Family Health|Food and Nutrition|Healthy Food Choices|Prevention and Wellness
digestion|gut health|microbiome|probiotics

Optimizing Your Gut Health: Tips, Myths, and the Gut-Brain Connection

Last Updated December 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP

You’ve likely had that “gut” feeling about an important decision in your life. But your gut can also alert you to something physical. Your gut is a short name for your digestive, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is a long, muscular tube that runs from your mouth to your anus. The 30-foot-long tract works with other parts of your digestive system to break down food and drink into small molecules of nutrients. Your blood absorbs these molecules and carries them throughout your body to fuel energy, growth, and healing.

Good gut health equates to a good microbiome balance. Microbiome is a term for the collection of microbes, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their genes. These things naturally live on our bodies and inside us. And although they aren’t big enough to see with the naked eye, they are the biggest contributors to our physical health and mental well-being.

Path to Improved Wellness

When you think about it, what goes in (what you eat) must come out (using the bathroom). So good gut health affects everything from start to finish and everything in between.

We’re all guilty of mindless eating and eating the wrong foods. But a gut health diet plan, fueled by the right nutrition and lifestyle choices, will pay off in feeling better. Consider these tips for a healthy gut:

  • Look for gut-friendly foods: Foods with fiber are good for your digestive system. These include foods like whole wheat grains; apples and berries; broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and cauliflower; and beans, nuts, and seeds. These foods help in the management of insulin (sugar control), regular bowel movements, and reduced bloat. Aim for at least 20–30 grams of fiber a day. Spread out your fiber in small amounts throughout the day. Start with small servings and gradually increase them to avoid gas, bloating, and discomfort. As an added benefit, the more fiber and whole foods you eat, the less room you’ll have for junk food. By contrast, foods high in purines, for example, can cause the arthritic condition, Gout. Purine-rich foods include salmon, sardines, herring, organ meats, red meats, asparagus, and mushrooms. Other things that can increase your risk of gout include stress, being overweight, too much salt, sugar, and fat, and an excess of alcohol. Check the list of superfoods to plan a healthy diet, including the benefit of fermented foods.
  • Learn digestive health tips: Some fiber-rich foods, called high FODMAP foods, can be hard to digest. This includes certain fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and wheat and rye products. For example, if you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), your doctor may recommend a diet low in FODMAPS.
  • Include probiotics: These are live microbes that are like those found in the human gut and known as “friendly bacteria” that can improve your gut health. Probiotics are available in dietary supplements and in certain foods, such as yogurt. Probiotics are known to be helpful in preventing diarrhea that occurs when taking antibiotics and improving symptoms of IBS. Researchers still don’t know which probiotics are helpful and which aren’t. They also don’t know how much of the probiotics people would have to take or who would most likely benefit from them.
  • Strive for gut health immunity-building: Your body’s ability to fight infection (including those from a foodborne illness) and stay healthy depends on having a strong immunity. Good gut health contributes to an improved immune system. Strong immunity is especially important for people who have diabetes, liver or kidney disease, HIV or AIDS, autoimmune diseases, organ transplants, and a need for the chemotherapy or radiation therapy. If you have any of these chronic conditions, you must be especially careful when choosing, handling, preparing, and consuming food. One common bacterial infection of the stomach is Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori or Peptic Ulcer Disease). If you’ve been diagnosed with H. pylori, avoid foods that cause discomfort, such as alcohol, coffee, caffeinated soda, fatty foods, chocolate, and spicy foods. Avoid eating late at night.
  • Understand the gut-brain connection and the case for mental well-being: Immunity is also an example of the importance of the gut-brain connection. Your gut and brain talk with one another, including about things like hunger and fullness, cravings and preferences, food sensitivities and intolerance, muscle movement, digestion, metabolism, mood, behavior, stress levels, pain sensitivity, and cognitive function. Keeping these functions at their best requires healthy nutrition.

Things to Consider about Gut Health

With the popularity of TikTok, there are plenty of gut health myths and misconceptions being posted by influencers. These include inaccurate claims that drinking olive oil can reduce bloating, fixing serious gut problems with ginger (ginger can ease nausea, but not treat serious intestinal problems), and drinking apple cider vinegar for a healthy gut. As always, talk to your doctor about treatments appropriate for your condition and claims you see online.

Diagnosing Digestive Disorders

Depending on your symptoms and condition, your doctor may recommend certain tests. These can include stool samples, a fecal occult blood test, medical imaging (CT scans, MRI, ultrasound, etc.), endoscopic procedures (putting a lighted tube down your throat to look inside your stomach), and colonoscopy. Your doctor also may perform a breath test, which can be used to diagnose H. pylori and small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

Gut Health Supplements

Certain gut health additives, known as emulsifiers, are common in processed foods to improve texture and extend shelf life. But studies show they can and can negatively impact your gut health. Talk with your doctor about popular gut health supplements, such as DGL (licorice), peppermint oil, chamomile, glutamine, and psyllium (fiber for constipation).

Over-the-Counter Treatment

Bismuth subsalicylate (brand name Pepto Bismol) is an over-the-counter medicine that can ease diarrhea, heartburn, and upset stomach in adults and children 12 years of age and older. However, ask your doctor before taking bismuth subsalicylate if you take pain relievers or cold medicines. These medicines may contain aspirin, which is a salicylate. You may get too much salicylate if you take more than one of these medicines at a time.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • What special diet do I need for my chronic health condition?
  • What foods are best for a healthy gut?
  • What tests do I need to diagnose my stomach issues?
  • Can I take an over-the-counter medicine for my stomach symptoms?
  • What gut-health guidelines exist for seniors or people who are pregnant?

Resources People at Risk: Those with Weakened Immune Systems
National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus: Bismuth Subsalicylate
National Institutes of Health, News in Health: Keeping Your Gut in Check

@media print { @page { padding-left: 15px !important; padding-right: 15px !important; } #pf-body #pf-header-img { max-width: 250px!important; margin: 0px auto!important; text-align: center!important; align-items: center!important; align-self: center!important; display: flex!important; }