3 Simple Ways to a Happier, Healthier Gut

Keeping your digestive health in check is a no-brainer, but maintaining a healthy gut isn’t always as simple as avoiding the wrong foods and eating the right ones.

The gut microbiota, or the community of microorganisms that lives in your digestive tract, plays a big role in your digestive health. These bacteria and fungi handle anything from breaking down food to absorbing nutrients.

As it turns out, the bacteria in your gut might be a determinant of not only a healthy gut, but also how happy you are in everyday life. The more diverse bacteria in your gut, the happier you’ll feel, says M. Andrea Azcarate-Peril, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the UNC School of Medicine and director of the UNC Microbiome Core Facility.

Here are her tips for gut health that will keep your belly—and you—happy.

1. Cook at home.

“Processed foods don’t have the live bacteria that are beneficial for your health,” Dr. Azcarate-Peril says. Although cooking in your own kitchen might not be germ-free, that’s the point. Cooking exposes you to different microbes that help keep you healthy.

2. Take probiotics.

Probiotics are the good bacteria that help the body function properly, especially the digestive system. There are many ways to take probiotics: They can be found in foods such as yogurt or taken in pill form. Rotate which kind you take to expose your body to different strains. “You might not feel any different, but if everyone around you has the flu and you don’t, that’s a sign that they are working,” Dr. Azcarate-Peril says.

3. Don’t be afraid of bacteria.

“Society is too clean these days,” Dr. Azcarate-Peril says. “The consequence of that is a much less diverse gut microbiome.” In other words, when you depend too much on cleanliness measures like hand sanitizer, your digestive system isn’t getting the good bacteria it needs to fully thrive. It’s important to keep up good hygiene, but remember that a few microbes here and there won’t hurt, either. In particular, babies and kids need the exposure to microbes for a healthy immune system.

Learn more about Dr. Azcarate-Peril’s research, including whether prebiotics might be a solution to lactose intolerance.

Andrea Azcarate-Peril, PhD, is assistant professor of medicine at the UNC School of Medicine and director of the UNC Microbiome Core Facility.