What Is Gut Health? How Can You Improve It?

Keeping your gut healthy is a key way to protect your body against certain health conditions and help it make the most of the nutrients it receives.Gut health is crucial because there are trillions of biomes in the bowel that produce key hormones and vitamins for the body. Our immune systems are made up of many cells in the digestive tract, so gut health plays an important role in our ability to fight diseases.

Even people who eat nutrient-dense foods may risk losing the benefits of these foods if they have an unhealthy gut biome. This is because the body may not absorb these nutrients properly without a healthy intestinal lining.

Read on to learn more about the gut microbiome and how to keep it healthy.


The gut microbiome explained

a person is pouring honey over yogurt, a great food for gut health
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The term “microbiome” refers to all the organisms living in a certain place, such as your gut. There are 10 times more of these cells in your gut than human cells. They include different bacteria, viruses, and fungi in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract that are hugely important for maintaining overall bodily health and warding off disease.

The bacteria living in your gut provide you with a variety of benefits, including:

  • giving your body essential nutrients
  • synthesizing vitamin K
  • helping the body digest cellulose, fiber, and more
  • boosting new blood vessels
  • promoting nerve function

However, these gut bacteria may become harmful if they undergo certain unhealthy changes. For example, they may increase the risk of developing:

Some research suggests that your environment, including your diet and living situation, plays a far greater role in gut health than genetics.

The Western diet has significant effects on the health of the gut microbiome. People who have moved to the United States from other parts of the world sometimes find that they develop obesity and other health conditions after switching to the Western diet.

Learn more about the microbiome here.

Benefits of a healthy gut

Healthy gut bacteria may help the body perform a variety of tasks, including helping the immune system fight off disease and helping the gut function properly.

More specifically, healthy gut bacteria could:

  • regulate gut motility
  • produce vitamins
  • transform bile acid and steroids
  • metabolize foreign substances
  • absorb minerals
  • activate and destroy toxins

Inflammatory bowel disease

IBD includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. People with IBD may experience an overactive immune response from their body to their gut microbiome. Scientists are not yet sure whether the condition affects the gut microbiota or vice versa. Some believe that it may be a combination of both.

You can receive medication for IBD. However, making certain changes to your diet can also significantly reduce the symptoms of the condition, as this changes the gut microbiome and reduces the body’s response to it.

People with IBD can make dietary changes to improve their gut health that could have an impact on the severity and duration of their symptoms. They can discuss which changes will be most beneficial with a doctor.

Get some healthy eating tips for Crohn’s disease here.

Other conditions

Certain foods may contain compounds that help ward off several conditions. Without gut bacteria, your body cannot absorb these helpful compounds, which may have health consequences. For example:

Compounds Examples of food sources Conditions they may protect against alongside gut bacteria
lignans flaxseed, vegetables, fruits, and some beverages cardiovascular diseases, hyperlipidemia, breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, osteoporosis, and menopausal syndrome
isoflavones soy foods breast cancer, prostate cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and menopausal symptoms
polysaccharides starchy foods and sources of fiber infectious and noninfectious diseases of the colon
indolepropionic acid whole grains and sources of fiber type 2 diabetes
short-chain fatty acids whole grains and starchy foods blood sugar absorption, cholesterol problems, obesity, and colon cancer
gamma-aminobutyric acid fish, shellfish, cruciferous vegetables, and whole grains depression


Symptoms of an unhealthy gut

There is no way to know for sure if you have a healthy gut microbiome. That said, stool samples can give doctors a better insight.

Some people do not experience symptoms with an unhealthy gut. However, the following symptoms might mean that you have an unhealthy gut:

Foods to improve gut health

Certain foods can help you improve your gut health by promoting its microbiota. These include:

  • Fermented foods: Fermented foods count as probiotics, which means that they contain live bacteria or yeast. A 2021 study found that consuming a fermented food diet steadily increased microbiota diversity and decreased inflammatory markers. Some examples of probiotics include:
    • yogurt
    • sauerkraut
    • kimchi
    • kefir
    • kombucha
  • Fiber: Eating more fiber can make a positive difference to gut bacteria within 24 hours. The body cannot digest some fibers, but they will ferment in your gut, thanks to the bacteria living there. This fermentation promotes the growth of these bacteria. Fiber can also improve immune function, reduce inflammation and chronic disease, and help regulate mood. Some examples of foods rich in fiber include:
    • beans
    • lentils
    • whole grains
  • Plant-based foods: Try avoiding animal meats to improve your gut health. Animal foods can decrease how well the gut digests polysaccharides, which play a role in preventing certain types of cancer. The iron from red meat can also be harmful to the gut bacteria. Animal foods can also reduce the growth of good bacteria.
  • Prebiotics: These are not living strains of bacteria like probiotic foods, but they can promote gut health. Inulin is a type of prebiotic that only stimulates the growth of certain healthy gut bacteria. Some examples of prebiotics include:
    • Jerusalem artichokes
    • chicory root
    • leeks
    • asparagus
    • spinach
    • bananas
    • oats
    • soybeans
  • Low fat alternatives: To promote gut health, try avoiding fatty foods. These limit the growth of good bacteria. This may involve choosing fat-free yogurt instead of full fat yogurt and avoiding fried foods.
  • Tea: Some compounds in tea can help repress the growth of certain harmful gut bacteria.
  • Fish: One 2021 study found that the consumption of cod and salmon can help regulate the gut microbiota.

Lifestyle tips to promote gut health

As well as optimizing your diet to promote gut health, several lifestyle tips may help the microbiota flourish. These include:

People who smoke may wish to consider giving it up in order to boost their gut health. Smoking can make the gut barrier more permeable and mean that harmful gut bacteria grow more quickly.

Get eight tips for quitting smoking here.

How can a doctor help?

Contacting a doctor can be a very beneficial step in promoting gut health.

Medical professionals can suggest lifestyle changes based on your individual medical situation. They can work with you over time to understand which foods are helping with specific symptoms and which may be making them worse.

A healthcare professional can also carry out a variety of tests to identify any food tolerances you may have that are dysregulating your gut microbiota. They can also help rule out other conditions that may be causing symptoms similar to those of dysregulated gut bacteria.

Similarly, a medical professional can recommend and prescribe medications for these conditions.

When to contact a doctor

You should always contact a doctor if you feel concerned about certain symptoms.

Regularly experiencing the following symptoms may indicate an unhealthy gut and could warrant a visit to the doctor:


Your intestines contain a lot of healthy bacteria, fungi, and viruses that can help promote healthy bodily functions and protect you against disease.

The foods you eat can have a significant impact on these bacteria. Some foods promote their growth, such as fermented foods and sources of fiber, and some hinder their growth or promote the growth of unhealthy bacteria, such as red meat and fatty foods.

Making certain dietary and lifestyle changes can help you take full advantage of the benefits of these bacteria and promote your gut health.

Always contact a doctor if you develop concerning symptoms or want to make significant lifestyle changes.