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Fruits and vegetables "feed" the tiny bacteria in digestive tract, which improves overall gut health.Crystal Cox/Business Insider

  • A gastroenterologist shared three ways to improve gut health.

  • Exercise improves the environment in the gut to allow for "good" bacteria to flourish.

  • Probiotic supplements don't address the underlying factors that contribute to poor gut health.

Put the probiotic supplements down, as they likely aren't doing much for your overall gut health.

The gut, or your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum, is home to trillions of living, breathing bacteria which influence weight, chronic disease, mood, and other health factors.

Recent breakthroughs in gut research has led to a increased interest in improving gut health — and supplement makers promise daily dietary capsules are the best solution.

But the state of your gut health is actually determined by your lifestyle, said Dr. Kumkum Patel, a board-certified gastroenterologist based in Orange County, California.

Patel broke down the main factors that contribute to poor gut health, and explained why apples, deep breaths, and 7-minute walks will do more for the little bacteria in your bowels than trendy — and, at times, pricey — supplements.

The problem with probiotic supplements for gut health

Patel, who treats patients with a host of gut-related issues such as bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea, said life stressors set off the gut's bacteria by increasing stress and anxiety.

Heightened stress changes nerve sensitivity in the bowels, Patel said, which alters the environment in the gut to allow for "bad" bacteria to grow and thrive, leading to digestive issues.

"If you deplete your mental health, it will eventually lead to the depletion of the happy hormones in the gut, which changes how you perceive pain," Patel said. "It leads to constipation and diarrhea. It can lead the growth of 'bad' bacteria, which promotes insulin resistance and causes you to overeat."

Probiotic supplements promise to introduce "good" bacteria to counteract the "bad" ones, but these products won't fix the underlying reason for poor gut health, Patel said.

Plus, everyone's gut microbiome contains a unique amount and array of organisms, meaning there's no one-size-fits-all probiotic supplement that contains the "correct" dose and strain of good bacteria to help every gut, Patel said.

"The problem with all these supplements is that there's no one right formulation or dose for any of us, because all of us have a different balance of flora that's good versus that's bad," Patel said. "And that's ever-changing, it changes on an almost daily basis."

Feed your gut with onions and apples, not supplements

The first step in taking care of your gut is increasing the fiber in your diet, Patel said. The gut bacteria breaks fiber down into short-chain fatty acids, which aid in colon health, influence bacteria to produce "happy" hormones, stimulate insulin production, and help the immune system.

Fiber is often conflated with "prebiotics," which refers to all organic compounds that feed gut microorganisms. While fiber is a type of prebiotic, all non-digestive starches that feed probiotics are called prebiotics, Patel said.

Fiber and other prebiotics are found in onions, garlic, apples, bananas, oats, and many other foods. Since there are many types of prebiotics that feed a variety of microorganisms, Patel said a diverse diet is best for gut health.

Your gut bacteria responds well to exercise and deep breaths

Exercise, too, promotes the growth of aerobic bacteria in the gut, which stimulate the production and release of happy hormones, such as serotonin. As little as seven minutes of movement a day can improve the gut microbiome, Patel said, but she usually recommends a minimum of 20-30 minutes daily.

Deep breathing exercises can also improve gut health: deep breaths calms down the nerves in your gut, which allows for certain bacteria to remain static long enough to flourish. Michigan Medicine has a guide to practice deep breathing in a way that helps gut issues.

Patel said simple lifestyle changes can go a long way for gut health, and said to remain wary of marketing for trendy "gut healthy" supplements and beverages.

"You can't necessarily rely on just one source or one supplement because it's not enough," she said. "You need to rely on multiple sources of prebiotic and probiotic foods to give yourself diversity."

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