you are doing your best to maintain its optimal state.