Vitamins for Gut Health

woman with poor gut health places hands on abdomen

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of gut health in overall well-being. From aiding digestion to influencing our mood and immune function, the gut plays a critical role in maintaining our health and quality of life. One key aspect of supporting gut health is nutrition. In addition to foods that aid digestion, vitamins for gut health form a key aspect of a diet geared toward a healthy intestinal biome.  

What is Gut Health, Anyway?

Before we discuss vitamins for gut health and dietary sources, let’s talk about gut health in general. What is it? And why is it important?

Gut health refers to the status and function of the digestive system. Among other things, this system is responsible for breaking down the food you eat, absorbing released nutrients, and getting rid of solid waste. 

This may sound simple enough, but the digestive system is a carefully balanced machine. Even a slight imbalance can throw the whole operation out of whack. And it is not just your body’s organs at work: many trillions of microorganisms live in your gut, including around 100 trillion bacteria that are essential in healthy digestion.

What Are Good Bacteria?

We often think of bacteria as being the culprit behind serious illness. It is one of the reasons we wash our hands before eating and after using the restroom. But not all bacteria cause disease. In fact, the majority of bacteria in our guts are symbiotes. They find a home in our intestines and stomach and, in return, they provide us with many essential functions. 

For example, we rely on good bacteria to help break down solid food and absorb nutrients. Many species also produce essential nutrients as a by-product, such as folic acid, niacin, and vitamins B6 and 12. 

Furthermore, research suggests that the good bacteria in our gut may help protect us against harmful microorganisms. They apparently do this by producing acids that inhibit their growth cycle; these acids also alert our immune system to the presence of pathogens. 

Signs of an Unhealthy Gut

A well-functioning gut is one with a balance of good bacteria that allows for adequate nutrient absorption and regular, healthy bowel movements. Certain conditions or medications can throw off the balance in your digestive tract, leading to a host of unpleasant symptoms. Some of the top signs of an unhealthy gut include:

  • Bloating
  • Cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Weight fluctuation
  • Cravings
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Changes in bowel movement patterns

What Causes Poor Gut Health?

There are many factors that can affect your digestive health. One of the main causes of a shift in the biome is taking antibiotics. Antibiotics do not discern between “good” and “bad” bacteria. While they may fight off infection, they may also kill off enough of the beneficial flora in your gut to allow for virulent species to take over. Many women, for example, experience an overgrowth of yeast when taking certain antibiotics. C. Diff is another type of disease-causing bacteria that can flourish during a course of antibiotics. 

Antibiotics are not the only cause of gut imbalance, however. Your gut is tied to many functions in the body, which means poor health in these systems can also lead to poor gut health, and vice versa. All of the following are known to negatively impact your digestive system:

  • Smoking and alcohol
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Processed foods
  • Lack of exercise

Vitamins for Gut Health: Dietary Sources 

One of the best ways to restore and maintain a healthy gut biome is through a wholesome diet. Food sources provide the nourishment the good bacteria in your digestive tract need to thrive. These include:

Plant-Based, High Fiber Foods

These foods constitute “prebiotics,” which aid in the ability of good bacteria to reproduce and do their job:

  • Fruit, especially berries, apples, bananas, and avocado
  • Whole grains, like lentils, rice, and oats 
  • Root vegetables, especially sweet potatoes, carrots, and beets
  • Cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts

Fermented Foods

These are sources of probiotics, a name that means “for life” and is a general term used to describe species of good bacteria. Fermented foods contain live cultures of beneficial bacteria that can bolster a depleted microbiome. These include:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Tempeh
  • Kombucha
  • Miso
  • Apple cider vinegar (with the “mother”)
  • Plain yogurt

Phytoestrogen-Rich Foods

Phytoestrogens are plant-derived xenoestrogens: molecules which mimic the structure of estrogen in the body. Research has shown that phytoestrogens have a “potent ability” to alter the composition of microorganisms in the gut, effectively increasing the number of beneficial bacteria and reducing the number of disease-causing ones. Foods that are rich in phytoestrogens include:

  • Soy
  • Flaxseed
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Garlic
  • Red wine (moderate amounts)
  • Nuts, like cashews and almonds

What’s more, phytoestrogens also exert antioxidant effects and help regulate hormone imbalances. They have been shown to have far-reaching health benefits, from anti-cancer properties to alleviation of menopause symptoms. 

Best Supplements for Gut Health

Sometimes, we cannot get every nutrient we need from our diet alone. Certain medical conditions or genetics, for example, may prevent adequate absorption from food sources. In these cases, vitamins for gut health may be taken to supplement the diet. Some of the most beneficial include:

Psyllium

Psyllium is derived from the dried husk of a species of plantago, or plantain. This family of plants is known to contain high levels of mucilage, a sticky, slippery substance that serves various functions within the plant. The husk is dried and powdered, then sold in various forms, from capsules to drink mixes. When the dry husk comes into contact with water, it thickens the mucilage, which then acts to help bulk up stool and add a protective coating to inflamed intestines.   

Vitamin D

Studies are finding that Vitamin D plays a critical role in gut health. Not only does it have a modulatory effect on the microbiome, it also maintains the integrity of the intestinal barrier. It exerts a protective effect on the lining and regulates the system’s immune response. 

Vitamin D is primarily absorbed through the skin via sunlight. Deficiency is not uncommon, especially in areas with less sunlight. In fact, Vitamin D deficiency may be the most common medical condition in the world

If low vitamin D levels are suspected in conjunction with poor gut health, your provider may suggest supplementation. 

Vitamin C

Even in individuals with health levels, Vitamin C supplementation may be beneficial in shifting populations of beneficial bacteria in the gut. A small study found that individuals who took a high dose of vitamin C for two weeks showed a noticeable increase in Lachnospiraceae and blautia (good bacteria), and a decrease in Streptococcus, Bacteroides, and Enterococci genuses (bad bacteria). 

Treating a Gut Imbalance: A Holistic Approach

While vitamins for gut health are an important consideration, addressing issues with the digestive tract warrants a customized and holistic approach. Our gut biomes are as unique as our fingerprints: each has its own delicate balance and composition. 

For this reason, individuals experiencing signs of poor gut health should consult with a functional medicine provider. Functional medicine is different from primary care in that it looks for all possible contributing factors. This allows for the best possible resolution of symptoms, since it addresses the root cause or causes of those symptoms. 

Your functional medicine provider will have many tools and resources to discern the health of your digestive system. He or she may order blood tests, for example, or a functional stool test. This test can be particularly useful since it gives insights into the composition of gut bacteria and tests for certain inflammation markers and enzyme activity. 

Remember that chronic stress, poor sleep, and lack of exercise may contribute to poor gut health as well. Your functional medicine provider will also suggest lifestyle and dietary modifications to help achieve your gut health goals. These are an important aspect of the functional medicine approach, allowing patients to set wellness goals that are achievable and sustainable. 

Functional Medicine Omaha

In Omaha, NE, Balanced Body Health & Wellness offers the highest quality functional medicine services. Our providers are knowledgeable, compassionate, and creative. We are lifelong learners, always looking for new and effective ways to help our clients. Call or go online today to schedule a consultation, or make an appointment for a free 15 minute Discovery Call