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What Is a “Healthy Gut” and How Do You Get One?

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What Is a “Healthy Gut” and How Do You Get One?

If you want to know what a “healthy gut” really is, why it matters, and how to get yours there, then you want to read this article.

Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician and “Father of Modern Medicine,” once said that all disease starts in the gut.

Although not entirely true, it was a perceptive observation. When gut health is compromised, the risk of disease and disorder rises markedly.

What else happens when you have an “unhealthy gut,” though?

Is it harder to lose weight? Do you get bloated more often? Can it cause lethargy, weakness, and depression?

And for that matter, what is a healthy gut, anyway? And what do you really have to do to get one?

Do you need to avoid all the foods you like to eat? Buy supplements? Learn to love rotten bacteria teas?

Well, we’re going to get answers to all those questions and more in this article. By the end, you’re going to understand what your “gut” actually is, what determines whether it’s healthy or not, and how to keep it in fine fettle.

What Is Your “Gut”?

healthy gut bacteria

Many people think the gut is simply the stomach, but it’s much more than that.

It’s your entire digestive system, starting with your mouth and teeth, and moving on down, your esophagus, stomach, small intestines, and large intestines.

It’s basically a long assembly line, with each section performing a separate job, and here’s what it looks like:

healthy gut flora

As you can see, everything begins in your mouth, where food is mashed up and mixed with saliva.

Then, the esophagus shuttles the chewed food into your stomach, where acid and contractions turn it into slush.

That slush is then pushed into the small intestine, where nutrients are absorbed into your bloodstream.

The remaining food particles make their way into the large intestine, where they’re broken down by bacteria.

Finally, the unabsorbed remnants are, well, you know.

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What is a “Healthy” Gut?

As you can imagine, with a system as complicated as this, there are many ways for things to go wrong.

Bacteria like H. pylori can infect the stomach lining and cause ulcers. The appendix, a small pouch at the end of the colon, can become infected and release toxins into the blood. The esophagus can become damaged by different medications or allergic reactions. You can contract fungal species that impair the absorption of various nutrients.

The good news, though, is that your body does a fantastic job at preventing major malfunctions like these. And even if they do happen, they’re usually fairly easy to fix.

That’s not what we’re talking about with “gut health,” though.

Instead, we’re talking about the bacterial landscape in the large intestine, which is getting a lot more attention now than it used to.

Researchers have known for decades that bacteria are involved in digesting food, but it’s only in the last twenty years or so that they’ve learned just how much of an impact this has on the rest of the body.

You see, there are about as many bacterial cells in your body as human cells, and they’re collectively known as your “microbiome.”

Most people have about 160 different kinds of gut bacteria, and the exact makeup of your microbiome is affected by different factors such as your diet, geographic location, and genetics.

For a long time, scientists considered gut bacteria essentially as digestive aids, but we now know that the variety and quantity of bacteria affect our overall health and well-being in a number of ways.

For example, they break down toxic compounds that would otherwise be absorbed into your bloodstream.

They can enhance your immune system and create health-promoting compounds like short-chain fatty acids, which are molecules that have been linked to various health promoting effects, including a reduced risk of inflammatory diseases, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

They can also affect your gut-barrier function, which regulates which molecules should be allowed to escape the colon and enter the bloodstream and which shouldn’t.

Under normal circumstances, your body absorbs everything from food that it needs and leaves everything else in the GI tract, to be pooped out. Inevitably, though, undesirables manage to sneak through your colon’s defenses.

If these defenses become compromised, too many toxins and disease-causing bacteria are able to get into your blood, where they can cause all kinds of health problems.

Having a healthy collection of gut bacteria also prevents unhealthy, disease-causing bacteria from taking their place.

You see, there’s always a rogue’s gallery of “bad” bacteria vying for dominance in your gut, and you always want the “good guys” to outnumber and suppress them.

When a large number of beneficial bacteria die, though, due to things like disease, poor diet, or antibiotics, it opens the door for the bad bacteria to take over and wreak havoc on your health.

This imbalance between the number of good and bad bacteria in your GI tract is known as dysbiosis, and it can cause myriad problems ranging from the annoying to the debilitating. For example…

  • There’s evidence that poor gut health can increase the risk of obesity.

When you transfer the gut bacteria of obese mice to mice with no gut bacteria, they gain weight and develop insulin resistance.

  • Low levels of healthy gut bacteria are associated with many gastrointestinal diseases, such as inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS) and disease (IBD).

Irritable bowel syndrome is a gastrointestinal disorder whose symptoms include chronic abdominal pain or discomfort and diarrhea, constipation, or alternating bouts of the two.

People with IBS are also more likely to have other disorders such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder.

