8 Things No One Ever Told You About Gut Health

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Whenever you've had an important decision to make, chances are someone has told you to "trust your gut." While they were probably referring to your intuition, your gut health actually affects many more areas of your life than you realize. A healthy gut doesn't just mean digesting your food well. According to one expert, your gut actually has pretty deep ties to your emotions, for example.

What is "healthy" for your gut isn't necessarily "healthy" for someone else's. "Everyone's constitution is different," Wendy Leung, R.Ac., an IBS elimination coach, licensed acupuncturist, and traditional Chinese medicine expert, tells Bustle. "We're all born with different bodies, and two-thirds of your gut’s ecosystem is different from everyone else’s," she says. Getting enough key nutrients is important for your body to function at its best, but what that looks like exactly can vary from person to person, Leung says. This means that, for example, taking certain probiotics might make one person's gut function really well, while those same probiotics could upset another person's stomach.

So listening to your gut really is important in a very literal sense. In order to figure out what foods or supplements make your body feel strong and energized, pay attention to your body's signals.

Here are some things you might not realize about gut health, according to experts.

1. Your Brain And Your Gut Are Deeply Connected

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"Gut bacteria affect your brain, and your brain affects your gut health," Bart Wolbers, researcher and health scientist at Nature Builds Health, tells Bustle. The vagus nerve runs straight from your brain to your gut. This pathway means that how well your gut functioning can affect how happy you feel. When your gut is strong, Wolbers says, it releases serotonin and dopamine to your brain. "Bad gut health equals less serotonin and dopamine — optimal gut health achieves the opposite effect," he says. "Additionally, if you take antibiotics or have viral or bacterial infections, your cognitive performance can decline due to the presence of the wrong or the absence of healthy gut bacteria."

2. Your Gut Bacteria Can Influence Your Food Allergies

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Does your stomach get angry with you every time you eat soft cheese or get extra queasy whenever you eat cucumbers? Having less gut bacteria is connected to having allergies, Wolbers says. "In today's society, many people have a very limited array of bacteria in their gut," he says, "in part due to sub-optimal overall health, and in part because of eating the same foods too frequently."

3. Eating Bacteria Can Be Healthy

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From the moment a child exits their parent's body and is born, they begin to be exposed to bacteria, and this is actually a great thing, Wolbers says. Even as an adult, being exposed to bacteria through fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut can support a healthy gut.

4. It's Most Active In The Afternoon

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You might expect that your gut is working its hardest first thing in the morning in preparation for the day ahead. In reality though, that's not the case. "The microflora (bacteria and other one-celled life) in your gut is more awake and active at mid-day than at night," Annie B Kay, a holistic dietitian and author of Every Bite Is Divine, tells Bustle. In fact, your gut bacteria even have a circadian rhythm, similar to your sleep. "This works well with the Ayurvedic principle to eat your largest meal mid-day when digestion is strong," Kay says.

5. Probiotics Aren't All The Same

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If you're familiar with health trends, you've probably heard about how probiotics can benefit your gut health. But all probiotics aren't the same, and they have different functions in your body. "Some colonize the intestinal tract, some work by helping prevent pro-inflammatory gastrointestinal diseases, others play a role in resisting gastric juices and bile acids," Shira Sussi, MS, RDN, CDN, founder of Shira Sussi Nutrition, tells Bustle. "We typically 'clump' probiotics together, but since different strains have different benefits and clinically have been shown to react differently in the body," she says, "it's important to meet with an MD or RD before taking one so you can pick the best strain for your needs."

6. Fiber Is Important For A Healthy Gut

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When you think of eating fiber, you probably imagine preventing constipation. But fiber-filled foods are actually very important for keeping your gut healthy. "Fiber is a functional component of foods with unique benefits for gut health," Rachel Fine, a registered dietitian and owner of To The Pointe Nutrition, tells Bustle. "Fiber resist digestion and thus can be used as a food source for bacteria in your large intestine instead," she says. "These fibers offer include particular sugars called sulfated polysaccharides which have been shown to increase the growth of 'good' gut bacteria."

7. It Affects Whether You Get Sick

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"Roughly 70 percent of your immune system is controlled through your gut health, as the regulation of your digestive system greatly influences your overall health," Dr. Gregory Funk, founder of Hope N Wellness, tells Bustle. "The balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut can become imbalanced through a number of different ways," he says, "but the most common ways of upsetting your gut health is through too much stress, lack of exercise, [not eating nutrient-rich foods], antibiotics, or even sleep."

8. It Can Affect Your Emotions

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Being anxious about a big presentation might send you running to the bathroom more than usual. This connection isn't just a coincidence. "People who experience digestive issues like heartburn, indigestion, bloating, or IBS or IBD know that symptoms become worse in moments of emotional stress," Leung says. "But what they may not know is that it can also happen the other way around: poor digestive health can cause heightened emotions like stress, anxiety or depression," she says, "from a cellular level!"

Whether you've been feeling extra stressed lately or you haven't been eating many fiber-rich foods, try being more intentional about supporting your gut health. A couple of small tweaks might make you feel much better.