Study Shows Eating More of a Certain Type of Food Will Reduce Gut Inflammation

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How to Reduce Gut InflammationLaylaBird - Getty Images

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When you’re bloated or are forced to spend way too much time in the bathroom for whatever poop problem is plaguing you, it’s easy to say that you’ve got "tummy trouble," grab some pink stuff or antacid, and hope for the best.

But the human gut isn't only about your digestion or whether you’re able to button your jeans — it’s actually a complicated and somewhat high-maintenance system. Treat it right and you’ll see the positive effects throughout your body. A few wrong moves, however, could cause trouble way beyond stomach woes like heartburn and diarrhea.

Your gut, shorthand for the entire gastrointestinal tract that includes your stomach, colon and intestines, contains bacteria and other microbes that impact wide-ranging bodily functions, like immunity and brain response. When something is amiss with the mix of bacteria, over time your gut may become inflamed. “When you have inflammation in your gut, you just feel bad,” says Rudolph Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “It may cause feelings of nausea and uncomfortable abdominal pain.” It could also

be a sign of an underlying condition, like Celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease, he points out. (More on that in a bit.)

If your gut is feeling off, just know that you’re not the only one grappling with this. “I see more patients than ever with inflammation, and studies show that rates are rising worldwide,” says Alexis Supan, MPH, RD, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. But gut trouble isn’t inevitable, and, if you already have signs of inflammation, there’s lots you can do to cool the fire. These five moves may help get you back on the right track — or prevent inflammation from becoming a big deal in the first place.

Meet the experts: Rudolph Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA; Alexis Supan, MPH, RD, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio; Dawn W. Adams, MD, associate professor of medicine and director of the Celiac Disease Clinic at Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Quicks Ways to Reduce Gut Inflammation

Keep to an anti-inflammatory diet

One big way to reduce gut inflammation starts at your next meal. “Dietary changes play a huge role in treating gut inflammation,” says Supan. Overall, you’re shooting for more omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, while simultaneously trimming added sugar and processed fare. Translation: Cut back on inflammatory foods, which include candy, deep-fried foods and other highly processed fare that causes blood sugar to rise too quickly. High blood sugar long-term can wreak havoc with cells, triggering an inflammatory response. Replace these foods with more veggies, fish and whole grains.

And fiber is key, because it does more than just bulk up your poop so that you stay regular. One recent study showed that fiber shifts the balance in the gut microbiome, reducing a marker of inflammation. Since a sudden increase in fiber can trigger unwanted GI symptoms, Supan suggests making gradual swaps in your diet to include more fiber-rich foods, like whole grains, leafy green veggies and legumes (think: beans). You can score more omega-3 fatty acids, which help quell inflammation all over the body, by eating fish (salmon is a great source!), flaxseed and walnuts.

Something else to consider: You might be dealing with a food intolerance. Having a sensitivity to something like lactose — which is common — can lead to bloating, discomfort and diarrhea, points out Dawn W. Adams, MD, associate professor of medicine and director of the Celiac Disease Clinic at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “You can go on a low lactose diet and give it a few weeks,” she says. “See how you feel and then slowly add foods with lactose back in.” If you’re uncomfortable all over again, you’ve figured out what’s behind your inflammation.

Stay hydrated with the right drinks

Stick to your H2O.

A huge source of added sugar in American diets is beverages. “Added sugar is extremely inflammatory to our bodies,” says Supan. Food and drinks with a lot of added sugar trigger the release of inflammatory molecules like cytokines — these are part of your immune system, but too many can lead to chronic inflammation, according to the Cleveland Clinic. While desserts are an obvious source of added sugar — 2/3 cup of premium ice cream contains about 6 teaspoons of added sugar — the amount of sugar in some beverages may surprise you. A 16 oz. soda has a staggering 12 teaspoons worth of added sugar—that’s about twice as much as a serving of premium ice cream!

“You want to limit or avoid refined sugar and anything with high-fructose corn syrup,” Bedford says. “All of these seem to feed inflammatory processes, especially if they’re bacterial in nature.”

But it’s not just sodas — iced teas, flavored coffee drinks and cocktails can exceed the max amount in a serving. And even if there’s no obvious sugar in your drink, alcoholic beverages may be a problem: Research shows that as your body break downs alcohol, it produces inflammatory compounds. “Alcohol itself will cause exacerbation of any inflammatory process, especially in the basic cells of the gut,” Dr. Bedford says.

According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, fewer than 10% of your total calories should come from added sugar — for a 2,000-calorie diet, that's about 50 grams of sugar — and some experts think that amount is too high.

Consider taking an Omega-3 supplement

If you’re not a fan of salmon — or don’t think you’d be able to have a couple of servings of fatty fish every week — an omega-3 supplement can provide similar anti-inflammatory benefits, says Supan. Taking an omega-3 supplement “is one of the greatest tools in fighting inflammation not only in your gut, but throughout your body,” she says. Dr. Bedford agrees. “Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, which may help,” he says.