IBD is a more serious condition that produces similar symptoms but, unlike IBS, can cause permanent damage to the intestines, intestinal bleeding, and other harmful complications.

Your gut has a complex network of nerves that control intestinal function.

This communication system is known as the “gut-brain axis,” and it plays a role in the production of powerful neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which can profoundly affect how you feel and perceive your environment.

In this way, your gut health can have a major impact on your behavior and psychological and emotional states, which helps explain why gut dysbiosis has been linked to stress, anxiety, depression, and even autism.

As you can see, many aspects of your general health mirror your gut health.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What, then, does a healthy gut look like?

Well, scientists don’t exactly know, yet.

There are tests to see if you have a severe imbalance between good and bad bacteria, but we can’t say for certain what the ultimate goal is.

That said, researchers have identified several ways to support your microbiome’s good gut bacteria and thus keep your gut as healthy as possible.

And if your first thought here is “supplements,” well, let’s take a look at that…

Can Supplements Give You a Healthy Gut?

healthy gut supplements

If there’s even a shred of evidence that something sorta kinda maybe can improve your health or body composition, you can rest assured someone will be peddling supplements for it.

Most are worthless, but oh how they sell.

Well, the two most common kinds of supplements advertised for gut health are prebiotics and probiotics, which sound the same, but are very different.

Prebiotics are a kind of digestion-resistant fiber that serves as fuel for the healthy bacteria in your gut.

Probiotics, on the other hand, are contain live bacteria meant to reinforce the ranks of good bacteria already in your intestines, and add new beneficial types that aren’t already present.

In short:

  • Prebiotics: Food for good bacteria.
  • Probiotics: Good bacteria in supplement form.

Now, prebiotics are vitally important for maintaining a healthy population of gut bacteria. If your prebiotic intake is low, your gut is going to suffer.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to supplement with prebiotics, though. Instead, you can get everything you need by regularly eating a variety of fruits and vegetables.

For example, most studies that have found positive effects from prebiotic supplementation used doses of about 4 to 20 grams per day, and one medium sized banana has about 6 grams of prebiotics.

So, if you eat 2 to 3 servings of both fruits and vegetables per day (like you should be), along with some whole grains, your diet alone will suffice for prebiotic intake.

There’s no need for supplementation.

In the case of probiotics, supplementation may make more sense.

Studies have shown that probiotic supplements can benefit your health in a number of ways, including lowering inflammation levels and the risk of dental cavities and respiratory tract infections, alleviating allergies, and improving cholesterol levels.

There’s also evidence probiotics can increase the absorption of vitamins and minerals from food.

There are problems with probiotic supplementation, though:

1. Many probiotic supplements contain dead bacteria or are poorly formulated.

They’re either underdosed or processed in such a way that all the bacteria are killed, which is particularly common in supplements that combine probiotics with other ingredients.

2. We don’t know enough yet about which bacteria are helpful and which aren’t.

Probiotics aren’t all the same.

For example, if a specific kind of Lactobacillus helps prevent an illness, that doesn’t necessarily mean that another kind of Lactobacillus would have the same effect or that any of the Bifidobacterium probiotics would do the same thing.

3. We don’t know enough about who can really benefit from taking probiotic supplements.

Most of the studies on probiotics have been conducted with people with some kind of illness or health condition, so it’s not clear if their benefits would also apply to healthy people.

And even for the conditions that have been studied the most, researchers are still working to find how probiotics can fit into a treatment regimen.

The 4 Best Ways to Have a Healthy Gut

healthy gut healthy life

If pills and powders can’t give you a great gut, what can?

Well, despite what the magazines and “gurus” might say, it’s actually quite simple and straightforward.

All you have to do is…

1. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and other kinds of fiber.

The American Dietetic Association recommends at least 25 grams of fiber per day for women and 38 grams per day for men.

Most Americans eat about 15 grams per day, which is a problem for many reasons, and one of them is gut health.

Many people have turned to fiber supplements to help, and while they can make sense if you’re having trouble eating whole foods, they don’t provide the whole array of micronutrients found in food.

That’s why the majority of your fiber should come from fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and other fiber-rich foods.

As mentioned earlier, if you simply include 2 to 3 servings of both fruits and veggies in daily meal plans, you’ll have all your bases covered.

Here are a few easy ways to do this:

  • Mix fruits and vegetables into your main dishes. For instance, make a vegetable-based casserole.
  • Prepare meals ahead of time and choose recipes with fruits and vegetables. (This is one of the reasons meal prepping can be so helpful).
  • Keep fresh fruits and vegetables easily accessible throughout the house, so they’re always at hand.
  • Pack fruits and vegetables as snacks for work.

