How to Boost Your Gut Health (No Probiotics Necessary)
Conventional wisdom says that if you’re dealing with a touchy gut, you should just start taking probiotics and eating more yogurt and sauerkraut. But when British nutritionist Jeannette Hyde hears this kind of advice, it makes her cringe.
“If you just throw a ton of prebiotic and probiotic foods at somebody who’s got gut problems, you can actually make things worse,” she says. “I get a little bit shocked when I see scientists say things like, ‘Lentils are prebiotic—they feed the good bacteria in the gut and everybody should eat loads of them.’ That is the absolute last thing I would do with somebody with gut problems. They could be on the toilet for days.”
To set the record straight, Hyde wrote The Gut Makeover, a four-week, systematic plan for rebalancing the bacteria in the digestive tract with minimal misery. All of the hacks within are backed by science, yet laid out in a way that’s been proven to work outside of the lab, based on Hyde’s years of clinical practice.
It’s not just those with obvious abdominal complaints who can benefit from a tummy tune-up, the nutritionist insists. She says the gut plays a role in all sorts of other health concerns, from rashes and breakouts to depression and anxiety, weight gain, and poor immunity. Many of her clients have seen relief from these symptoms, too, after following her advice for a month—think of it as giving your gut its Pretty Woman moment, albeit with veggies instead of diamonds.
Keep reading to find out what to expect during a gut makeover.
Prep week: Watch out for withdrawal
Before diving into full-on microbiome repair mode, the nutritionist recommends taking a week to wean yourself off three of the biggest gut offenders: sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. (Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be forever.)
She tells her clients to cut back a little bit each day until you're down to zero, rather than going cold turkey. It won’t be pleasant, she warns, but it’s essential to the success of the plan.
“When cutting out sugar and caffeine, especially, you may be really tired, in a bad mood, or have headaches,” she says. “Definitely plan to have some early nights, drink lots of water, and have lots of protein with each meal to ease your symptoms.” She says this is also a good time to start exploring healthier alternatives, like herbal tea in the morning or mocktails for your next girls' night in. (You’ll rely on these for the rest of the month, so find ones you really love.)
Weeks 1–2: The adjustment period
Prepare to streamline your fridge even further during the first half of Hyde’s plan—grains, legumes, and dairy are now temporarily off-limits.
“It’s a bit Paleo-esque, because you’re having protein to fill you up with each meal and a ton of vegetables cooked in lots of interesting ways,” the nutritionist says. (She recommends eating 20–30 different veggies each week to help build up a wide array of gut bacteria.)
By now, your coffee and sugar cravings should be subsiding, but Hyde says you’re not totally in the clear yet. (Sorry.) “The first few days are going to be the toughest,” she says. “Stool movements go completely one way or the other.” If you’re constipated or bloated, she says, be sure to drink lots of water and put chia or flax seeds in your morning smoothie. And if you’re dealing with, er, the opposite problem, she recommends cutting back on nuts and seeds.
“The whole landscape is changing, and often when there’s big change going on, the gut can be a little bit confused,” she explains. “If you just keep going, it usually passes.” And by week two, the expert swears most people are feeling good and sleeping soundly.
Weeks 3-4: Seeing the light
At the halfway point of the program, Hyde has her clients reintroduce probiotic and prebiotic foods, plus very select forms of gut-friendly dairy: butter, fermented kefir, and Roquefort cheese.
If you have a hidden sensitivity to milk products, it’ll become really obvious now. “A lot of people discover dairy isn’t for them,” she says. “You may notice chronic loose stools, bloating, or skin conditions flare up again.” If that’s the case, put cheese and ice cream back on your banned list and focus on fibers and fermented foods that fuel your microbiome instead.
And if your body’s relishing the return of dairy? You’re probably hitting the high point of your gut makeover. Hyde says this is the time when most people notice a spurt of energy, smaller numbers on the scale, and virtually no digestive distress.
After the makeover: Maintenance mode
There’s one last hurdle to jump: bringing grains and legumes back into rotation (and small amounts of caffeine, alcohol, and sugar if you want). Again, Hyde says you may notice some of your old health issues come back to haunt you, which is why she recommends keeping a food journal to help connect your symptoms with a specific dietary culprit.
“What I’m encouraging everybody to do longer term is to get onto a varied diet with lots of plants, good-quality fish and meat, nuts, seeds, and fermented foods,” she says. “You’re basically transitioning to the Mediterranean diet.” And if your gut starts to act up again in the future? You now know exactly how to set it straight.
If you still can't pinpoint why your gut's out of whack, it might be your birth control pill, a FODMAP sensitivity, or a not-so-effective probiotic.
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