Gut health is gaining popularity in the mainstream nowadays. A large body of research has emerged on the significance of the gut microbiome as an integral part of overall health from your immune system to your weight to your mental health, and more.1 A growing concern is that more and more people are suffering with gut health issues. Just take a look at the high incidence of gastrointestinal (GI) diseases in the Western world.
So, how can you tell if you have good or poor gut health? This article will go over a few simple “gut checks” to assess the status of your digestive system and overall well-being.
The Gut Microbiome: What Is It?
The term microbiome refers to the trillions of microorganisms that reside in your gut: bacteria, fungi, yeasts, and other living entities. It is a complex world with hundreds of different kinds of bacteria, both good and bad. Those microorganisms form the gut-brain axis, which is the two-way communication network between your brain and your gut.
Many of these microorganisms are essential for human health, helping us to digest food, produce vitamins and hormones, and absorb nutrients. Others can be harmful, especially when they multiply. Thus, we need enough “good” bacteria to protect against “bad” bacteria.
Maintaining this balance is crucial to gut health, which can be impacted by a myriad of factors, with what you eat being the most important. A diverse microbiome requires a varied, nutrient-rich diet. Typically, this is not possible if you eat a lot of processed foods. Instead, eat high-fiber foods, as gut bacteria breaks down fiber to digest it, stimulating the production of more bacteria. Stress, alcohol, and many medications may also alter the composition of the microbiome in more negative ways.
Is Your Gut Healthy? 5 Ways to Tell
Scientists have only just begun to discover the complexity of the microbiome and its impact on overall health. While there are still many mysteries yet to be discovered, it is quite easy to do a general check of your gut health, or lack thereof. The following are signs of a healthy digestive system.
1. Normal Transit Time
Healthy digestion is central to a healthy microbiome, and one indication of that is transit time, which is how long it takes for food to pass through your digestive system. This matters because slower digestion can cause harmful bacteria to develop. Conversely, when food passes through your body too quickly, you may not absorb essential nutrients. Although everyone is slightly different, the optimal transit time is from 12 to 24 hours. This amounts to one or two bowel movements a day for most of us. If you’re not sure how long it takes for your body to digest food, try this test: Eat about a half cup of raw beets, then notice the color of your next stool. By observing the amount of time it takes for your stool to turn red, you can generate an idea of your gut health based on transit time.
Tips to help improve transit time:
- Foods high in fiber keep things moving through your intestinal tract; so focus on unprocessed fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Many people find that dairy and overly processed foods slow digestion. Instead of greasy, fried foods that take longer to digest, focus on eating lean meats and fish.
- Movement leads to increased blood flow and stimulates peristalsis, the wave-like contractions that move food through the intestines. One highly beneficial form of exercise for digestion is yoga. In a 2016 study, researchers assessed the bowel habits and quality of life of participants who suffer from chronic constipation before and after 1 week of yoga. They found significant reduction in physical and psychological discomfort after the program.2
- Some supplements that can speed up digestion include magnesium citrate and supplements with psyllium.3 However, it’s important to work with a health-care practitioner to determine the correct use and dose. It’s possible to become dependent on supplements and laxatives, which can ultimately harm your digestive system.
2. Good Bowel Movements
Although this is not a favorite subject, the condition of your bowel movements is a good indicator of your intestinal health. The Bristol Stool Scale4 is an easy visual for reference.
Key things to look for in healthy bowel movements include texture (should be smooth), shape (sausage-shaped is ideal), and buoyancy (sinks down).
Signs of unhealthy bowel movements include hard, lumpy poops, which usually indicate constipation. Overly liquid bowel movements are typically a sign of diarrhea, and bowel movements that float indicate undigested fat.
Straining or experiencing any pain during bowel movements should be investigated, in addition to any blood in your stool. You should be able to pass a bowel movement within a minute of sitting on the toilet without discomfort.
The takeaway here is to get in touch with your own body, and to be observant of any changes in your bowel movements.
3. No Excess Gassiness or Bloating
Some gas is to be expected after a meal because it is a part of the digestive process. Some foods, such as foods high in fiber, tend to trigger gas more than others.5 However, experiencing excessive amounts of gas is usually a cause for concern. While everyone has a different baseline, pay attention if you notice changes in your level of gassiness or if gas causes distress or pain.
Tips for easing gassiness
- Chew food slowly and thoroughly. The more you break down food in the mouth, the easier it is to digest it further.
- Keep track of foods you eat and which ones trigger gas. Common culprits include legumes, lactose, and artificial sweeteners.
- Try a short walk after a large meal. Light movement helps stimulate peristalsis.
- Limit the consumption of carbonated drinks.
- Try probiotic supplements and work with a health-care practitioner on this because sometimes excess probiotics can cause even more gas.
- Natural remedies, such as ginger and peppermint tea, can help reduce gas and bloating.
