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28 Ways To Improve Your Gut Health

Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:

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Note that each number in parentheses [1, 2, 3, etc.] is a clickable link to peer-reviewed scientific studies. A plus sign next to the number “[1+, 2+, etc...]” means that the information is found within the full scientific study rather than the abstract.

This article is for informational purposes only. None of the information here should be taken as medical advice. If you suspect you may have digestive issues, seek medical help.

You may try the complementary approaches listed below if you and your doctor determine that they could be appropriate for you. Discuss the strategies listed here with your doctor. Remember that none of them should ever be done in place of what your doctor recommends or prescribes.

IBD

Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC) are two of the most frequently diagnosed subtypes of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The cause of IBD lies in a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors [1].

Crohn’s mostly affects the small intestine and involves ulcerations of all cell layers of the gut lining. Ulcerative colitis typically affects the colon and rectum, and involves the inflammation of the gut mucosal layer [2, 3].

Diet

Low FODMAP Diet

FODMAPs are a group of carbohydrates identified as some of the prime irritants in IBD. FODMAPs is a catchy acronym that stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, And Polyols, such as [4, 5, 6]:

  • Fructose
  • Lactose
  • Fructans and galactans
  • Galacto-oligosaccharides
  • Polyols (sugar alcohols)

Some experts recommend a low FODMAP diet to help control the symptoms of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. This diet isn’t appropriate for everyone—talk to your doctor or dietician to determine whether it could be right for you.

For more about the low FODMAP diet, check out this post on how it works and this post on which foods are included.

The low FODMAP diet eliminates specific foods that may trigger gut inflammation.

Mediterranean Diet

High intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish (EPA and DHA) may be protective against the development of Crohn’s disease [7, 8].

A recommended dietary pattern to keep IBD in remission also includes [9]:

  • Increased intake of fiber, especially from fruits and vegetables
  • Avoiding processed vegetable oils
  • Cutting back on red meat
  • Reduced intake of sweets and refined carbs

The Mediterranean diet generally follows the above pattern. It’s rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and olive oil. It implies a moderate intake of fish while cutting back on red meat and sweets.

Some experts recommend the Mediterranean diet as a complementary approach to digestive disorders such as IBD. The incidence of IBD is lower in the Mediterranean regions, compared with northern Europe [10, 11. 9].

Due to high fiber content, IBD patients may want to avoid this kind of diet during the active phases of “flares” [12].

Eat More Fish

High intake of omega-3s from fish (EPA and DHA) may be protective against the development of Crohn’s disease [7, 8].

However, meta-analyses concluded that further, higher-quality research is needed before omega-3s can be recommended as a complementary strategy to manage IBD [13, 14].

Green Tea

In a small clinical trial on 20 people with ulcerative colitis, a commercial extract with the green tea polyphenol epigallocatechin gallate (Polyphenon E) helped improve the symptoms and maintain remission. Green tea and its polyphenols were similarly effective in multiple studies of animals with colitis [15, 16].

Epigallocatechin gallate also improved pouchitis, a complication that may occur in ulcerative colitis patients after the surgical removal of the colon, in a pilot trial on 9 people [17].

Butyrate/Resistant Starch

So far, butyrate’s potential benefits have been better studied in ulcerative colitis than in Crohn’s disease. However, in one study of 13 people with Crohn’s disease, a type of IBD, butyrate supplements improved 69% of cases, with symptoms completely disappearing in 54% (seven participants) [18, 19, 20, 21, 22].

Butyrate is available as a supplement; dietary factors also affect how much butyrate is produced by your gut bacteria. The best foods to increase butyrate production are those with plenty of resistant starches—starch that you can’t digest, but that the gut flora can. Baked potatoes and green bananas are two good sources of resistant starch [18, 23, 24].

Lifestyle

Giving Up Smoking

Smoking is clearly associated with an increased incidence of Crohn’s disease, while its effects on ulcerative colitis are less evident — this condition seems to be more common among former smokers but less among people who currently smoke [25].

Smoking is also associated with an increased incidence and severity of stomach and colorectal cancer [26, 27].

Exercise

Moderate exercise is among the best remedies for overall and gut health. Physical activity changes the composition of the gut flora by increasing beneficial species [28, 29].

While exercise helps prevent IBD, people with active disease may or may not be able to adjust their physical activity, depending on their condition. It’s essential to stay physically fit and exercise regularly as a means of prevention [30, 31, 32].

