Improving your gut health improves all aspects of your health, including your mood

June 5, 2024
Improving gut health is important because growing research shows a direct correlation between gut health and a host of physical ailments, as well as being closely linked to emotional and psychological well-being. Photo: Getty Images.
Improving gut health is important because growing research shows a direct correlation between gut health and a host of physical ailments, as well as being closely linked to emotional and psychological well-being. Photo: Getty Images.

The familiar adage “listen to your gut” is more than just paying attention to your intuition, but a smart and sound way to keep your body and mind functioning in peak condition.

Growing research shows a direct correlation between gut health and a host of physical ailments, as well as being closely linked to emotional and psychological well-being.

“The gut is being referred to as the second brain,” said Cara Marrs, registered dietitian nutritionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “When our gastrointestinal system is working as it should, it helps create a better balance that affects our entire body.”

We spoke with Marrs about the importance of paying attention to what you eat and drink to create a more harmonious environment for beneficial bacteria and other types of microorganisms in your gut to thrive.

What is your ‘gut’ and what organs does it refer to?

 The organs of the gut comprise your mouth, the esophagus, the stomach, the small and large intestines and the anus. The liver, gall bladder and pancreas assist the gut in digestion of food.

What do we mean when we talk about ‘gut health?’

Gut health typically refers to the health of our gut microbiome as well as the health and function of the organs, tissues and membranes that make up our gastrointestinal system. Our gut microbiome consists of trillions of microbes that are both helpful and potentially harmful. This includes bacteria, fungi and viruses that naturally live inside our body.

What we want is a gut where the microbes are working in harmony.  Our gut bacteria communicate with other cells in our intestinal track to help digest food and prevent potentially harmful bacteria from over proliferating, she said.

“Your gut bacteria are influenced by what you eat. It is important to give them the right fuel so that the beneficial bacteria we want in our gut are able to colonize and multiply. The preferred food sources for these bacteria are fresh whole foods, mainly from plant sources like fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds and wholegrains.”

Why is gut health so important?

The gut and its organs break down all the food we consume and help absorb the vital nutrients our body needs to function. We have trillions of gut microbes in the stomach and intestines that oversee digestion, boost our immune system, aid in weight regulation and help to stabilize our blood sugar.

Why is gut health in the news lately?

We’ve just scratched the surface of how our gut microbiome works, and exciting research is showing how it affects nearly all parts of the body, far beyond just digestion.

How does a healthy gut translate into better health?

There is a delicate dance occurring between beneficial bacteria and potentially harmful pathogens in our gut, Marrs said. For instance, the gut is home to 70% of our immune tissue, which directly relates to how well our body fights infections and battles certain diseases. In this regard the gut is critical for our immunity.

“Beneficial bacteria basically compete for space with harmful microbes keeping them in check,” she said.

Research is emerging on links between gut health and cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and depression.

Gut health may also be connected with obesity, but not in a way one might think. It’s not just caloric intake affecting our weight but the type of food that we eat, and how our gut “ferments” or breaks down that food. This then impacts how our body regulates blood glucose. Research is starting to show that obesity may be connected to a lack of certain microbes in our gut.

“If we eat a diet exclusively focused on highly processed foods, we have less diversity of certain beneficial microbes in our gut.”

The past few decades have shown a huge increase in colon cancers and other serious GI-related diseases revolving around chronic-inflammation of the stomach. Many of these conditions may be explained by diets lacking in fiber and high in processed foods that can often lead to conditions such as chronic constipation.

A rise in colon cancers among younger adults has prompted the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to recommend adults be screened for colorectal cancer beginning at age 45 to 50, or 10 years before the age that an immediate family member was diagnosed with cancer.

What is the link between mental health and the gut?

With much of the immune system in the gut and the majority of your body’s serotonin produced in the gut, it’s long been known that diet and mental health are linked, she said.

This means if your gut isn’t healthy, then your immune system and even hormones may be compromised. Add to that low serotonin levels, and you may find yourself not feeling well or facing mental health challenges. Serotonin, a chemical produced mainly in the gut, plays a key role in our sleep, mood, anxiety, wound healing, digestion, libido and more.

When Marrs speaks with therapists, she said they discuss the direct link between depression and anxiety and what their patients are eating and not eating. New research also shows the correlation between how levels of certain bacteria are associated with the onset and progression of depression in certain patients.

What is the link between dementia and gut health?

Eating the right foods can help support and/or improve gut health. Photo: Getty Images.
Eating the right foods can help improve gut health. Photo: Getty Images.

Researchers are also studying the correlation between gut microbiome and brain function and brain diseases.

Marrs said certain bacteria found in the gut may protect against Alzheimer’s, while others have the opposite effect and have been identified as risk factors for the disease. While more research is needed, this is a very exciting area of study exploring the relationship between gut microbiome and brain aging.  

What are the signs that something in my gut isn’t working properly?

