9 Habits To Stick With for a Healthier, Happier Gut

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The path to good gut health may look a little different for everyone, but it doesn't have to be complicated. Find out how to balance your microbiome, manage digestive conditions, and keep your gut on the up and up, and hear from people who've dealt with GI issues and come out the other side. Get Your Gut Check

There's more truth to the phrase "trust your gut" than you might think: The gastrointestinal system—which includes your stomach, colon, and small and large intestines, and is often referred to simply as "the gut"—has strong links to both your mind and the rest of your body.

Which is why supporting your gut microbiome— aka, the trillions of bacteria and microbes living in your gut—is so essential. "A healthy gut provides the foundation necessary for overall well-being," says Bahar Adeli, MD, a gastroenterologist in Philadelphia and spokesperson for the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA).

Experts In This Article

Below, nine strategies to help support—and even improve—your gut health, according to Dr. Adeli and other gut-health experts.

1. Eat more plants

Experts agree that reducing your meat intake and increasing the amount of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans you eat can have a hugely positive effect on your gut health.

"A plant-based diet has many excellent health benefits," says Gail Hecht, MD, a gastroenterologist, Wonderbelly Medical Advisor, and former AGA president. Not only has research linked plant-forward eating to an increase in health-promoting gut bacteria, but people who eat mostly plants also have a lower risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, per Harvard Health Publishing. They may even live longer.

Will Bulsiewicz, MD, gastroenterologist and author of the books Fiber Fueled and The Fiber Fueled Cookbook, notes that in a study2 by The American Gut Project of more than 11,000 people across the globe, a powerful predictor of a healthy gut was the diversity of the plants you eat.

“Every single plant has its own unique qualities and properties, [each] has its own strengths," he says. "I realize this sounds weird, but [gut microbes] are kind of like us. They are picky eaters. They have their own dietary preferences. They don't all like kale."

The study defines the magic number as 30 different plants per week to reap the most health benefits and cover all of the bases with any tough (microbe) customers.

How to do it: On the whole, Americans are eating more meat, eggs, and grains than they need and not enough vegetables and fruit, according to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The group's 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines recommend filling half of your plate at every meal with whole fruits and vegetables, and making an effort to vary the types of veggies you choose (think: a mix of dark leafy greens, orange and red veggies like peppers and carrots, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and squash).

"I realize this sounds weird, but gut microbes are kind of like us. They are picky eaters. They don't all like kale." —Will Bulsiewicz, MD, gastroenterologist

2. Add more fiber to your plate

Eating more plants goes hand in hand with increasing your fiber intake. In addition to whole fruits and veggies, other high-fiber foods include nuts, seeds, quinoa, and whole grains like oats and brown rice. High-fiber diets have been linked to a gut environment that better supports the growth of healthy bacteria, research3 has found. Plus, these foods help regulate your bowel health and promote regularity, the Mayo Clinic notes.

Dr. Bulsiewicz explains that the nutritional value of fiber-rich foods isn’t nearly as powerful without the help of our gut-friendly microbes. “With fiber, if we were sterile creatures [without any living bacteria in the gut], fiber would have zero nutritional value and, frankly, wouldn't serve much of a purpose… maybe it would help our bowel movements, but that's it,” Dr. Bulsiewicz says. “But when fiber comes into contact with the gut microbes living inside of our colon, they actually transform the fiber into what I would describe as the most anti-inflammatory compound: short-chain fatty acids."

When bacteria in your gut breaks down indigestible fibers and resistant starches through fermentation, short chain fatty acids are the byproduct of this natural process. These fatty acids are then absorbed by cells that line the gut where they are either metabolized or sent into circulation to provide energy to liver cells. Short chain fatty acids offer a bounty of health benefits, from reducing inflammation in your intestines4 to regulating immune function.

How to do it: In addition to eating less meat and more plants at every meal, aim to up your intake of high-fiber foods like pulses (think: beans, lentils, peas), and have at least half the grains you consume daily be whole varieties, according to the USDA. Subbing in fruits and veggies (such as a snack of crunchy cucumbers instead of chips, or a piece of fruit for dessert) is another easy way to increase your fiber intake, Dr. Hecht says.

3. Choose fermented foods

Naturally fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, miso, and sauerkraut are packed with healthy probiotics. "These are healthy live bacteria that work to support optimized digestion, enhanced immunity, and a healthy microbiome," says Lena Bakovic, RDN, a registered dietitian based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

In a small 2023 study, researchers found that people who frequently consumed at least one serving of plant-based fermented foods had more diverse small gut nutrients in their stool, as well as greater numbers of certain microbial nutrients that have been linked to better health.