If you have IBD, we recommend talking to your doctor about how much physical activity would be beneficial in your case.

Stress Management

Psychological stress has well-known detrimental effects on gut health and inflammation. It raises gut permeability and the levels of different inflammatory cytokines [33, 34].

Many people with IBD develop anxiety and depression associated with their debilitating gastrointestinal symptoms. Furthermore, psychological stress may worsen the symptoms of IBD. Because of this potential feedback loop, many doctors emphasize the importance of managing the mental health of IBD patients [35, 36, 37, 38].

Stress raises inflammatory cytokines and worsens gut inflammation.

Supplements

Andrographis

Andrographis paniculata, known as the “King of Bitters,” is traditionally used in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine. It may improve the symptoms of ulcerative colitis [39].

In two clinical trials, andrographolide, the active ingredient in Andrographis, improved UC by suppressing the IL-23/IL-17 axis [40, 41]. [leave out the mechanism if not relevant to your gene]

Taking 1,200 – 1,800 mg Andrographis daily for 8 weeks reduced the symptoms of mild-to-moderate colitis in adults; the 1,800 mg dose was more effective. However, it did not affect remission rates any more than placebo [42].

Probiotics

People with IBD often have impaired gut microbiome, which may worsen their disease. In a meta-analysis, a blended probiotic containing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains increased remission rates by 1.7x in ulcerative colitis patients [43].

These strains were beneficial in different trials with ulcerative colitis patients [43, 44, 45, 46].

Certain probiotic strains have been studied in people with Crohn’s disease, including Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus casei, Bifidobacterium breve, Bifidobacterium longum, and Saccharomyces boulardii. Of these, the first four showed some promise for people with active Crohn’s disease, while S. boulardii and L. rhamnosus may be helpful for keeping the disease at bay in patients in remission [47].

People with IBD may have alterations in their gut bacteria that result in lower production of butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that preserves the ability of the gut lining to take up nutrients while blocking the absorption of microbes and their toxic products [48, 49].

The potential benefits of butyrate can be obtained by taking probiotics that restore the gut microbiota or supplementing with sodium butyrate.

Omega-3/Fish oil

High intake of fish oil omega-3 fatty acids may be protective against the development of Crohn’s disease [8].

It is unclear whether omega-3 supplementation can help Crohn’s disease that has already developed and progressed. However, multiple studies have suggested that omega-3s may help keep it in remission [8, 50].

Curcumin

Curcumin is the active ingredient of turmeric with potent anti-inflammatory effects [51].

Multiple clinical trials have produced promising results for curcumin in IBD, and further research is currently underway [52, 53, 8].

Resveratrol

Resveratrol is an antioxidant polyphenol very abundant in red wine and claimed to be responsible for its purported benefits [54].

Supplementation with 500 mg/day resveratrol for 6 weeks improved disease severity and quality of life by reducing inflammation and oxidative damage in 2 clinical trials on 106 people with ulcerative colitis [55, 56].

A study of over 400,000 men associated a high dietary intake of polyphenols, including resveratrol, with a lower incidence of Crohn’s disease [57].

Resveratrol reduced intestinal inflammation and tissue damage while restoring the barrier function and microbiota of the gut in multiple studies of animals with IBD [58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64].

Berberine

Berberine is a compound found in several different plants, including barberry (Berberis vulgaris), oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), and Chinese goldthread (Coptis chinensis). It has a 3000-year history of use in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine [65].

In a phase I trial on 16 people with ulcerative colitis, berberine (900 mg/day as an add-on to mesalamine) reduced gut tissue damage [66].

Berberine also improved IBD and prevented it from developing into cancer in animal studies by reducing inflammation and oxidative damage, restoring gut barrier function and microbiota, and regulating the development of T cells [67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72].

Calcium & Vitamin D

Crohn’s disease (and the steroids used to treat it) have been linked to calcium and vitamin D deficiencies and subsequent osteoporosis. Your doctor will monitor your vulnerability to these deficiencies, and if appropriate, prescribe supplements. If vitamin D supplements are not recommended, the best way to make sure you’re getting enough is with moderate sun exposure [73, 74, 75].

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an immune gut disorder in which gluten, a protein found in most grains, damages the small intestine. The immune cells recognize gluten as a threat and trigger an aggressive inflammatory response, usually causing digestive issues and malabsorption [76, 77].

