Mountaintop Medicine: Nutrition Notes — Nutrition for a Happy Gut

Leah Gardner, EPH Registered Dietitian

Hello readers, and welcome back to another edition of Mountaintop Medicine: Nutrition Notes! My name is Leah Gardner and I’m a registered dietitian at Estes Park Health. This week’s hot topic is the incredible complexity of the gut and its importance to our overall health. You’ve probably heard the term, “gut health,” but what does that really mean?

The gut, commonly known as the digestive system, needs to have just the right balance of tiny bacteria and other microbes to be considered healthy. The state of our gut tends to affect the health of just about every part of our body- when the microbiome is out of balance it can lead to a variety of mental and physical health problems ranging from autoimmune disorders to depression and anxiety. When the gut is healthy, it can help promote happiness and wellbeing as it dictates the strength of our immune system, our mood, and encourages effective digestion that is free of discomfort.

What is the gut microbiome?

The gut microbiome is essentially all the bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit our intestines- but they are found in all parts of our digestive system, including the mouth and throat. While some of these microorganisms can be bad for our health, others have been proven to be extremely beneficial. Many studies have demonstrated the benefits of having a large variety of microbiota in the gut- this diversity may reduce the risk of certain conditions like diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.

How does our gut affect our health?

The gut plays a huge role in our physical and mental health and general wellbeing. It digests the foods we eat, absorbs nutrients from it, and uses those nutrients to fuel and maintain our bodies. Research has shown links between the health of our gut and the formation of mental health concerns like anxiety and depression, autoimmune diseases, endocrine disorders such as diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, heart disease, and cancer.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Did you know that the human gut has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system? This is why the gut is commonly referred to as our “second brain.” It is constantly in tight communication with the brain and influences our digestive muscle contractions, and fluid secretion. It is a key player in the body’s immune system and houses over 70% of our immune cells. Additionally, a large amount of serotonin is produced in the gut. These little microorganisms found in our digestive system produce neurotransmitters that have been proven to ease uncomfortable feelings of fear and anxiety.

Signs of an unhappy gut:

  1. Stomach disturbances such as heartburn, gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
  2. Having a diet high in sugar and processed foods can decrease the number of good bacteria in the gut.
  3. Unintentional weight gain or weight loss due to malabsorption of nutrients, regulation of blood sugars, and fat storage.
  4. Food intolerance resulting from difficulty digesting certain foods. Dairy products and gluten are often main sources of food intolerance. This not to be confused with a food allergy, which is a reaction to certain foods caused by the immune system.
  5. Sleep disturbances and fatigue.
  6. Skin conditions such as psoriasis may be related to types of bacteria found in the gut.

Things you can do to promote a happy gut:

Switch up your diet by reducing the amount of processed, high sugar, and high fat foods you eat. These foods can be harmful to the diversity and function of gut microbiota. Instead, opt for a variety of whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy products. A diverse microbiome is considered a healthy one. This is because the more species of bacteria you have, the more health benefits they may be able to contribute to.

Eat foods high in fiber to support your digestive system. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains like oats and quinoa, nuts, and legumes like beans, peas, and chickpeas are all rich in fiber. Fiber helps to stimulate growth and diversity of good gut bacteria. These foods are also rich in prebiotics, which promote growth of good bacteria.

Eat fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi as they are great dietary sources of probiotics, or beneficial microbiota.

Consider taking a daily probiotic supplement to help support your gut microbiome. These can give your microbiota a boost and restore gut health under certain conditions such as when taking an antibiotic as these destroy gut bacteria.

Limit alcohol intake to one serving per day (women) and two servings per day (men); one serving is equal to 12 oz beer, 5 oz wine, or 1.5 oz distilled spirits. Excess alcohol can inflame the gut and alter the microbiome.

De-stress and Relax- Stress doesn’t just affect us mentally. Research suggests anxiety and depression are affected by the gut and vice versa—they can increase the risk of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and people with IBS are more likely to experience these mental health disorders.

Remember next time you’re having a meal, you’re feeding not just your body, but your gut and your brain! If you have any questions or if there are any nutrition-related topics that you would like me to discuss, please email me at