Women's Health

How to Support a Healthy Gut and Hormone Function

It's possible to support your gut balance and hormones naturally, here's how.
Dr. Nayan Patel
PharmD

The gut is one of the most integral parts of the human body, yet we often don’t think about gut health until it breaks down. An imbalanced gut can affect your whole body, from digestion to mental health to skin clarity. 

What Is Gut Health?

Gut health refers to the overall health and function of the digestive system, which includes the stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and colon. The gut also contains trillions of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms collectively known as the gut microbiome, which plays a critical role in digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune function.

A healthy gut is one where there is a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms, a strong intestinal lining, and proper digestive function. Poor gut health, on the other hand, can result in a range of unpleasant digestive issues such as bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. 

What Can Cause Poor Gut Health?

One common cause of poor gut health is an unhealthy diet. Consuming a diet high in processed foods and refined sugars and low in fiber can disrupt the balance of beneficial bacteria in our gut. 

Stress and a sedentary lifestyle can also cause imbalances in your microbiome. 

Chronic stress can lead to high cortisol levels, which can affect the functioning of the digestive system, impairing its ability to properly break down food and absorb nutrients. Also, physical inactivity can slow down digestion and lead to a sluggish gut.

Another factor to consider is the overuse of antibiotics. While antibiotics are key for fighting bacterial infections, they can also disrupt the balance of bacteria in our gut. Antibiotics do not discriminate between harmful and beneficial bacteria, often killing off the good ones along with the bad. This imbalance can result in digestive problems and compromise our immune system.

Lastly, environmental factors, such as pollution and exposure to toxins, can negatively impact gut health. Chemicals present in food, water, or even the air we breathe can disrupt the delicate balance of our gut microbiota and cause inflammation in the digestive system.

How Does Gut Health Affect Hormones?

There is a strong link between gut health and hormone function. The gut and the endocrine system, which produces and regulates hormones, are closely interconnected. The gut microbiome plays a key role in hormone metabolism and creates its own hormones, therefore imbalances in the gut microbiome can lead to disruptions in hormone function.

Some hormones that are influenced by gut health include:

  • Estrogen: Estrogen metabolism is largely influenced by the gut microbiome. Imbalances in gut bacteria can lead to elevated levels of estrogen or slow estrogen metabolism, which can contribute to hormonal imbalances, PMS symptoms, and other reproductive issues.
  • Testosterone: Low testosterone levels have been linked to imbalances in gut bacteria, and improving gut health may help improve testosterone levels in some cases. 
  • Cortisol: Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands, and disruptions in the gut microbiome can lead to imbalances in cortisol levels. Chronic stress and inflammation in the gut can also contribute to elevated cortisol levels.
  • Thyroid hormones: The gut plays a critical role in thyroid hormone metabolism, and imbalances in gut bacteria can lead to impaired thyroid function.

What Are the Symptoms of Poor Gut Health?

Poor gut health may lead to a wide range of symptoms, which can vary depending on the underlying cause and severity of the issue. While some of these symptoms may be directly related to imbalances in the gut microbiome, others may be related to hormonal imbalances caused by poor gut health.

If you have noticed any of the following symptoms persist, we encourage you to schedule an initial appointment with a Thrivelab provider:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Constipation 
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Skin problems (including acne, eczema, or psoriasis) 
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Many of these symptoms can seriously affect your ability to enjoy every day life. Gut health is a growing concern among our population, with as many as 40 percent of Americans regularly struggling with some form of digestive upset. Many of these digestive problems can be traced back to stress, physical inactivity, diets high in processed foods, and excessive sugar intake.

Not addressing these symptoms can lead to long-term damage and worsening health conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Even worse, the damage can lead to widespread hormone imbalances and mental stress. Luckily, there are ways you can take control of your gut health and get back to the activities you love.

How Can You Support Your Gut?

When we think of healing our bodies, small life changes like reducing stress and sleeping well might not seem important. However, starting with these essential cornerstones of wellness can help us slowly rebuild our health and reclaim our quality of life.

1. Eat a Healthy Diet

Eating a healthy, whole-foods-based diet is an important aspect of supporting your gut. Whole foods are nutrient-dense, meaning they contain a variety of essential fiber, vitamins, and minerals to promote digestive health. Processed foods should be limited as they are often high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and preservatives, which can irritate the gut and disrupt the microbiome.

To eat a healthy diet, it’s generally a good idea to focus on consuming a variety of produce, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats like avocado and nuts. These foods provide essential nutrients that can support the health of the gut microbiome and overall digestive health.

Fiber is particularly important for gut health, as it helps encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. 

Soluble fiber is part of foods like oats, beans, and lentils. It forms a gel-like substance in the digestive tract that helps to slow the absorption of sugar and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Insoluble fiber, found in foods like vegetables, whole grains, and nuts, adds bulk to stool, which helps move waste through the digestive tract.

This doesn’t mean you don’t get to eat delicious foods you love, though. Your day might include oatmeal with nuts and berries for breakfast, a bean and avocado burrito on a whole-wheat tortilla for lunch, and salmon, brown rice, and veggies for dinner. 

2. Incorporate Probiotic-Rich Foods

Probiotics are good bacteria that can help restore balance to the gut microbiome. Probiotic-rich foods like kefir and yogurt contain live cultures of good bacteria that help support a healthy gut.

Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles are made through a process of lacto-fermentation, in which natural bacteria feeds on the sugars and starches in the food, creating lactic acid. Fermentation preserves the food and creates beneficial bacteria to help support gut health. 

Kefir is a fermented milk product. It's a cousin to yogurt with a thinner consistency and a tangy flavor. It packs a variety of beneficial bacteria to support the growth of healthy gut flora.

