What do you think of when you think about your gut? If you’re like most Americans, you may think of digestive conditions like gas, bloating, stomach cramps, and acid reflux—after all, 74 percent of us deal with these conditions.

But your gut does much more than digest and absorb the food you eat. It plays a critical role in maintaining your overall health because it is a key component of your immune system. Approximately 70 percent of your immune system is located beneath the surface of your gut lining. Your gut is exposed to more foreign molecules and foreign organisms than any other organ in your body and it must fight off these invaders.

Your gut also affects your nervous system. The gut is sometimes referred to as your “second brain” because it contains more nerve cells than your spine and as many neurotransmitters as your brain.

Your gut health has a profound effect on stress, anger, anxiety, depression, and other emotions. Ninety percent of serotonin—the key neurotransmitter that affects your mood—is produced in your gut.

The bacteria in your digestive system need to be in balance. Your large intestine is its own ecosystem of gut flora, which play critical roles in digestion and overall health.

The following foods and medications can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut, either by hindering your good bacteria or increasing bad bacteria.

Sugar – Excess sugar increases the bad bacteria in your gut—and most Americans eat about three times the amount of the sugar they should. Is it any wonder that three-fourths of Americans have gut issues?

Foods that cause allergies/sensitivities – If you feel bloated or lethargic or get headaches when eating the following foods, you may have a sensitivity or allergy. Three main groups of foods cause most of these reactions:

Gluten: proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains.

Dairy: primarily caused by the protein in cows’ milk, casein. Reactions may also be due to lactose (milk sugar) intolerance.

Soy: about 93 percent of soy products are genetically modified.

Medications – While needed to fight infection, medications can also reduce the number of good bacteria in your gut. Problematic medications include:

  • Prescription antibiotics
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen
  • Proton pump inhibitors like Prilosec, Prevacid, and Nexium
  • Sleeping pills
  • Birth control pills
  • If you are taking these medications, talk with your doctor about whether you can reduce or eliminate them. If not, you will need to be diligent about consuming probiotics and prebiotics to keep your gut flora balanced.

Prebiotic foods are foods that contain undigestible fiber and natural sugars that stimulate the growth of good gut bacteria that help ward off pathogens.

Examples of prebiotic rich foods are:

  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Whole grains, such as oats
  • Beans and lentils
  • Cashews
  • Garlic
  • Greens—beet, mustard, and turnip
  • Jicama
  • Kiwifruit
  • Leeks

In general, whole fruits and vegetables (not juice) and whole grains are good sources of prebiotics.

Probiotic-rich foods contain good bacteria that support digestive wellness.

These foods include:

  • Cultured dairy products like yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, and buttermilk
  • Fermented beverages like kombucha
  • Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, beets, and kimchi
  • Fermented soybeans like miso and tempeh

When you have a healthy gut, you will be better able to avoid illness, brain fog and emotional stress. Follow these practical steps and you will love the way you feel!