5 Surprising Things That Can Impact Your Gut Health That Have Nothing to Do With Food

Photo: Getty Images / Luis Alvarez
When it comes to improving gut health, there's typically one common focus: food. People are obsessed with eating for better gut health, whether that's adding more fiber or probiotics to their diets or cutting back on inflammatory foods like sugar.

This is all sound advice—what we eat has a profound effect on the health of our gut microbiome—but focusing solely on diet means that you could miss out on some other aspects of your life that can impact your gut health. Yes, things like exercise and stress can also play a big role in your digestive health. We talked to a gastroenterologist to help us understand what they are and why they matter for your gut.

Curious to know more about gut health? Here's the lowdown from a registered dietitian: 

1. Your dental hygiene

It might seem strange to mention what happens in your mouth when talking about gut health, but it’s all connected.

“Multiple studies, including one conducted by Cornell University, have found that harmful forms of bacteria that grow in the mouth often make their way into the gut or even the bloodstream,” says Niket Sonpal, MD, NYC board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. “Regular brushing can keep those potentially harmful microbes in check—and your gut bacteria in balance,” he says.

He recommends brushing for at least 20 seconds a time to get the full benefits of cleaning. “Each time you brush, be sure to clean the inner, outer, and chewing sides of your teeth,” he says. You should also floss once a day.

2. Drinking too much alcohol

No, we don't mean water. Instead, keep booze to a minimum. “You’ve probably heard how excessive alcohol consumption is bad for your liver, heart and brain, but what you probably didn’t know is that chronic alcohol consumption affects gut health,” Dr. Sonpal says. Too much alcohol can harm beneficial gut bacteria and lead to an overgrowth of bad bacteria. Stick to one or two drinks when you choose to imbibe to keep things safe.

3. Exercise (or lack thereof)

“Research says exercise also improves your gut bacteria," says Dr. Sonpal. "There are trillions of microscopic organisms in the gut that play a crucial role in our overall health and function of the body,” he says. “In a study from the University of Illinois, researchers found that exercising for just six weeks could have a positive impact on the microbiome,” he says. Consider that yet another reason to work out even for just 10 minutes today.

4. Not sleeping enough

You want those seven to eight hours of shut-eye each night. “Research now shows that sleep deprivation also affects your microbiome health. According to a 2016 study, which examined the effects of short-term partial sleep deprivation on gut microbiodata, the researchers observed that after two days of sleep deprivation, some subtle but noticeable changes had occurred in the gut flora,” Dr. Sonpal says.

To get enough sleep, maintain a regular bedtime, cut out caffeine at least six hours prior to bed, and turn off the lights (try black out shades), especially any blue light that could be emitted from electronic devices, like your TV or phone.

5. Stress

Ahh, stress is always a doozy. “Stress can affect digestion, and what nutrients the intestines absorb,” Dr. Sonpal says.  “Stress can make the intestinal barrier weaker and allow gut bacteria to enter the body,” he explains. So, work on stress-busting habits like meditation, yoga, exercise, and other activities that promote relaxation and happiness.

Looking for more gut health tips? These are the "golden rules" of gut health, and this is the one habit that people with healthy guts have in common.

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