First and foremost, pay attention to changes in your bowel movements such a constipation or diarrhea. Other symptoms to look for include:

  • Blood in your stool.
  • Abdomen pain, cramping or bloating.
  • Drastic change in appetite.
  • Decrease in weight.
  • Increase in food sensitivity.

Is a healthy diet the main way to maintain a healthy gut?

We want a broad spectrum of bacteria in our gut, and that happens with a diet rich in diversity and fiber, she said. When we feed the beneficial bacteria in our gut the food that it prefers such as fiber-rich foods, it in turn creates short-chain fatty acids that can help us maintain the integrity of our gut lining.

“You don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian or follow one ‘type’ of diet, but pay attention to the foods you are eating and how nutrient dense they are,” she said.  “Food is so much more than how it affects our weight – it is what nourishes our bodies and affects every cell and organ.”

Try this Indian khichdi recipe to help reset your gut.

What foods are best for gut health?

 A well-rounded diet that embraces:

  • Colorful vegetables, fruits and legumes
  • Whole grains, nuts and seeds
  • Olives and olive oil
  • Fatty fish such as sardines, salmon and anchovies
  • Herbs such as oregano, turmeric, rosemary and basil
  • Fermented dairy with live cultures and other fermented foods such a kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha

While certain foods such as highly processed and high-sugar foods can be indulged occasionally, Marrs said, moderation is key.

“People who have a good relationship with food, who experience joy around food and maintain good health, a healthy weight and optimal gut health, achieve all of that through balance.”

Should I take vitamins, probiotics or other supplements to improve my gut health?

That depends, Marrs said, because taking them as a quick one-stop solution but not changing your diet won’t do much good.

“Probiotics tailored to someone’s needs can be important and can help replenish beneficial bacteria back into the gut, but again, if you aren’t going to change your diet it won’t really work in the long term.

“We need fiber rich foods such as nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits and whole grains and legumes, along with any vitamin or supplement regimen.”

Here are tips on how to add fiber to your diet.

What foods are worst for gut health?

 “People get sick of being told not to eat certain things, and that’s not what I want to stress. Look at it from the viewpoint of what all of these ultra-processed foods don’t contain: Natural antioxidants, fiber, whole food sources of protein and anti-inflammatory fats – just lots of sugar and highly processed fats and oils.”

What do antibiotics do to the gut?

Because antibiotics work by targeting all bacteria in the body, it is important to build up beneficial bacteria after you have finished your medication course. She also issued a caveat when using weight-loss drugs such as Ozempic, and to work with a credentialed dietitian nutritionist because of potential side effects.

As with any medication, it is still important to eat healthy foods while taking medications and to maintain a balanced diet.

“Antibiotics will affect your gut microbiome and while we may need to take them as medical treatments, it is important to know how to properly eat after your prescription has run its course to support your gut and replenish it.”

How do I teach my children good gut health practices?

Parents can set a good example for their children by making nourishing food choices in front of them, sharing meals together when possible, and offering a lot of options and choices when it comes to vegetables, fruits, whole grains, protein, carbs and fats.

Marrs says to try and limit ultra-processed food, but not to create taboos or ultimatums around certain foods as it can create issues down the road.

“It is imperative for our kids to not watch their parents overly restrict their own meals,” Marrs said. “It’s something I cannot stress enough. Parents with disordered eating practices very often unknowingly influence children to have the same issues.”

When it comes to influences on adolescents and teens, Marrs also worries about the “toxic online diet culture” that pushes extreme diets, pre-workout drinks that contain too much caffeine and excessive supplementation.

Who should I see if I have gut issues?

The first step would be to see a primary care physician and have a complete set of lab work done to rule out anything serious, she said. Also, routine colonoscopies are a must.

“Outcomes are so much better with early detection.”

After you have ruled out anything serious, she recommends seeking out a credential dietitian nutritionist who can guide you through a plan of action.

“Social media is filled with products pushed by people who most often don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s all about sales. Work with medical professionals who have knowledge of you and your specific history and needs.”

Is it too late to start paying attention to my gut health?

It’s never too late and you can start today, Marrs said. “It doesn’t have to be as hard as everyone makes it. The problem is we are in a society where everyone is trying to sell you something. Many times, extreme diets end up altering gut microbiome, as people do drastic things to get thin instead of working on getting healthy.”

She emphasizes a commonsense approach: “If you move your body and eat in a way where you follow the 80-20 rule, it’s highway to better health. Feed your body what it needs to thrive 80 to 85% of the time for a lifetime and the other 15 to 20 percent you can relax.”

She urges people not to focus on perfection.

“All of these extremes that people go to and all the dieting – its harming our microbiome. People are often not feeding their body what it needs, and just worrying about weight. Don’t just look at caloric intake but think about what you’re putting in your body. Damage to your gut is not always immediate but happens over time.”


About the author

Mary Gay Broderick is a Denver-based freelance writer with more than 25 years experience in journalism, marketing, public relations and communications. She enjoys telling compelling stories about healthcare, especially the dedicated UCHealth professionals and the people whose lives they transform. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and traveling, along with baking (mostly) successful desserts for her husband and three daughters.