How to Keep a Healthy Gut: 3 Rules to Follow

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Gut" by Giulia Enders. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the function of the gut? What are some things you can do to maintain a healthy gut?

The gut encompasses organs, muscles, and bacteria that digest food and fight off nasty infections. To ensure it’s healthy, you need to take care of your microbiome, which is the good bacteria in your gut.

Here’s how to keep a healthy gut, according to Giulia Enders.

How to Maintain a Healthy Gut

By the time you’re three years old, you have a basic composition of gut bacteria that will remain consistent throughout the rest of your life. Although this basic composition doesn’t change, you can still influence the health of your gut microbiome as you get older. Enders provides three tips on how to keep a healthy gut.

Tip #1: Take Prebiotics and Probiotics

Enders’s first piece of advice is to nourish your gut bacteria by taking probiotics and prebiotics. While people often group them together, probiotics and prebiotics serve different functions in the gut.

Probiotics flood your gut with good bacteria. These bacteria have all of the positive effects on your gut that we discussed earlier: They help train your immune system to fight infection and provide you with nutrients. Many food and drink products contain probiotics, including pickles, kombucha, kefir, and tempeh. Pharmacies also sell probiotics in supplement form.

On the other hand, prebiotics feed the good bacteria that are already in your gut. Like probiotics, prebiotics are present in both foods and supplements. Foods that contain prebiotics are rich in dietary fiber and include beans, peas, apples, and cocoa.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Prebiotics and Probiotics

As Enders notes, taking prebiotics and probiotics can have positive effects on health. Furthermore, studies show that taking the two together can make them more effective. This is because prebiotics rich in dietary fiber serve as food for probiotic bacteria, helping them grow, reproduce, and keep your gut healthy.

However, there can be drawbacks to taking probiotics and prebiotics. The FDA doesn’t regulate supplements as strictly as food, so there are lower standards for prebiotics and probiotics bought at the pharmacy. In some cases, probiotics and prebiotics can also cause sickness. Furthermore, they can cause side effects such as gas and bloating, especially when taking both in the same sitting. To minimize side effects, try taking prebiotics and probiotics at different times during the day.

Tip #2: Avoid Bad Bacteria

While most bacteria in our gut are helpful, some bacteria can make us sick. To have a healthy gut, Enders tells us to avoid bacteria such as salmonella, which is commonly found in poultry and livestock and can cause vomiting and diarrhea. She recommends thoroughly washing cutting boards, knives, and surfaces that touch eggs and raw meat, and washing your hands when cooking these foods.

(Shortform note: Even if you follow the strategies Enders suggests, you might still contract salmonella. If this happens, it’s likely to pass in four to seven days. Clinicians recommend drinking lots of water to compensate for the fluids lost to vomiting and diarrhea. If symptoms persist beyond a week, go to the hospital: You may need treatment for dehydration.)

Tip #3: Take Antibiotics Only When Necessary

The last tip to maintaining a healthy gut is to only take antibiotics when you need them, and not just for safe measures. Scientists designed antibiotics to cure bacterial diseases such as pneumonia by killing off bad bacteria. Enders acknowledges that antibiotics work and supports taking them when they are medically necessary. However, she explains that antibiotics also kill good bacteria. Needlessly taking antibiotics (for example, to treat a common cold) depletes the good bacteria in our guts and can even make bacteria immune to antibiotics in the future.

The Potential Risks of Antibiotics for Young Children

Some scientists maintain that overusing antibiotics is especially dangerous for babies and toddlers. These scientists theorize that there is a “critical period” in which small changes to our microbiota—such as the death of bacteria due to antibiotics—have large consequences due to the lack of diversity in infants’ microbiomes. Studies on mice support this hypothesis, suggesting a link between antibiotic usage in early life and the development of asthma. However, other scientists maintain that more research needs to be done to establish and understand these connections in humans. As Enders recommends, take your doctor’s suggestions when deciding whether to give antibiotics to young children.

How to Keep a Healthy Gut: 3 Rules to Follow

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Giulia Enders's "Gut" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Gut summary :

  • How your digestive system works and why it’s important to keep it healthy
  • How tiny organisms in your intestines influence your immune system (and possibly your mood)
  • What your appendix actually does

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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