In case you didn’t know: Your gut is connected to almost every aspect of your health. In one way or another, it touches almost every function of your body—from immunity to sleep to mood and much more.
And because the gut has so many ties, there are quite a few factors that can upset its delicate balance. Some of these are more obvious culprits (diet, certain medications, and the like), but others? Well, they’re a bit more sneaky.
That’s why we asked medical nutrition therapy specialist Carol Ireton-Jones, Ph.D., RDN (who also developed the Ireton-Jones equations that dietitians and doctors use to this day in clinical settings) about some of the less-obvious players she sees in her patients with GI issues. It’s difficult to narrow them down, she tells us on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, as everyone’s body is different—but below are some common, yet underrated, offenders:
According to Ireton-Jones, it’s not the type of food that exacerbates gut issues—it’s how much you eat it (unless, of course, you have a more severe issue, like celiac disease). “You can have some salts; you can have some sugar,” she notes. “There’s no food that is inherently bad as an occasional thing.” The dose makes the poison, as they say.
You can apply the same logic to healthy foods, too: We’ve said this before, but you can’t just eat pounds of kale and expect your gut to remain in tiptop shape. Your gut microbes are picky eaters—they love a diverse range of fiber and nutrients in order to stay satisfied.
Additionally, says Ireton-Jones, eating all day long without ever getting hungry is not so good for the gut. It’s the other layer to overconsumption: “We have forgotten that it’s OK to be hungry in between meals,” she explains. Of course, some people might have individualized issues with blood sugar control, but generally, she recommends stopping your food intake after dinner, around three hours before bed.
It’s not as strict as a full-on intermittent fasting plan—it aligns more with circadian fasting—but letting your gut rest for a significant period of time is key. “We’re exposed to food all day long, and we can get food any time we want,” Ireton-Jones says. “If intermittent fasting teaches somebody to eat at more prescribed hours, that’s OK with me.”
“The GI tract really likes to move,” says Ireton-Jones. Research backs it up, too: One review found that aerobic exercise can increase the amount of bacteria in your digestive tract and contribute to overall bacterial diversity, while another study found that the more physically fit you are, the more diverse your microbiome is.
In terms of the best exercise for gut health? Well, we at mbg like to say the best exercise for you is the one you’ll actually do consistently. If that’s yoga, great! (And here are some digestion-supporting poses to try). If it’s five minutes of HIIT, wonderful! All it takes, says Ireton-Jones, is to get up and get moving. “I’d like you to at least walk around the block,” she poses. “Two blocks, if you can.”
In case you didn’t know, vitamin D has a close relationship with the gut. “The GI tract likes vitamin D,” says Ireton-Jones, with studies showing the sunshine hormone plays a crucial role in promoting beneficial gut bacteria.
Not to mention, vitamin D is an immunomodulator—considering more than 70% of the body’s immune system is located in the gut, it’s an important little vitamin. In fact, research has shown that vitamin D plays a key role in the health of the gut mucosal lining, acting as an anti-inflammatory and anti-infective to support a healthy immune response against viruses and other pathogens.
There are plenty of ways to make sure you get adequate amounts of vitamin D, with both foods and supplements, but one of the easiest methods? Sunshine! Of course, you’ll want to apply sunscreen before you venture out (and diligently reapply every two hours, please!), but Ireton-Jones suggests a little sunlight for your vitamin D fix.
Optimizing your gut health is a bit of a balancing act—and sometimes, the sneakiest players can throw you off. They aren’t the only factors that affect your gut (not at all!), but they are some of the most overlooked.