How to do it: "One place to start may be including fermented food products into foods that are already a part of your diet," says Bakovic. "For example, adding in sauerkraut onto a salad or sandwich."

When shopping for fermented foods, look for the words "naturally fermented" on the nutritional label, and check foods like kimchi and kombucha for bubbles in the liquid (that's a clear sign they contain beneficial live organisms, according to Harvard Health Publishing).

4. Cut back on ultra-processed foods

It's no secret that whole and minimally processed foods are far superior to those that are ultra-processed, meaning packaged foods containing a long list of additives and preservatives. Because they tend to contain so much salt, fat, and sugar, ultra-processed foods have been linked to a higher risk of conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, and they can negatively affect your gut health, too.

"Reducing intake of high-sugar and highly processed foods is crucial, as these can negatively affect gut bacteria balance and barrier integrity," says Dr. Adeli.

How to do it: Choose whole and minimally processed foods whenever you can, and check the label closely when buying anything in a package. "If [the label] contains numerous ingredients, especially ones you can’t identify, find a substitute," says Dr. Hecht.

"High levels of stress are detrimental to gut health as well as your overall well-being." —Bahar Adeli, MD, gastroenterologist

5. Stay hydrated

Hydration supports just about every bodily system, including your energy levels, urinary and skin health, and digestion, to name just a few. "Adequate water intake is essential for maintaining the mucosal lining of the intestines, which supports gut health," says Dr. Adeli.

How to do it: Between 11.5 and 15.5 cups of liquid per day is the goal, according to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. That includes liquid from both beverages and foods, so fill up on water-rich fruits and veggies such as strawberries, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and keep a reusable water bottle handy to sip on throughout the day.

6. Don't neglect your stress levels

Many people don't realize just how strong the link is between the gut and mind. Some research5 has found that GI irritation sends signals to the brain that can result in mood changes, which may partly explain why so many people with IBS develop conditions like anxiety or depression, Johns Hopkins Medicine notes.

The relationship works the other way, too: "High levels of stress are detrimental to gut health as well as your overall well-being," Dr. Adeli says. So, while no one can avoid stress completely, it's important to find healthy ways to manage it. 

How to do it: Adopting mindfulness practices (such as meditation, breath work, and yoga), regularly exercising, and getting enough sleep can all help to keep stress levels under control. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also help treat anxiety and depression.

7. Don't skimp on sleep

Sleep is a boon for taming stress, as we've noted, but getting enough (that's seven to nine hours a night for most healthy adults) is connected to improved gut health for myriad reasons, according to the Gastrointestinal Society. For one, lack of sleep can trigger inflammation in the body, which can worsen symptoms of GI conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Sleep deprivation also messes with your ability to stick with other gut-healthy habits like eating nutritious foods and getting exercise (more on that below). In fact, some research6 shows that not getting enough shut-eye can make you crave calorie-dense, high-fat foods. And it's not exactly easy to motivate yourself for a gym session when all you want to do is nap.

How to do it: Getting enough zzzs is often easier said than done when there's chores to do and Netflix to stream (and social media to scroll...). For the sake of your gut (and your overall health), make sleep a priority with these expert-backed tips:

  • Skip high-intensity workouts at night
  • Create a gentle bedtime routine that includes yoga, stretching, a warm shower or bath, reading, journaling, or a combination of these soothing activities
  • Shut down your screens a couple hours before bed
  • Stick to a consistent sleep schedule (yes, even on the weekends)
  • Make your sleep environment cool, dark, and cozy
  • Spray a soothing scent, like lavender, on your pillow
  • Stop drinking caffeine by early afternoon and nix alcohol at least two hours before bedtime (both can interfere with sleep)

8. Move most days

When you move, your gut does, too. In other words, regular exercise is a great natural remedy for constipation. But beyond that, exercise is good for gut health because it helps regulate and stabilize your microbiome.

How to do it: The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio (like walking or biking) each week, which comes out to about 30 minutes of activity most days. Also, aim to do muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week.

Just keep in mind that you can have too much of a good thing—lots of high-intensity workouts or overexercising in general may actually harm your gut health.

9. Avoid unnecessary antibiotics

There are multiple reasons not to take antibiotics unless you really need them. One, of course, is because antibiotics wipe out both good and bad gut bacteria, which can throw your microbiome off balance and lead to GI upset.

