What Is the Best Way to Eat for Gut Health Issues?
This blog does not intend to provide diagnosis...
In this article:
- Signs Your Gut Health Needs Attention
- What Is the Best Diet for Your GI Issues?
- Dairy-Free Diet
- Low FODMAP Diet
- Whole30 Diet
- Autoimmune Paleo
- Supplements That Support Gut Health
One type of diet can’t work for everyone. We know this. We’re all different. Our lifestyles are different, our genetic makeup is different, our daily routines are different—and all of these aspects influence our gut microbiome.
The diet that works for one person may not be the jackpot for another.
As a physician, I like to start slowly with nutritional changes when it comes to gut health. The “go hard or go home” motto doesn’t work for long-term sustainable changes.
In this article we will review:
- How to know when your gut health needs attention
- The most effective and popular diets for gut health and symptoms they address
- Supplements to support digestion and gut health
How do you know when your gut health could use some fine-tuning? Sometimes it’s clear when your digestive system isn’t working optimally—gas, bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, and constipation are often the most obvious signs something is amiss.
But your gut health is intricately connected to other systems in your body, including your skin, immune system, and mental health. An imbalance in your GI tract can bring about a wide variety of symptoms throughout your body, including:
- Fatigue after meals
- Acid reflux
- Brain fog
- Frequent stools
- Unexplained joint pain
- Skin problems (eczema, psoriasis, acne, rashes, etc.)
- Frequent unexplained headaches
- Other inflammatory symptoms
Keep in mind, that this list is not exhaustive. You may experience several of these symptoms at any time, and symptoms may change over time. If you are experiencing a number of these symptoms, it’s time to examine your gut health more closely.
As mentioned earlier, there is no one diet that works to balance everyone’s gut issues. Typically, the best diet for you is one that helps improve your symptoms.
There are a couple of paths you can take to identify which diet works best for you:
- Go all in and eliminate the most common inflammatory foods to resolve your symptoms quickly;
- Eliminate foods one at a time to identify specific foods that may be causing trouble.
While it can be tempting to eliminate all inflammatory foods to resolve your symptoms quickly, you risk restricting your diet unnecessarily—and you never really learn what caused the problem in the first place. An intentionally planned elimination diet may take longer to relieve your systems but leaves you with greater certainty as to what was causing the GI distress.
Let’s discuss some of the most effective diets that may help resolve your GI issues.
Many people have trouble digesting dairy, so going dairy-free may be a great place to start.
Lactase is the enzyme our bodies use to break down the predominant sugar found in milk, known as lactose. Up to 15 percent of people of northern European descent, up to 80 percent of Blacks and Latinos, and up to 100 percent of Native Americans and Asians do not produce enough of this enzyme to effectively digest the lactose in dairy foods.1
Some research also suggests people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may benefit from eliminating dairy.2
In my clinical practice, those who suffer from symptoms of constipation, gas, acne, menstrual issues, bloating, and/or diarrhea or loose stools benefit significantly from eliminating dairy.
Typically, after 3 full weeks of avoiding dairy, you should see a difference in your GI symptoms. If you’re unsure, you can reintroduce dairy foods after those 3 weeks and notice if symptoms return.
If you do experience significant symptoms with dairy, it’s best to avoid it as much as possible. When you must consume dairy, consider taking a digestive enzyme supplement with hydrochloric acid (HCl) and lactase to help with digestion of the milk sugars.
The low FODMAP diet is not meant to be a long-term or sustainable diet. It’s designed to help people identify foods that may be causing digestive distress so they can eliminate or reduce those foods in their diet.
A low FODMAP diet may be recommended for those with IBS, though in my experience, I’ve seen it work particularly well for people with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). When used together with gut antimicrobial agents and some liver support, a low FODMAP diet can be helpful short-term in addressing this bacterial overgrowth.
FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. These are all sugars that are not absorbed well by the small intestine. They tend to absorb water and ferment in the colon, which can lead to gas, bloating, and other digestive symptoms in some people.
FODMAP foods include certain fruits and vegetables, grains, sweeteners, legumes, and meats.3 It’s an exhaustive list, so cutting out all these foods long-term is not typically recommended, as many are important sources of micro- and macronutrients.
If you’re unsure if it’s going to be helpful, you can trial a low FODMAP diet for 7 days. If you notice an improvement in your symptoms, you may benefit by following it for a bit longer.
The Whole30 diet is very popular these days. It’s more of a challenge than a “diet,” however. Whole30 is extremely restrictive and is not meant to be a sustainable diet.
The whole 30 diet emphasizes the importance of eating whole foods, while eliminating foods many people find they are sensitive to, such as dairy, corn, soy, and sugar. It can be a good baseline for figuring out which foods work well for your body and which you may benefit from avoiding.
The autoimmune paleo diet eliminates any foods that may be inflammatory. I find this diet is very effective for people with autoimmune conditions. Foods to avoid on the autoimmune paleo diet include:
- Processed oils
- Nuts and seeds
Again, this is an extensive list of foods, many of which are rich in nutrients. The autoimmune paleo diet is not meant to be a long-term solution, but it can make a world of difference for those with autoimmune issues like:
- IBD (Crohn’s disease or colitis)
- Celiac disease
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Graves’ disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Many other autoimmune disorders
Typically, people follow this diet for about 8 weeks. If they aren’t experiencing symptoms after 8 weeks, they may slowly reintroduce some of the foods to identify which they react to and which they can handle.
