When I was a freshman in college, I started having a lot (I mean, a lot) of abdominal cramps. Bloating, gassiness, just generally feeling like my stomach was rebelling against me. As you can imagine, it was NOT amazing — and I was getting desperate for a solution to my constant stomach woes.
That’s when I finally realized that what I put into my body directly affected how I felt. Quite the “duh” moment — but I hadn’t thought about it in such clear terms before. What I was eating was having a direct and untenable affect on my body. And it started with my gut. The health of your gut impacts the functionality of nearly every other system in your body — basically, a healthy gut is the basis of a healthy body, which is something I think we can all agree is important.
So where to even begin? There are so many products, elixirs, juices, and pills out there that claim to detox and cleanse your gut — how do we separate what works and what doesn’t?
Fear not. I’m here to separate fact from fiction — to teach you the five things you should be doing to take the absolute best care of your gut.
FIRST OFF: What are the signs of an unhealthy gut?
Wait, so how exactly are you supposed to know your gut health needs some work? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as taking your temperature to check for a fever or monitoring your blood pressure. It’s not defined by tangible data — but it is defined by the functionality of the rest of your body.
First, take a mental account of how your stomach feels. Are you constantly bloated, constipated, or running to the bathroom? As gross as these things are to take note of, it’s important to check in with your own body and how it feels compared to how it’s felt in the past.
Additionally, gut problems can be the cause of acne or eczema flare-ups, fatigue, extreme weight gain, and feelings of depression or grumpiness — all things I know we’d all love to avoid. If you’re feeling the effects of any of these things more than normal, your gut could be to blame.
1. Moderate your consumption of foods high in Omega-6.
This first point is difficult because it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. While it would be easier to say something like “avoid all gluten,” “avoid all dairy,” or “avoid all saturated fat,” there’s simply not a one-size-fits-all diet plan for gut health. While gluten does indeed affect many peoples’ gut health, it’s not an automatically problematic food source. In general, however, it has been reported that modern humans are consuming too much Omega-6 — a fatty acid that we do actually need in moderation, without adjusting the ratio at which we are also consuming Omega-3s. Omega-6 is found in polyunsaturated fats such as nuts and oils — but too much of a good thing could be a major culprit in our unhealthy gut crisis.
While you shouldn’t cut out all Omega-6-rich foods (as they have specific heart-healthy benefits), it’s important to monitor your intake — measure out portions of nuts, nut butters, vegetable oils, seeds, and even acai.
2. Eat more fermented foods.
According to an article by Prevention, “fermented foods can provide fiber for our resident gut bacteria as well as a fresh shipment of transient bacteria.” Simply put, fermented foods and drinks allow a healthy transfer of bacteria — keeping what we want but getting rid of what we don’t. When you think of fermentation, you probably think of beer (and you’re right!), but there are a lot of other foods and drinks that are fermented as well.
To up your intake, munch on kimchi, carrots, green beans, yogurt, kefir, chickpeas, and miso (and more!), and sip on some kombucha (in moderation — kombucha is a fermented probiotic tea, and should be discussed with a doctor before too much consumption).
3. Look for gut healthy alternatives.
Being mindful about gut health doesn’t mean that you need to cut out everything, immediately. What’s affecting your body is very personal. If something is upsetting your gut, check your label, do some research, and find out if there is a gut friendly alternative.
We all love a splash of milk in our lattes — but dairy can be a culprit of common gut woes, like bloating and gassiness. Lucky for us, all dairy is not created equal. As they have evolved, dairy cows began to produce a secondary strain of protein that biologists call the A1 protein. This genetic mutation is entirely natural for cows, but very unfortunate for milk lovers — A1 has been pinpointed as a possible cause for the discomfort, bloating, and higher inflammation levels in our bodies after ingesting dairy.
The good news is you can still enjoy dairy even if you’re being conscious of gut health. Consider upgrading to an easy to digest and A1 protein free milk option, which will be easier on your gut and your overall health. a2 Milk, a brand that only takes milk from cows who produce the primary A2 protein and not the inflammation causing A1 protein, is a fantastic option for those looking for another milk option for their morning coffee.
4. Add a probiotic to your routine
Until recently, I thought probiotics were just something some people took before an international vacation — they’ve been known to aid your body in adjusting to foreign water, and my sister always takes them to avoid an upset stomach when eating new foods. She’s not wrong — probiotics are often recommended for digestive problems. However, she doesn’t quite have the whole story. Probiotics are “good bacteria” (like those found naturally in fermented foods), and they function as a way to balance between the good and bad bacteria in your body.
While you can, as I mentioned above, gain probiotic benefits from food and drink, you can also consider adding a probiotic supplement to your routine. It’s been said that probiotic supplements don’t just keep your bacteria balanced — they can also help clear your skin, keep your reproductive organs healthy, and prevent illnesses like colds and flu. A great place to start is to talk to your doctor about which probiotic plan is best for you.
5. Avoid artificial sweeteners
As much as I absolutely love my Stevia and Peppermint Mocha-flavored creamer, these vices are not doing my gut any favors. While you may think these artificial alternatives are better than regular sugar, they’re actually hurting you. Although they boast few to no calories, the subsequent health effects can be worse than a higher calorie count. In 2014, a team of Isreali scientists performed a study that found that artificial sweeteners can increase the amount of bacteria in our gut — and this time, it’s not the good kind.
There’s a lot of (helpful) jargon-filled information out there surrounding this study, but the bottom line is this: artificial sweeteners enhance the number of bacteria that turns food into fat — which can result in serious health problems like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and more.
Note: Wondering what you consume has artificial sweeteners? They can be found in anything from sugar substitutes and diet soda all the way to toothpaste — when looking at ingredient lists, try to avoid anything that contains aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin.
How do you take care of your gut? How have you changed your lifestyle to improve your gut health?
This post was in partnership with a2 milk, but all of the opinions within are those of The Everygirl editorial board.