How to Heal Your Gut - And What It Really Means

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Discover how to “heal your gut” naturally — or more accurately, optimize your gut health — according to experts.



These days, it’s almost impossible to talk about health without mentioning the gut. And that makes perfect sense; Your gut, also known as your digestive tract or GI tract, is home to 100 trillion microorganisms that are linked to countless aspects of health, including immunity and cognitive function. People are constantly discussing how to heal your gut, especially on social media.

But exactly how can you “heal your gut” – and is it even necessary? Ahead, get the basics of gut healing, plus signs that it’s something you should do.

What does it mean to have a healthy gut?

First, it’s important to clarify what “healing your gut” means (and does not mean). “On the web, ‘healing your gut’ is a pervasive concept that refers to optimizing your gut health, with or without symptoms,” explains Matthew Bechtold, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Missouri. “Healing your gut” is not a medical phrase but more of a marketing term, he adds. “The concept focuses on things that make your gut work at its best, like hydration and exercise,” according to Dr. Bechtold. With that in mind, a more accurate term would be “optimizing” your gut, he says.

Nutritionist Lisa Young, Ph.D., RDN, agrees with this notion, adding that the phrase “heal your gut” is not rooted in science and is a rather vague term. Case in point: Someone might say their gut needs “healing” if they have a number of different digestive issues, ranging from general stomach discomfort (caused by stress or poor eating habits, for example) to medical conditions (like irritable bowel syndrome, too). known as IBS or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, also known as SIBO).

Furthermore, the “gut cure” is often dubbed the solution to a “leaky gut,” a term that refers to intestinal permeability, according to a 2019 article in the journal intestine🇧🇷 A quick biology lesson: The gastrointestinal tract has a lining that acts as a barrier, which regulates which substances are absorbed into the bloodstream, according to Harvard Health Publishing. However, in an unhealthy gut, the lining may crack or leak, causing increased permeability. This can allow toxins, bacteria, and other substances to leave the intestines and enter the bloodstream. The result is a “leaky gut,” which may be linked to inflammation and changes in gut bacteria, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

But, as in all areas of health, context is key. To begin with, the intestine is supposed to be semipermeable; this is what allows nutrients from the foods you eat to enter your bloodstream, according to a 2020 article in the journal Nutrients🇧🇷 “Leaky gut” isn’t a medical term, and while leaky gut definitely does occur, it may or may not be a disease itself or the cause of other conditions, according to the Cleveland Clinic. and while there it is Gastrointestinal barrier issues that can cause medical conditions (think: celiac or Chron’s disease), digestive issues don’t automatically mean you have something that needs treatment or a “cure.”


How to heal your gut

If you suspect you have a medical condition, your best bet is to visit a gastroenterologist for treatment. Otherwise, if you want to support your gut health, these tips on how to “heal your gut” can help.

Do regular physical activity.

In addition to relieving stress and promoting better sleep, staying active is one of the best things you can do for your gut health. “Physical activity helps the gut by improving motility in the stomach and small [intestine]”, shares Dr. Bechtold. “With improved motility, [you’ll be] less likely to develop bloating, constipation and heartburn.”

Stay hydrated.

“Proper hydration is important for overall gut health,” according to Dr. Bechtold. After all, water is essential for many functions related to the gastrointestinal tract, including intestinal motility, nutrient absorption, and waste removal through bowel movements. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that women need 11.5 cups of water a day and men need 15.5 cups, which includes H2O from food and drinks. But take note: Drinking too much water at once in the name of gut health can cause bloating, says Dr. Bechtold.

Limit highly processed foods.

Another “gut healing” habit is to limit ultra-processed foods, such as pre-made frozen meals or cookies. That’s because these items are often high in refined sugar, which can trigger or worsen inflammation in your gut, says Young. Fresh, whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains have the opposite effect, as they are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, according to Young.

Focus on fiber.

When it comes to foods that “heal” your gut, opt for fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. For starters, fiber promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, says Young. The nutrient also supports regular bowel movements and increases stool bulk, which can make number two more comfortable, according to the Mayo Clinic. The recommended daily fiber intake is 25 and 38 grams for women and men, respectively.


Get enough sleep.

A solid sleep routine is crucial to keeping your bowels in check. Poor sleep habits can lead to an imbalance of gut bacteria, potentially contributing to inflammation and gut problems, according to Young. This effect may be linked to the brain-gut-microbiome axis, the communication system between the gut and the brain, according to a 2021 article in the journal of Sleep Medicine. Aim to get the commonly recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night.

Signs you need to heal your gut

To reiterate, the popular definition of “healing” your gut generally involves supporting your bowel function through healthy lifestyle habits.

Some clues that you might benefit from these lifestyle changes include abdominal discomfort (i.e., bloating) and changes in bowel habits, such as constipation and diarrhea, says Dr. Bechtold. These issues are often linked to lifestyle factors, including stress, poor diet and lack of exercise, according to a 2021 article in Frontiers of Endocrinology🇧🇷 But of course, you don’t have to wait until these gastrointestinal symptoms appear to start optimizing your gut. “Ideally, you’d help your gut before these symptoms develop,” notes Dr. Bechtold.

On the other hand, if you have a medical illness that affects your gut, the “bowel healing” habits mentioned above won’t alleviate your symptoms, says Dr. Bechtold. Examples of such conditions include celiac disease, peptic ulcer disease, pancreatitis, esophagitis, Crohn’s disease and a H. pylori infection, according to Dr. Bechtold.

If you’re not sure if a medical condition is at play, be on the lookout for the following symptoms, which are known as “red flags” by doctors, according to Dr. Bechtold. “These are symptoms that [might] indicate that something else is happening in the intestine that hydration and physical activity may not resolve”, he explains.

  • unintentional weight loss

  • Change in bowel habits (new diarrhea or constipation)

  • Change in stool diameter (such as pencil-thin stools)

  • blood in the stool

  • black stools

  • Abdominal discomfort or bloating

  • new heartburn

  • Increase in food intolerances

When in doubt, listen to your gut (literally) and consult a medical professional whenever you’re concerned about digestive symptoms. Even if the problems are due to lifestyle habits, they can point you in the right direction to get your GI tract back on track.