When incorporating probiotic-rich foods into your diet, it's important to choose products that are unpasteurized and contain live cultures of beneficial bacteria. The longer products have been fermented, the more beneficial bacteria they likely contain.

3. Take a Probiotic Supplement

In addition to probiotic-rich foods, taking a high-quality probiotic supplement can also help restore balance to the gut microbiome. Probiotic supplements contain a variety of different strains of beneficial bacteria that can help support a healthy gut.

Look for a probiotic supplement with a variety of different strains of bacteria. Different strains of bacteria have different functions in the gut, so it's important to choose a supplement that provides a diverse range of bacteria. The number of CFUs (colony-forming units) is also important — a higher CFU count indicates a more powerful supplement.

Probiotic supplements are not all of the same quality. Some may not provide the effects you are looking for. Consult with your Thrivelab provider about which probiotic supplement can best support your gut health.

4. Reduce Stress

Stress can negatively impact gut health, as it can lead to inflammation and imbalances in the gut microbiome. Specifically, elevated cortisol can trigger the release of cytokines, which are inflammatory immune cells that can weaken the intestinal lining and harm the gut microbiome, as well as affect the brain. Stress can also cause digestion to slow down, which can effect the gut microbiome.

Chronic stress may also weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight illnesses and infections.

Incorporating stress-reducing practices into your daily life can help reduce inflammation in the body. These practices also encourage a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. Plus, reducing stress is good for our overall well-being, too. 

Some examples of stress-reducing practices include: 

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Yoga
  • Regular exercise  

5. Avoid Inflammatory Foods

Food can contribute to inflammation in the body and may exacerbate gut health issues. Common inflammatory foods include: 

  • Processed foods 
  • Sugary drinks
  • Fried foods
  • Foods high in saturated and trans fats

Sensitivities or allergies to certain foods, like gluten or dairy, can contribute to gut health issues — and unfortunately, approximately 32 million Americans struggle with food allergies and sensitivities. To support gut health, try to limit these inflammatory foods and focus on consuming whole, nutrient-dense foods instead. Keeping a journal of what you consume can help you identify any trigger foods that may be contributing to gut health issues. 

6. Prioritize Sleep 

Getting enough sleep is crucial for all parts of health, including gut health. Lack of sleep may cause increased stress levels. Stress can negatively impact the gut microbiome. Additionally, sleep can help regulate the immune system and can help support a healthy gut. 

The sweet spot is seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Establish a consistent sleep routine to support healthy sleep habits. Create a relaxing and comfortable environment for sleep, as well as routines that limit caffeine and alcohol late in the day.

7. Stay Hydrated

Water is a simple way to improve overall health. It can certainly help support gut health. Being hydrated flushes toxins out of the body and keeps the digestive system functioning properly. 

Additionally, some studies have shown that dehydration can contribute to gut health issues like constipation and inflammation. 

Shoot for eight to 10 cups of water per day, and make sure to eat hydrating foods like fruits and vegetables.

8. Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise can help support gut health by reducing inflammation in the body and encouraging healthy digestion. Exercise is great for reducing stress, which can contribute to gut health issues. 

In general, aim to engage in moderate exercise such as biking, jogging, walking, or swimming most days of the week for at least 30 minutes.

9. Listen to Your Body

It's important to prioritize self-care and listen to your body. How does your body feel after eating certain foods or engaging in certain activities? Make adjustments as needed to support a healthy gut. By prioritizing gut health and making lifestyle changes to support digestive wellness, you can improve overall health and well-being.

10. Balance Your Hormones

As we discussed earlier, your hormonal health can have a profound impact on your gut and vice versa. Imbalances in hormones like insulin, cortisol, estrogen, and progesterone can cause digestive upset and affect your gut health. 

On the other hand, an imbalanced gut can decrease estrogen levels, affect cortisol production, and contribute to insulin resistance. Once one hormone becomes imbalanced, others begin to slip out of alignment as well.

Often, this is a cyclical pattern. A hormonal imbalance will trigger a gut imbalance, which then worsens the hormonal imbalance, which then worsens imbalances in the gut. Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy can often help.

Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) works by supplementing hormones that your body might not effectively be producing enough of on its own. By helping to stabilize your hormonal balance, your gut can have space to heal and recover.

However, as Nr. Nayan Patel, our Chief Scientific Officer, shares, “Diet, exercise, good sleep, [and] stress management are the bedrocks for optimal hormonal health.” BHRT should always be supported with healthy habits that improve your quality of life and longevity.

Heal Your Hormones, Heal Your Gut

The human body is an extremely complicated system, and all of its moving parts must work together to support your wellness. When one part of the machine breaks down, your body can’t efficiently do what it needs to do.

Gut health is intimately connected with hormonal health, mental health, and even overall health and wellness. Unfortunately, hormonal imbalances aren’t just the result of an imbalanced gut — they can also be the cause.

Here at Thrivelab, we care about finding solutions for your symptoms so you can truly feel better. Want to learn more? Check out our podcast series for more information on hormonal wellness.

Sources:

1. Your Digestive System: 5 Ways to Support Gut Health | Johns Hopkins

2. Mindful Eating: A Review Of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate And Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function | PMC

3. Endocrine-related Organs and Hormones | Endocrine.org

4. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition | PMC 

5. Facts and Statistics | FoodAllergy.org

6. Gut Microbiota Are Associated With Psychological Stress-Induced Defections in Intestinal and Blood–Brain Barriers | FrontiersIn 

7. New survey finds forty percent of Americans’ daily lives are disrupted by digestive troubles | American Gastroenterological Association 

References
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