In our three-part series on gut health, Maria Zamarripa, MS, RD, who specializes in functional nutrition at FoodFarmacistRD.com, has been guiding us through the importance of gut health. In part one, Maria talked about removing harmful stressors to our gut. Then, in part two, she explained how to replace those stressors with food and lifestyle habits that promote the growth of friendly gut bacteria. Now, in the final installment of our gut health series, Maria explains the third step in her “3-R process” - rebalancing.
Removing stressors and replacing them with nutritious foods is a key component to healing the gut, but gut health is not a one-and-done detox trend. We must consistently rebalance our diet and lifestyle to ensure we are promoting a healthy environment for our gut bacteria to thrive.
Step 3 of 3: Rebalancing Your Diet and Lifestyle to Maintain Optimal Gut Health
In this last step of the “3-R process,” we focus on rebalancing various lifestyle habits that have a significant effect on the gut and our overall wellness.
#1 Eat Probiotic Foods
Probiotics are live bacteria that, when consumed, provide numerous health benefits. Natural sources of probiotics can be found in fermented foods including: apple cider vinegar, fermented vegetables, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, raw cheese, raw sauerkraut, tempeh, and yogurt.
Probiotics are transient, which means they travel through the digestive tract, provide benefits to our bodies and then get eliminated. For this reason, it’s essential to eat probiotic-rich foods regularly to continue experiencing the positive health benefits they provide. It may take multiple exposures to new foods before acquiring a taste for them, so if you are cringing at the very thought of eating raw sauerkraut, give yourself and your body some time to adjust
Here are a few ideas for how to utilize probiotic-rich foods in your everyday meals and snacks:
#2 Manage Stress
Another key factor in rebalancing your gut is managing stress levels. When we are stressed, our blood pressure increases, stress hormones rise and we experience changes in our gut health. While occasional stress is a normal part of everyday life, we often feel the effects of chronic stress, which is caused by common troubles like busy schedules, finances, relationships, and work deadlines. Studies show chronic stress may increase leaky gut, decrease blood flow to the intestines and feed harmful gut bacteria (1), which is why it’s important to find a healthy way to manage daily stressors with regular stress-reducing activities. Some of my favorite stress-reducing activities include: deep breathing exercises, journaling, listening to calming music, meditation,mindfulness exercises, prayer, walking in nature, and yoga,
#3 Get Plenty of Sleep
We have trillions of bacteria in our digestive tract, which is collectively known as the gut microbiome. In order to maintain balance to our microbiome, high-quality sleep is key. Sleep deprivation and disruptions to our natural circadian clocks negatively alters the microbiome. These sleep disruptions may even reduce bacterial diversity (2). Additionally, poor sleep time and sleep quality may be a factor in developing what is commonly known as “leaky gut.”
Here are a few tips to better balance sleep habits to maintain proper balance in the gut microbiome:
Maintain a regular sleep schedule. The circadian rhythm functions best when it has a regular scheduled of 7-8 hours of sleep per night around the same time every day. Try to fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. If you feel the need to “catch up on sleep” during the weekends, you are most likely not getting enough high-quality sleep during the week, so make some adjustments to your weekday schedule that will allow you to clock more high quality zzz’s.
Eliminate electronics at least one hour before bedtime. The blue light emissions from electronic devices like cell phones, computers and televisions are extremely detrimental to our natural circadian rhythm. In fact, blue light emissions can suppress natural melatonin release, an important sleep hormone, by 50%. Instead of mindlessly scrolling social media before bed, do something else instead. Read a book or a magazine, listen to a podcast or journal so you learn not to rely on your devices before bedtime.
Keep your bedroom dark and cool. Your body temperature decreases to initiate sleep, so keeping your bedroom around 67 degrees helps facilitate better sleep (3). Try to also eliminate any sources of light with room darkening shades, no night-lights and minimal technology.
Get 20-minutes of natural sunlight exposure before noon. Natural sunlight exposure helps to reset the circadian clock to promote healthy sleep (4), however, it’s best to get this sun exposure before noon. The natural sunlight receptors are located in our eyes, so make it a point to get natural sun exposure without sunglasses for at least a few minutes, but never look directly into the sun!
Avoid caffeine after 1 pm. It may take up to 8 hours to fully metabolize the caffeine in one cup of coffee, so it’s best to avoid sources of caffeine, like coffee or certain teas, after 1 pm.
#4 Make Moves by Exercising
Exercise positively affects the layout and balance of the gut microbiome. In fact, exercise increases the number of beneficial gut bacteria, enhances bacterial diversity and strengthens the development of friendly gut bugs (5). Exercise also promotes regular bowel movements, which is a key factor in overall gut health and toxin removal. While there isn’t enough research to answer which type of exercise is the best for optimal gut health, one thing is clear: consistency is key. While it’s good to get a mix of strength and aerobic exercises, the best type of exercise is the one you enjoy most and will maintain. This can mean anything from hiking, vinyasa flow yoga or weight lifting.
Tip: Finding joyful movement in nature is particularly beneficial as exposure to fresh air, natural light and the outside environment can significantly boost the microbiome. However, focus on what feels best for your body and don’t be afraid to mix it up. Take your indoor treadmill walks outdoors and hit the local hiking trails or get your daily yoga flow outdoors instead of in the studio.
Your Body is a Symphony, and Your Gut is the Conductor
The health of our gut is a major foundation for achieving full-body health from within. We need a healthy gut to feel our best as the health of our gut influences our immune system, skin health and even how well our brain functions. Think of it this way: the body works like a well-trained symphony and our gut is the conductor. We can train the conductor to find balance in our body’s symphony by following four simple steps: eating probiotic-rich foods, managing stress, getting enough sleep and enjoying natural movement and exercise (bonus if it’s in nature).
Keep in mind, rebalancing our gut also means finding balance in life, so don’t be so busy creating a healthy life that you forget to actually live your life. Small and simple changes to health create a big difference in the long-run, so use the “3-R process” and start creating a healthy and happy gut today.