4. Good Sleep and High Energy Levels
Do you feel well-rested upon waking up? The answer is a good indicator of your gut health. Scientists have found the microbial ecosystem to affect sleep and sleep-related physiological functions in a number of different ways: shifting circadian rhythms, altering the body’s sleep–wake cycle, and affecting hormones that regulate sleep and wakefulness.6
Not getting enough sleep can negatively impact your gut and vice versa. Your sleep will suffer if you are experiencing poor digestion. To wake up energized, you should be getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.7
Tips for sleep hygiene
- Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine in the hours leading up to bed. Instead, focus on getting proper hydration throughout the day.
- Avoid fatty, over-processed foods before bedtime, as these will disrupt your sleep and digestion.
- Ensure your bedroom is dark and temperate. Exposure to any kind of light can throw off your circadian rhythm. An excessively warm room also makes it difficult to sleep, so invest in proper air-conditioning or a fan. A cool, dark room is the ideal.
- Magnesium can be beneficial for sleep. 8
- Put away your phone at least an hour before trying to sleep. Not only does the blue light emitted from cellphones inhibit melatonin production, texting and scrolling keeps your brain active while you should be trying to relax. Try reading a good book or doing a brief meditation session before bed to gear your mind towards sleep.9
5. Sharp Memory, Mood, and Focus
Growing research points to the impact of gut bacteria on our moods. Up to 95% of your body’s serotonin is produced in the gut, so it’s not surprising that altering the balance within the microbiome has notable effects on mood.10 For instance, studies have found that people with depression have abnormal microbes in the gut.11
The neurochemicals in your gut may also impact your ability to take in new information and retain it. If you notice a change in your cognitive abilities, it’s a good idea to evaluate the other signs of a healthy gut to see if there is a connection.12
Once again, this is a two-way street. As stress alters gut composition, the gut produces hormones that impact your mood and lead to more stress. It’s ultimately a sign of the importance of recognizing and addressing gut issues early and managing your mental health.
Tips for handling stress
- Prioritize rest and relaxation. Life can get busy and overwhelming, but do not let this detract from “you time.” Create time in your day to unwind, which could mean reading for pleasure, cooking a healthy meal, or practicing yoga. Additionally, 7 to 8 hours of sleep is key. You cannot manage stress if you are sleep deprived.
- Practice breathing techniques in stressful situations. Since the brain and gut are interconnected, we often experience nausea when we are stressed or anxious. Deep breathing and mindfulness will help you to reduce this discomfort.
- Reach out to your friends and family. You are certainly not alone in dealing with stress. Nurturing your relationships will help boost mood and self-esteem.
Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is crucial for overall health. After reading this article, how does your gut check out?
If you’re struggling in any of these areas, and this gut check raises concerns for you, don’t hesitate to reach out to us! Together, we can get you the proper assessments and recommendation for good gut health.
- Duvallet C, Gibbons SM, Gurry T. et al. Meta-analysis of gut microbiome studies identifies disease-specific and shared responses. Nat Commun. 2017;8:1784. doi.org/10.1038/s41467-017-01973-8.
- Rap J, Kashinath GM, Singh A. Effect of Integrated Approach of Yoga Therapy on Chronic Constipation. Working papers. June 7, 2016. Voice of Research. https://ideas.repec.org/p/vor/issues/2016-06-07.html 2016-06-07.
- Lambeau KV, McRorie JW Jr. Fiber supplements and clinically proven health benefits: how to recognize and recommend an effective fiber therapy. J Am Assoc Nurse Pract. 2017;29(4):216-223. doi:10.1002/2327-6924.12447. doi:10.1002/2327-6924.12447.
- What kind of poop do I have? DerSarkissian, ed. Digestive Disorders. https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/poop-chart-bristol-stool-scale.
- Hasler WL. Gas and bloating. Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 2006;2(9):654-662. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28316536/.
- Li Y, Hao Y, Fan F, Zhang B. The role of microbiome in insomnia, circadian disturbance and depression. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:669. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00669.
- Suni E. How much sleep do we really need? The Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need.
- Summer J. How magnesium can help you sleep. The Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/magnesium.
- The color of the light affects the circadian rhythms. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 1, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/emres/longhourstraining/color.html#:~:text=Blue%20light%20has%20the%20strongest,fall%20asleep%20and%20stay%20asleep.
- Terry N, Margolis KG. Serotonergic mechanisms regulating the GI tract: experimental evidence and therapeutic relevance. Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2017;239:319-342. doi:10.1007/164_2016_103.
- Limbana T, Khan F, Eskander N. Gut microbiome and depression: how microbes affect the way we think. Cureus. 2020;12(8):e9966. doi:10.7759/cureus.9966.
- Gareau MG. Cognitive function and the microbiome. Int Rev Neurobiol. 2016;131:227-246. doi:10.1016/bs.irn.2016.08.001.