Your gut has got a lot going on, and not just after you eat that burrito grande. There are trillions of microorganisms hanging out down there, and together they make up a colony of bacteria that scientists call the gut microbiome. They’re still trying to figure out how it works, but we do know that gut bacteria evolve throughout our lives based on factors like genetics and lifestyle. And some researchers believe the gut microbiome may hold the key to many aspects of your health.
The presence or absence of certain microbes could affect weight loss or gain, according to a 2014 study from Cornell University and King’s College London. Other research suggests links between your gut and your immune system; your gut and your cardiovascular health; and your gut and your mental health.
Research is underway to help zero in on what behaviors make for a healthy gut, but there are a few things we know, starting with your diet: Fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish, and poultry are all considered good-for-gut foods, says Dhyanesh Patel, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. These foods are all high in fiber, plant-based protein, or omega-3 fatty acids, which have all been shown to increase good bacteria in the colon. On the flip side, added fats, sugars, artificial sweeteners, processed foods, and red meat are typically low in fiber and vitamins and high in fat, which prevents a range of bacteria from growing, says Patel. Pay attention to the drugs you take, too: Antibiotics can wipe out the bad bacteria and the good. Were you prescribed one? Take a probiotic as well.
Gut health isn’t just about what you put in your body. Stress can cause bacterial imbalance that can loop back and fuel more stress and anxiety, says Patel. Exercise, however, is a positive one-two punch: Regular workouts may relieve stress and improve blood flow, which together promote the growth of more diverse bacteria to keep you regular. All this is further proof that treating your tummy right can have a positive effect on your entire body—another reason to trust your gut!