One heads up about supplements, though: While some people swear by probiotic supplements, their impact, if any, is different for everyone. “I always caution my patients on probiotics: What works for one person might not work for someone else,” Dr. Adams says. She also points out that it can be hard to tell as a consumer if the probiotics you buy are actually living — which is necessary for them to provide health benefits — when you buy a bottle. There’s also not as much solid scientific evidence to support their use for inflammation. “Research shows that certain types of probiotic bacteria may be lacking in patients with gut inflammation, but not all studies show taking a supplement helps,” Supan says. If you’re hoping to prevent inflammation, Supan notes that a few servings of plain, unsweetened yogurt a week may help “balance things out and keep inflammation at bay.”

Our registered dietitians in the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab review and evaluate every single supplement we recommend in accordance with our dietary supplement methodology. We then have a registered dietitian on our Medical Review Board review each article for scientific accuracy. A supplement should do just that: supplement the diet, not replace high-quality, nutritious food and important healthy lifestyle practices. Check with your healthcare provider before starting any dietary supplement regimen.

Manage your stress

The mind-body connection is in full force when it comes to inflammation, and some have referred to your gut being your “second brain,” since so many of your emotions are felt there as well. “The gut has its own nervous system that communicates with your brain,” Adams says. So, when you’re stressed, it can trigger all kinds of symptoms in your gut.

“I find that my patients tend to have more symptoms during periods of intense stress,” says Supan. While what makes you feel chill tends to a personal preference, dusting off the yoga mat may be a good idea. In one study, doing yoga for 90 minutes daily five times a week significantly lowered levels of inflammation as well as the stress hormone cortisol.

Other research-proven stress busters include meditation and psychological therapy, in particular cognitive behavior therapy. A review of more than 50 studies found that this type of therapy, which focuses on coping skills, reduced pro-inflammatory cytokines. Volunteering, taking a class or hanging out with friends even when you feel too busy to do so may also help because there’s a surprising link between loneliness and inflammation.

Prioritize sleep

Not getting enough rest increases your level of cytokines and other inflammatory compounds, according to research. “It’s all tied to stress,” Dr. Adams says. Your gut also has motor complexes linked to your circadian rhythm and, when your sleep schedule is off, it throws your gut motility out of whack, she says. “Going to bed around the same time can help keep this consistent and make you less likely to have gastrointestinal issues,” Dr. Adams says.

Make your bedroom a sanctuary by opting for bedding that suits your temperature preferences and put up black-out curtains to keep early-morning light at bay. Putting a clock alarm on your nightstand — rather than checking the time on your phone — can also do you a world of good. After all, how many times have you reached for the phone in the middle of the night only to go down the social media rabbit hole?

Causes of Gut Inflammation

Besides the diet and lifestyle-related triggers for gut inflammation, a handful of other factors play a role.

  • Common medications, like antibiotics, certain antidepressants and proton-pump inhibitors (which may be prescribed for ulcers and gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) all have a sneaky inflammatory side. Even the over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) that you may take to relieve a headache or period pain may irritate the stomach's mucous lining if you take them often enough. “In my experience, the most typical cause is some type of environmental insult, like a medication a patient is taking,” Dr. Bedford says. Of course, don’t stop taking any medication that your doctor prescribed. Instead, bring up your concerns at the next visit.

  • Infections and chronic conditions may also play a role in inflammation — though it’s sometimes hard to tell what came first, the inflammation or the health problem. Having inflammation, for instance, could make you more susceptible to infections from food-borne illness, according to research. Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and colitis, as well as long covid are associated with gut inflammation.

  • Although it’s not well understood yet, “environmental factors may also play a role in inflammation,” says Supan. For instance, some research has linked inflammation to air pollution. Water quality and exposure to plastics — especially in childhood — are also being investigated.

Treatments for Gut Inflammation

While taking charge of your gut health may seem like a lot, following this list will help you quickly see improvements.

  • Make sure at least half your plate at dinner is vegetables that aren’t fried.

  • When you crave something sweet, reach for fruit — truly, a dish of berries with a dollop of ricotta cheese is divine.

  • Clear your head by walking around the neighborhood or putting on headphones and jamming to your favorite tunes.

  • Don’t always schedule social events that involve food or cocktails — consider a round of pickleball or walk at the park.

  • Prioritize sleeping in your bedroom over binge-watching TV or scrolling on your phone.

  • Take an omega-3 fatty acid supplement unless you already eat a lot of foods rich in the anti-inflammatory substance.

If you've tried all of that and are still struggling, it's time to talk to a doctor. They'll likely want to do an evaluation to see if there could be an underlying condition behind your inflammation, and recommend next steps from there.

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