Gluten intolerance is a condition in which the body can’t digest gluten well. It results in similar digestive symptoms, but, unlike celiac disease, it may not cause inflammation or damage the gut [78].

Most people with celiac disease can manage the symptoms by following a strict gluten-free diet.

Celiac disease is a disorder in which the immune system causes inflammation and damages the small intestine in response to gluten, a protein found in most grains.

Diet

Gluten-free Diet

The only effective treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten-free diet. Most people can successfully manage their symptoms by avoiding gluten. This protein is present in the following grains and their products [79]:

  • Wheat
  • Rye
  • Spelt
  • Barley
  • Triticale

Foods that are most likely to contain gluten include [80]:

  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • Pies and sweets
  • Gravies
  • Meat substitutes
  • Oats (often processed with other grains)
  • Salad dressings and sauces

Gluten-free grains and pseudo-grains are [80]:

  • Buckwheat
  • Amaranth
  • Corn
  • Rice
  • Quinoa

The gluten-free diet has gained popularity among healthy people as well. However, it comes with a risk of certain deficiencies and may not necessarily be a healthy choice for someone who tolerates gluten and has no digestive issues [81, 82].

A strict, lifelong gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease. In most patients, it enables complete symptom control.

Other Potential Irritants

Dietary lectins may worsen inflammation in people sensitive to them. For example, lectins contributed to autoimmunity in one study with rheumatoid arthritis patients [83, 84].

Preliminary research suggests that avoiding lectins may reduce the symptoms of autoimmune conditions in sensitive individuals [85].

Still, more research is needed to clarify the possible connection between lectins and autoimmunity in humans.

Gut damage and inflammation in celiac disease may cause temporary lactose intolerance. Such patients may need to avoid dairy until their gut lining recovers [86].

Elimination diets such as the Lectin Avoidance Diet may help identify and remove common food irritants — such as lectins, gluten, and dairy — that may be worsening autoimmunity in sensitive individuals [84, 85, 87].

Certain dietary compounds, such as lectins and dairy, may contribute to inflammation in people with celiac disease. Elimination diets may help identify these food sensitivities, although their therapeutic potential is not well-researched.

Increase Zinc Intake

Patients with undiagnosed and untreated celiac disease often lack zinc and other nutrients due to impaired absorption [88].

On the other hand, a gluten-free diet (GFD) also bears a risk of zinc deficiency. In an extensive review of 73 studies, 40% of people on a GFD had zinc deficiency [89].

Best food sources of zinc include meat, seafood (especially oysters), and seeds [90].

Celiac disease patients are often zinc-deficient. In turn, the lack of this mineral may worsen inflammation by stimulating HLA class II molecules.

Lifestyle

Moderate sun exposure is the best way to get natural UV light and vitamin D, which both help suppress inflammation [91, 92].

Vitamin D deficiency and subsequent bone issues are common in celiac disease patients, so it’s crucial to get enough of this nutrient [93, 94].

Supplements

Black Cumin

Black cumin or black seed has well-known anti-inflammatory properties.

In one clinical trial, adding 900 mg of black seed oil daily to a gluten-free diet helped restore iron levels and reduce inflammation and gut damage. The same group of authors found that black cumin oil may help with dermatitis herpetiformis, a skin condition caused by CD [95, 96].

Probiotics

According to some authors, gut microbiome disturbance is one of the mechanisms by which the HLA-DQ2 haplotype contributes to celiac disease. It’s associated with fewer Bifidobacterium strains and more harmful strains such as Clostridium, Bacteroides, and Enterobacteria [97, 98].

Bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine may worsen celiac disease and hinder gut recovery [77].

Probiotic (Bifidobacterium spp.) supplementation in patients with celiac disease has yielded mixed results. In one trial, it improved the symptoms but not immunological markers. In another, it only improved lab markers of inflammation [99, 100].

In 109 patients with celiac disease and IBS, a mixture of probiotic strains significantly improved IBS symptoms [101].

Microbiome disturbance plays a role in celiac disease. Probiotic supplementation may help, but the results are inconclusive.

Peptic Ulcers

Diet

Dietary polyphenols

Multiple studies have found that certain dietary polyphenols conferred protection against peptic ulcers. Quercetin, a common flavonoid found in many fruits and vegetables, appears to protect the lining of the digestive tract by suppressing acid secretion [102, 103].