But there are long-term risks, too: Antimicrobial resistance (or AMR) is one of the biggest threats to global public health, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The organization estimates AMR is currently responsible for more than 5 million deaths a year, and that number is expected to increase in years to come.

How to do it: Sometimes antibiotics simply can't be avoided. But "they should be used only when prescribed by a health care provider," says Dr. Adeli.

If you do need antibiotics—because you have a bacterial infection like a UTI or bacterial pneumonia, for example—complete the entire course, even once you're feeling better. And never take antibiotics that haven't been specifically prescribed for your current symptoms. (Say, because you had leftovers from a previous infection, or a friend gave you some from their medicine cabinet.) This happens often—in a 2023 survey, 33 percent of respondents consumed antibiotics without a prescription—and contributes to antimicrobial resistance.

When to see a doctor about gut issues

The below symptoms definitely warrant a call to your doctor, according to the experts we spoke to:

  • Persistent or severe gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Changes in your bowel habits
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Blood in your stool
  • Chronic abdominal pain
  • Symptoms of an allergy or food intolerance, such as diarrhea or nausea

Still, you don't need to have serious red-flag symptoms in order to make a doctor's appointment: Any kind of new GI discomfort is worth talking about with your practitioner. "I always tell patients that if something concerns you, then it’s time to seek help," says Samantha Nazareth, MD,  a board-certified gastroenterologist practicing in New York City.


How long does it take to improve gut health?

A lot depends on your existing diet as well as whether you're taking any medications, but "improvement may be seen in a few days to a few weeks for some people," says Dr. Adeli, though those who have more significant changes to make may find that it takes several months. To see noticeable results sooner, "consistency in implementing healthy gut practices is key," she says.

How can you improve your gut health after taking antibiotics?

"Antibiotics can have a profound negative impact on your gut microbiota," says Dr. Hecht. But if you're prescribed a course of antibiotics, all of the healthy-gut strategies above can help. In particular, fill your plate with fiber-rich foods such as fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans, Bakovic says.

Your gut will thank you for mixing things up, too: "The key is to have a variety of these food sources and not to consume the same ones over and over again," she says.

What can you take to improve your gut health?

The lifestyle changes above should be the first step in improving your gut health, experts say. But many people are also interested in additional gut-health supplements for extra support. If that's the case for you, "probiotic supplements can be beneficial for some individuals, as can prebiotic supplements and certain fibers to support a healthy gut microbiome," says Dr. Nazareth.

But always consult your doctor before starting any new supplement (that's especially crucial if you're taking other drugs they could possibly interact with). Unlike medications, which are regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, supplements aren't reviewed for their safety and efficacy before hitting store shelves, and quality can vary.

Remember, too, that taking supplements isn't a substitute for continuing to practice gut-healthy lifestyle habits. "Maintaining gut health is a lifelong commitment, and much of this is related to eating a better diet," says Dr. Adeli.

—medically reviewed by Jennifer Logan, MD, MPH

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Sidhu SRK, Kok CW, Kunasegaran T, Ramadas A. Effect of Plant-Based Diets on Gut Microbiota: A Systematic Review of Interventional Studies. Nutrients. 2023 Mar 21;15(6):1510. doi: 10.3390/nu15061510. PMID: 36986240; PMCID: PMC10057430.
  2. Holscher HD. Diet Affects the Gastrointestinal Microbiota and Health. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2020 Apr;120(4):495-499. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2019.12.016. PMID: 32199522.
  3. Makki K, Deehan EC, Walter J, Bäckhed F. The Impact of Dietary Fiber on Gut Microbiota in Host Health and Disease. Cell Host Microbe. 2018 Jun 13;23(6):705-715. doi: 10.1016/j.chom.2018.05.012. PMID: 29902436.
  4. Tedelind S, Westberg F, Kjerrulf M, Vidal A. Anti-inflammatory properties of the short-chain fatty acids acetate and propionate: a study with relevance to inflammatory bowel disease. World J Gastroenterol. 2007 May 28;13(20):2826-32. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v13.i20.2826. PMID: 17569118; PMCID: PMC4395634.
  5. Clapp M, Aurora N, Herrera L, Bhatia M, Wilen E, Wakefield S. Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. Clin Pract. 2017 Sep 15;7(4):987. doi: 10.4081/cp.2017.987. PMID: 29071061; PMCID: PMC5641835.
  6. Surabhi Bhutani, James D Howard, Rachel Reynolds, Phyllis C Zee, Jay Gottfried, Thorsten Kahnt (2019) Olfactory connectivity mediates sleep-dependent food choices in humans eLife 8:e49053.

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