A general rule of thumb is to start reintroducing foods that are less likely to cause a reaction—like nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains—and work up to more inflammatory foods like dairy and gluten.
When working with patients to improve their digestive health, I often recommend supplements that may aid digestion and heal the gut along with a GI support diet. If you’ve had gut issues for a long time, removing the triggering foods is going to be the biggest step—but calming the gut mucosa can be extremely helpful.
These are the supplements I recommend most for supporting gut health and dealing with digestive issues:
- Licorice: This tasty herb may help soothe mucosal inflammation, assist with acid reflux and heartburn, and help repair the gut after infections such as H.Pylori.4
- L-Glutamine: Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid and the preferred fuel for your enterocytes (intestinal cells). Studies suggest it may help protect the mucosal lining and decrease intestinal permeability. It may be particularly helpful for those with IBD.5
- Triphala: Triphala is an ayurvedic blend of 3 different herbs. It’s used widely in ayurvedic medicine to support gut function and may offer laxative, anti-inflammatory, immune-modulating, antibacterial, adaptogenic, chemoprotective, and antioxidant effects.6
- Aloe: Aloe is a gentle, demulcent herb that may soothe inflammation in the gut. It’s helpful for constipation, diarrhea, and inflammatory disorders like IBD and IBS.7
- Vitamin C: In one study, high dose vitamin C shifted the gut microbiome after only 2 weeks of usage.8 Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that may help soothe systemic inflammation, as well as gut inflammation.
- Castor oil packs: Castor oil used topically with heat can be a very effective tool for inflammation. It may help ease constipation and diarrhea, as well as complaints of IBS and inflammatory bowel disorders.
- Marshmallow root: Similar to licorice, marshmallow root is a demulcent herb that may help soothe the mucosal lining of your gut and serve as a prebiotic to help support your gut flora.
- Fish oil: Studies suggest essential omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may help reset gut bacterial balance in individuals with diseases like IBD.9
- Probiotics: Probiotics can help re-establish healthy gut flora after infections, stress, or other inflammatory conditions.
- Curcumin: A potent anti-inflammatory herb used for thousands of years in traditional medicines like Ayurveda, studies have shown curcumin may help regulate the balance of intestinal microflora.10
Remember, just because a diet works for someone else doesn’t mean it’s the perfect diet for you. If you are experiencing symptoms of digestive distress, consider trying one of these GI support diets and incorporating gut-soothing supplements into your regimen.
You may find it helpful to work with a physician, registered dietitian, or other qualified healthcare professional to develop an effective, personalized plan that eases your gut woes and gets you back to feeling your best.
- Swagerty DL Jr, Walling AD, Klein RM. Lactose intolerance [published correction appears in Am Fam Physician. 2003 Mar 15;67(6):1195]. Am Fam Physician. 2002;65(9):1845-1850. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12018807/
- Misselwitz B, Butter M, Verbeke K, Fox MR. Update on lactose malabsorption and intolerance: pathogenesis, diagnosis and clinical management. Gut. 2019;68(11):2080-2091. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2019-318404 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6839734/
- Sadra A, Kweon HS, Huh SO, Cho J. Gastroprotective and gastric motility benefits of AD-lico/Healthy Gut™ Glycyrrhiza inflata extract. Anim Cells Syst (Seoul). 2017;21(4):255-262. Published 2017 Aug 18. doi:10.1080/19768354.2017.1357660 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6138315/
- Kim MH, Kim H. The Roles of Glutamine in the Intestine and Its Implication in Intestinal Diseases. Int J Mol Sci. 2017;18(5):1051. Published 2017 May 12. doi:10.3390/ijms18051051 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5454963/
- Peterson CT, Denniston K, Chopra D. Therapeutic Uses of Triphala in Ayurvedic Medicine. J Altern Complement Med. 2017;23(8):607-614. doi:10.1089/acm.2017.0083 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5567597/
- Foster M, Hunter D, Samman S. Evaluation of the Nutritional and Metabolic Effects of Aloe vera. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, editors. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011. Chapter 3. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92765/
- Otten AT, Bourgonje AR, Peters V, Alizadeh BZ, Dijkstra G, Harmsen HJM. Vitamin C Supplementation in Healthy Individuals Leads to Shifts of Bacterial Populations in the Gut-A Pilot Study. Antioxidants (Basel). 2021;10(8):1278. Published 2021 Aug 12. doi:10.3390/antiox10081278 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34439526/
- Costantini L, Molinari R, Farinon B, Merendino N. Impact of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on the Gut Microbiota. Int J Mol Sci. 2017;18(12):2645. Published 2017 Dec 7. doi:10.3390/ijms18122645 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5751248/
- Scazzocchio B, Minghetti L, D'Archivio M. Interaction between Gut Microbiota and Curcumin: A New Key of Understanding for the Health Effects of Curcumin. Nutrients. 2020;12(9):2499. Published 2020 Aug 19. doi:10.3390/nu12092499 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7551052/