Some of the foods richest in quercetin include leafy green vegetables, red grapes, and berries.

Other polyphenols may protect the lining of the digestive tract by stimulating blood flow or preventing the release of histamine. Still others scavenge free radicals, inhibit oxidizing enzymes, and stimulate the body’s antioxidant defense mechanisms [103, 104, 105].

Garlic

Garlic is a hotly debated complementary approach for ulcers. In a recent meta-analysis, its active compound allicin improved healing rate and remission of the symptoms when used as an add-on therapy in case of H. pylori infection with ulcers [106].

However, the authors of this analysis noted that the evidence was still relatively weak and in need of further investigation.

Garlic can be irritating on the stomach, so caution is advised if you already have ulcers.

Chili Peppers

Some documents and guidelines advise against eating chili peppers if you have ulcers, but a surprising amount of research has suggested that capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili, could actually be beneficial [107, 108, 109].

Capsaicin inhibits the growth of H. pylori bacteria, which may explain why people given chili powder healed more quickly than their peers in a study of 50 ulcer patients [110].

This compound prevents stomach ulcers in animals, and may also help heal existing ones. It inhibits stomach acid secretions, reduces acidity, promotes mucus secretion, and stimulates blood flow in the stomach [111].

We advise caution with capsaicin if you already have stomach ulcers, because it can also irritate the stomach.

Cruciferous Vegetables

Extracts from cruciferous vegetables such as kale and cabbage prevented the development of ulcers in different animal models by stimulating the production of mucus and lowering stomach acids [112, 113, 114].

Their active compound sulforaphane inhibited H. pylori infections and activity in human, animal, and cell-based studies [115, 116, 117, 118, 119].

In H. pylori-infected type 2 diabetic patients, broccoli sprout powder, in addition to standard triple therapy, considerably improved H. pylori eradication. It also improved markers of heart health in these subjects [120].

Lifestyle

Stress Management

Most doctors and researchers agree that psychological stress and peptic ulcers are closely linked. In fact, a cohort study of 17,525 Danish adults found that people under high stress were more than twice as likely as people under low stress to develop ulcers [121, 122].

Anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and panic disorders have also been directly linked to peptic ulcers. One study further found that alcohol or nicotine dependence exacerbated the connection between anxiety and ulcers; that is, people with anxiety disorders who were also dependent on alcohol or nicotine were even more likely to have ulcers [123, 124].

A large body of research suggests that managing stress is very important for healing peptic ulcers. Some researchers have recommended the inclusion of cognitive behavioral therapies and other psychological strategies to help manage family, job, economic, and workload problems [125].

Supplements

Black Cumin

In a study of 88 patients with indigestion positive for H. pylori, black seed helped eradicate the bacteria and symptoms. A minimal dose of 2 g of the seeds (in combination with omeprazole) was effective and comparable to standard triple antibiotic therapy, while both lower and higher doses were less efficient [126].

Some studies suggest that it may also help protect the stomach lining from damage and ulcers, mostly based on findings from animal studies [127, 128].

Black cumin seed protected the stomach lining from the harmful effects of alcohol in rats. The oils also prevented gut damage [129, 130].

Ginger

Ginger increased protective prostaglandins in the stomach lining in 43 osteoarthritis patients who used NSAIDs long-term. Ginger could potentially be useful in people who developed ulcers from NSAIDs, but further clinical trials are needed [131].

In cellular studies, antioxidants in ginger (such as the flavonoids gallic and cinnamic acid) blocked the growth of stomach-ulcer-causing H. pylori, mainly by fighting free radicals [132, 133].

Licorice Root

Licorice was a good adjunctive treatment to standard clarithromycin triple therapy in the treatment of H. pylori in a clinical trial on 120 people and increased the eradication rate by about 20% [134].

Learn More

About the Author

Carlos Tello

Carlos Tello

PhD (Molecular Biology)
Carlos received his PhD and MS from the Universidad de Sevilla.
Carlos spent 9 years in the laboratory investigating mineral transport in plants. He then started working as a freelancer, mainly in science writing, editing, and consulting. Carlos is passionate about learning the mechanisms behind biological processes and communicating science to both academic and non-academic audiences. He strongly believes that scientific literacy is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid falling for scams.

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