Gut health can have long-term health consequences, doctors said. The gut is linked to the immune system and heart health, and emerging research is examining the link between gut flora and neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, said Dr. Reezwana Chowdhury, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Issues with your gut could point to a larger health problem, she added, and people experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms like abdominal pain or chronic diarrhea should consult a doctor.
What can you do to improve your gut health?
Eat more fiber
Two kinds of fiber can aid your gut: soluble fiber — the gummy fibers we get from foods like oatmeal and apple skins — and insoluble fiber, which serves as a laxative that helps push food through the digestive system. Nuts, whole grains, beans and legumes can be good sources of insoluble fiber, Ms. Czerwony said.
Be careful not to introduce a lot of fiber too quickly, though. You want to ease into any dietary changes, experts said, and steadily increase the amount of fiber-rich foods you add to your meals over a period of weeks.
Limit processed foods
Emulsifiers that help keep packaged foods shelf-stabilized can erode the mucus barrier in your gut, Dr. Sonnenburg said, and artificial sweeteners found in many processed foods can lead to unhealthy gut microbes. Bacteria in the gut may quickly convert simple sugars and starches into gas, he said, causing bloating. This means that fast foods and processed foods — which Dr. Sonnenburg defines as foods with ingredients “your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” like additive chemicals — can contribute to poor gut health. The gut microbiome is fairly resilient, though, he said; the occasional ice-cream binge or gas-station snack won’t wreak havoc on your gut health.
Opt for fermented foods
Dr. Sonnenburg published a study in August showing that fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha can increase the diversity of bacteria in the gut. His research found that people who ate six servings of fermented foods each day saw these benefits — the equivalent of consuming one cup of yogurt, one 16-ounce bottle of kombucha and one cup of kimchi in a day.
Past research has linked high levels of diversity in your gut microbiome to lower rates of obesity, diabetes and other health conditions.