2. Eat a variety of different foods.

Research shows that hunter-gatherer societies generally have more diverse gut bacteria than people in Western cultures, and scientists believe this is probably due to the wider variety of foods eaten.

This makes sense when you consider that every food, even non-fibrous ones, contains different kinds of bacteria.

Thus, the more types of foods that you eat, the more types of bacterial species your gut is exposed to, allowing it to recruit a more diverse cast of helpers.

3. Eat bacteria-rich foods.

Foods such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha contain large amounts of beneficial bacteria.

You don’t need to eat one or more of these at every meal, or even every day, but eating fermented foods a few times per week can improve your gut health.

4. Stay active.

Studies show that people who exercise more often generally have a more robust microbiome than sedentary people.

There are a variety of reasons for this, but it’s probably mainly due to exercise’s anti-inflammatory effects in the gut, which promotes the growth of good bacteria.

The Bottom Line on Gut Health

It’s easy to get confused when you start looking into gut health.

It’s a complex topic, and a quick Google search serves up all kinds of diet and supplement recommendations, which makes it even more daunting.

Fortunately, as with diet and training, sensible application of the fundamentals is all you really need.

If you follow the simple “healthy eating” guidelines outlined in this article and stay active, you’ll keep your digestive system humming along.

If you already have some kind of gut bacteria imbalance, though, or you’re experiencing symptoms like diarrhea, cramps, or gas, then you may need to take more specific steps to reverse the damage.

That may involve probiotic supplementation, elimination dieting, or something else, so I’d recommend that you speak with your doctor first.

What’s your take on getting a healthy gut? Have anything else to add? Let me know in the comments below!

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

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  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article. I hope you enjoyed it!

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  • Andres

    My heart almost skipped a beat and thought you were about to say you were going to start selling pre/probiotics. What are you thoughts on the studies of the differences of vegan, vegeterians, omnivours gut bacteria and the health issues that correlate to them. Research Review that is very detailed when you have the time.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4245565/

    • Hahah fear not Andres. 🙂

      I haven’t read this paper (thanks for sharing, queuing up) but of course it makes sense that people that eat a lot of fruit and veg have an all-around healthier microbiome than the average Western dieter, who eats awfully…

  • Bink Natawijaya

    Love kimchi very much.
    Agree, it can helps you to have better gut health.

    Question : is cheese consider as ‘healty food’ for gut?

    • Kimchi’s great!

      Depends on the cheese…some soft ones will still have bacteria that can make it through after your stomach.

  • Dan

    It also looks like viruses and fungi in the gut are also important to the microbiome. Especially as regards autoimmune diseases like Asthma.

  • Maggie

    It’s always interesting to read your posts 🙂 I’ve been thinking about purchasing your book to get a more muscular body. It’s been really hard for me to start exercising again and it could give me the motivation besides being healthy of course. I’m 21 and I started running again a few months ago (hadn’t done any regular exercise in approximately 7 years), I usually run and walk 50 mins (~5 km), but after reading your post I’ve been thinking that maybe I should keep those shorter… I often feel tired and a bit nauseous after that…The main thing for me was to get healthier but I would probably get the same (or probably better) results (health-wise) with less time… Also, after all this blabbering, I would like to ask something; how many times a week would be the ‘ideal’ workout regimen? I’ve read so many different opinions, I personally usually do cardio (walking/running) twice (or sometimes just once) a week, and some kind of other workouts (like pilates or weight training) 2 to 3 times a week. My workouts are definitely not very well-thought haha… Anyway, have a good day! X

  • Anthony Scotto

    Hey Mike,

    I’ve been reading a lot of articles on your website the past week or two. I really like your approach. I’m a former morbidly obese guy,I was once 350+ pounds, didnt even register on the scale!

    24yrs old now, lost the majority on the weight in 2012, and then more the next year or 2 after that. Got pretty stable at around 180lbs. Went through a phase last year where i was not eating enough and was fairly malnourished. Lost a ton of weight and not the good kind. I got down to 160lbs. I of course, eventually binged out when my body couldnt take it anymore. I started eating what was “normal” for me at around april this year, put on 15-20 lbs, probably of fat. My metabolism was crashing, i was so obsessed with losing weight, and had been chronically dieting for years and years at that point, without me even knowing it. My maintenance was about 1500 calories.

