3 Simple Ways to a Happier, Healthier Gut

This story originally ran Nov. 20, 2017, and was updated April 23, 2024.

When it comes to your overall health, it’s good to go with your gut.

The gut microbiome in your digestive tract contains trillions of beneficial bacteria but also yeast, viruses and fungi. Rather than causing disease, these “good bacteria” play an important part in digestive health by breaking down food and absorbing nutrients.

The gut microbiome also is vital to your immune function, as the good bacteria help keep disease-causing bacteria in check. Plus, your gut has a direct line to your brain via a network of nerves, and research indicates that there’s a link between the health of your gut microbiome and your mental and emotional health. If you’re feeling depressed, anxious or struggling with brain fog, it may signal that the good and bad bacteria in your gut microbiome are out of balance.

Researchers are continuing to identify ways that the gut affects the rest of the body, with possible connections to liver and kidney diseases, cancer and heart disease.

“It never hurts to ask your doctor if an issue you’re experiencing could be linked to an imbalance in the gut microbiome,” says Andrea Azcarate-Peril, PhD, professor of medicine at the UNC School of Medicine and director of the UNC Microbiome Core.

Want to improve your gut health? Here are three tips for keeping your gut microbiome in balance.

1. Cook at home.

A healthy diet of fruits, vegetables and other fiber-rich foods, including beans, lentils and oats, is key to keeping good bacteria multiplying and bad bacteria at bay. Eating a variety of these whole ingredients promotes a good diversity of healthy bacteria, and many of these foods are also rich in prebiotics, which help beneficial gut bacteria to grow.

Dr. Azcarate-Peril advises cooking these foods yourself, as you’ll tend to use healthier ingredients.

“It’s important to consume real food without a lot of added sugar and fat,” she says.

Sugar, fat and salt are commonly added to meals prepared in restaurants and to processed foods to improve taste and extend shelf life, and those elements disrupt the production of good bacteria, allowing bad bacteria to grow. Other common additives, such as dyes and preservatives, may disrupt the gut, too.

“Frozen ultraprocessed foods, for example, can have a lot of preserving agents to maintain taste and texture, but they aren’t good for you,” Dr. Azcarate-Peril says.

2. Take probiotics.

Probiotics are live bacteria that, in adequate amounts, provide a health benefit to your body. There are a few ways to get your probiotics: They can be found in fermented foods, including yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi, and they can be taken in pill form.

You may want to rotate the kind of probiotic supplement you take to expose your body to different strains of bacteria. Diversity is key to a healthy gut microbiome.

“You might not feel any different,” Dr. Azcarate-Peril says, “but if everyone around you has the flu and you don’t, that’s a sign they are working.”

3. Be mindful about wiping out bacteria.

Bacteria and other germs have a bad reputation for making us sick, but the solution isn’t to eliminate all of them. Although good hygiene is essential, particularly at times of the year when viral infections are high, excessive sanitizing usually gets rid of the good bacteria as well.

“When society is too clean, the consequence is a much less diverse gut microbiome,” Dr. Azcarate-Peril says. Household cleaning products and alcohol-based hand sanitizer have been linked with changes in the gut microbiome.

Similarly, taking an antibiotic when you don’t need one may eliminate your stores of good bacteria and also make the antibiotic less effective in the future.

Following these tips can keep your gut microbiome healthy and balanced, for the benefit of your whole body.

If you have questions about how to make healthy choices for a healthy gut, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.