Digestive enzymes, collagen, probiotics, and fermented foods all have one thing in common: gut health.
ICYMI, gut health is kind of a big deal right now, whether you adopted an anti-inflammatory diet because you heard it can help with leaky gut syndrome or you’re all about that kefir for a healthy dose of bacteria. In fact, according to a recent report, the global digestive health products market is expected to reach about $57 billion by 2026.
Maintaining a healthy gut has been linked to a wide variety of physical and mental health benefits, from improved digestion to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. But reaping those benefits isn’t quite as complicated as we make it, says Will Bulsiewicz, MD, a South Carolina-based gastroenterologist and internationally recognized gut health expert. In fact, it just takes a few major every day habits to keep your gut in tip-top shape.
“The reality is you can’t ‘out supplement’ a poor lifestyle,” Dr. Bulsiewicz says. “If you just build it into your life, then you’re going to reap the rewards of better health because you have basically amplified your health just through lifestyle habits. You’re not even thinking about it, you’re just living it.”
Here Dr. Bulsiewicz weighs in with the things he does every day to improve gut health (and his overall quality of life).
1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
This one seems easy, but Dr. Bulsiewicz says adequate hydration is actually wildly overlooked when it comes to digestive health. “It actually blows my mind that we pay a substantial amount of money to drink carbonated sugary beverages when, if you go to a restaurant, they’ll give you water for free and it is the healthiest beverage on the planet,” he says.
Dr. Bulsiewicz makes water a priority from the moment he rolls out of bed, since water helps break down food and move it through the digestive tract. “You haven’t had anything to drink for many hours, you’ve potentially been up to the restroom a few times and many of us reach out in our zombie-like state and grab a cup of coffee and we dehydrate ourselves further,” he says. “So, start with hydration and make it a core part of your daily routine. Two glasses of water first thing in the morning—boom. That’s the first thing I do.”
2. Enjoy coffee
Find this one (pleasantly) surprising? It’s true: Dr. Bulsiewicz says you can have your coffee and your healthy gut, too. In fact, coffee can actually benefit your gut with healthy acids, like chlorogenic acid, and polyphenols, antioxidant compounds that Dr. Bulsiewicz says have prebiotic properties (meaning that they feed the good bacteria in your gut).
“The issue with coffee is not the coffee, it’s what we add to it,” Dr. Bulsiewicz says, adding that black coffee is the way to go in order to reap the gut-boosting rewards. However, he does like to add a prebiotic fiber, like wheat dextrin or acacia powder, in order to give his drink some extra gut-boosting oomph.
No matter what you choose, Dr. Bulsiewicz says you just stir it in and drink up. “It will not change the taste—it’s still the same glorious cup of coffee,” he says. “But what you’re doing is feeding your gut microbes.”
Want to know more about the health benefits of coffee? An RD breaks it down in You Versus Food:
3. Make a killer lunch salad
While Dr. Bulsiewicz maintains that diet is the main determinant of your gut microbiome, making a “monstrous salad” for lunch is the only food-related thing that he’s going to recommend you consider doing every single day.
“Our gut microbes, they want fiber,” he says. “And it’s scientifically proven that the single greatest predictor of a healthy gut is a diversity of plants [in one’s diet]. So when you build your daily food routine around a lunch salad, you have an opportunity to really build the foundation of a healthy gut with that meal on a daily basis.”
Of course, Dr. Bulsiewicz isn’t talking about a salad made from Iceberg lettuce and topped with dried bacon pieces and a drizzle of blue cheese dressing. Instead, he says you should fill your bowl with as many plants as possible, particularly leafy green vegetables (think spinach, lettuce, kale, collard greens, and Swiss chard). “Greens have virtually no calories and tons of nutrition,” he says. “It’s like Christmas for your gut.” Feeling stumped on ideas? Try this four-step formula for building a filling lunch salad.
4. Break a sweat
OK, so this one is not about how you break a sweat. The key, instead, is that you do sweat, Dr. Bulsiewicz says, which will, in turn, help you to create a healthier gut. “What blows me away, is that something that has nothing to do with our diet, nothing to do with what we put into our mouth, can actually change our gut microbiome,” he says.
Dr. Bulsiewicz points to a small 2014 study of Irish rugby players that showed exercise increases microbial diversity in humans. Exercise has also been found to help IBS symptoms, and a researcher found that athletes who better optimized their diets for digestive health performed better. “These changes that occur in the gut microbiome as a result of exercise lead to you getting more beneficial health-promoting nutrients from your food,” he explains. “[Exercise] helps you get more good gut microbes and those gut microbes help you to basically extract and unpack the nutrients in your food.” Nifty, huh?
5. Consider fasting (but not the intermittent kind)
Dr. Bulsiewicz says an essential component of his day is to follow an eating schedule that aligns with the rise and the fall of the sun. “It’s important to give our gut a break,” he says. “Many people, in my opinion, are not doing this the right way in that they are basically just not eating until the afternoon.”
The reason? Dr. Bulsiewicz says it’s just not the way your circadian rhythm is designed. So, while he believes in intermittent fasting, he anchors his fasting to his internal body clock. “The way that you do that is simply by cutting out the late-night snacks and beverages,” he says. “Hard rule. No food or beverage other than water after dinner.” For Dr. Bulsiewicz, that means eating dinner around 6 p.m. and calling it quits until the morning. Which is where he starts all over again, beginning, of course, with his morning dose of water.
Looking for more expert advice? Here’s what a cardiologist does to maintain her heart health, and what a dentist does to make sure their teeth are truly pearly white.