    The last 2 months ive got into strength training, and actually trying to GAIN weight which is such a psychologically mind blowing thing to me! My mindset has already shifted though, and im loving it. Im at about 2000 calories now, and am about to bump it up another calories. My goal is to get to 2500 calories and elevate my metabolism a bit before doing a slight cut. I come in at around 18-19% BF towards the end of the day on one of those bio measurers. Im prepping myself to be in the best shape possible, before electing for major skin surgeries in a year or two

    Anyways. back to the point. In around 2013 i suffered a huge blow to my gut health, and havent experienced the same health since. Tired more often… react to a lot foods with more fatigue. Bloating, etc

    A functional medicine doctor diagnosed me with SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) and after antibiotics failed, insists i do a SCD/GAPS style diet for at least a year to heal my gut. Im panicking because ive never heard of anyone building muscle doing that type of diet

    Any advice?

    • Hey Anthony! Glad you’ve been enjoying the articles. 🙂

      Wow. Awesome job on all the weight you lost. That’s impressive.

      Yup, that’s what happens after being in a deficit for a long period of time. That’s why I recommend reverse dieting first:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/reverse-diet/

      Sorry to hear about the diagnosis. Fortunately, even with those food limitations, you should be able to hit your target cals and macros which you can calculate here:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/macronutrient-calculator/

      As long as you’re able to hit your targets on those and you’re training properly, you’ll get the results.

      Hope this helps! Talk soon!

      • Anthony Scotto

        Hey Mike,

        Good to hear back from you! I never find those calculators accurate for me, because of my history. For instance, that one has me at around 2,800cals

        I just bumped up to 200cals, so 2200 as of today at 185lbs

        Also, the problem with the GAPS diet is its very limited in carbs, no grains, legumes, or starches of any kind for the first few weeks/months. You go through six stages, slowly moving through each one, so im not sure how long thatd last.

        Basically the only carbs are well cooked non starchy vegetables with the occasional cheat of starch vegetables…

        Im very concerned its gonna interfere with my goals. I’d never be able to hit the carbs i hit now (which is only 160-260, depending on the day)

        Its a high fat, moderate protein, very low carb diet

        • I hear you on the calculators. Most overestimate the cals burned from activity. Even the more accurate ones are just good estimates. You’ll need to adjust things based off results.

          Regarding the carbs, what about fruit? With fruit, you should have no problem getting enough carbs.

          Also, if you really can’t get the carbs, it’s not a big deal. You can make it up with more fat. What’s most important is that you reach your protein intake goal and you stay within your cals. After that, you have room to play around with your fat and carb intake.

  • Hey Mike, I’m assessing my gut health, and I think I’m doing pretty good. But some questions:

    1. So prebiotics are not necessary for someone who’s heavy into veggies? I’m in a cut right now, though, so I eat fewer grains than on a bulk. And as I understand, the research on probiotics is still too new to be of much help. Should I supplement?

    2. My fiber intake is pretty high. Ex., over the last few days, I’ve had 63g, 68g, 63g, and 59g (according to my calorie site), mostly from veggies, bananas, PB, and (sadly?) Quest bars (for a source of postworkout whey). I eat potatoes and Stevia-sweetened oatmeal on refeed days or when I’m bulking, but not so much right now. Is this a good level and variety of fiber?

    3. I don’t like yogurt (or dairy much at all aside from cheese), so I don’t eat a lot of bacteria-rich foods. Gotta say sauerkraut and kimchi aren’t high on my list either. 😛 I’ll try kombucha, but do you have any other suggestions? Is cheese a good source? I’ve only ever found the regular cheese brands–Black Diamond up here in Canada, no-name, etc.–and don’t know what a healthy label for cheese is.

    4. I exercise 5 hours a week and do cardio for half an hour. So I think my exercise is on level. As far as symptoms of an unhealthy gut, not that it sounds pretty, but the only one I have is gas (and my wife thinks it could be my love of steamed brussels sprouts :P). Is this a bad sign or does it sound like I’m doing ok?

    Anyway, thanks for the article! As always, good stuff!

  • Zach

    Hey Mike,

    As someone who suffers from a mild (but annoying) case of Seborrheic Dermatitis I was wondering if you had any insight on what caused this (or other related skin issues such as Eczema) and if this would be a problem and sign from my body that I have an unhealthy gut. It’s only been more persistent as I’ve gotten older and i just need some insight since searching the internet has proven to be overwhelming as there’s no clear cut definitive answer as to how to handle these type of skin conditions.

    Thanks for everything and for sharing your insight and knowledge with everyone on this site! It’s taught me a lot!

    -Zach

    • Hey Zach! I haven’t done much research on this area, unfortunately. That’s something that you should check with your doc on.

      Sorry I couldn’t be of more help!

      My pleasure for everything and thanks for your support!

    • omer khan

      please check dr. axe leaky guts solution. he mentioned skin problems and even name of psoriasis after which i started following his advices and getting better day by day

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