What is 'gut health' and why is it important?

UC Davis Health expert offers advice for keeping your digestive system working well


“Gut health” describes the function and balance of bacteria of the many parts of the gastrointestinal tract. Ideally, organs such as the esophagus, stomach and intestines all work together to allow us to eat and digest food without discomfort. But that's not the case for the estimated 70 million people in the U.S. with digestive diseases.

Gut health refers to the physical state and physiologic function of the many parts of the gastrointestinal tract.
Gut health refers to the physical state and physiologic function of the many parts of the gastrointestinal tract.

Sooraj Tejaswi specializes in treating complex bile duct and pancreatic disease, as well as common conditions like heartburn, constipation, bloating and loose stools. Here, he answers questions about gut health and how to maintain it.

Why should we pay attention to our gut health?

All food is ultimately broken down in the gut to a simple form that can enter the bloodstream and be delivered as nutrients throughout our bodies. This is only possible with a healthy digestive system. A healthy gut contains healthy bacteria and immune cells that ward off infectious agents like bacteria, viruses and fungi. A healthy gut also communicates with the brain through nerves and hormones, which helps maintain general health and well-being.

What are the signs of gut health problems?

Everyone at some point experiences digestive problems such as abdominal pain, bloating, loose stools, constipation, heartburn, nausea or vomiting. When symptoms persist, it may be a sign of an underlying problem that needs medical attention. Weight loss without a good reason, blood in the stool, black stool (a sign of bleeding in the gut), severe vomiting, fever, severe stomachaches, trouble swallowing food, pain in the throat or chest when food is swallowed, or jaundice (a yellow discoloration of the skin or eyes) could potentially indicate an underlying gastrointestinal problem with serious consequences. Consult your doctor if any of these symptoms occur.

What are some gut-health friendly foods?

How Dr. Tejaswi manages his gut health


I am a lifelong vegetarian, however I do consume milk and yogurt. Here are 10 more guidelines I follow:

1. Consume a variety of whole grains and lentils.
2. Avoid eating out. If I do eat out, I don’t go to buffets that can lead to overeating.
3. Stop eating when full. (My father always taught me that my stomach is not a dumping ground for excess food.)
4. Eat fresh vegetables and fruit daily.
5. Eat homemade yogurt.
6. Buy just one piece of candy or cake at a time to satisfy my sweet tooth. I never keep extra at home to avoid bingeing.
7. Go to the farmers market weekly for seasonal veggies and fruits.
8. Eat nuts daily — but in moderation. A small handful is enough.
9. Avoid diet drinks and sugar-free, low-fat foods. Artificial sweeteners can cause bloating, and low-fat foods do not satisfy hunger and can promote overeating.
10. Drink water throughout the day. I add lime and a pinch of salt to my water to replenish electrolytes.

In general, fresh vegetables and fruits are excellent choices. Chicken and fish are preferable to red meats. Avoid charring meats to reduce the risks of stomach and colon cancers. Avoiding excess caffeine, alcohol and fatty foods can control symptoms of acid reflux. Nuts, seeds and legumes like beans and lentils are excellent sources of both protein and fiber. Exercise common sense consistently and avoid getting carried away by food trends that promise magical results.

What else should we know about gut health?

Food choices are common causes of heartburn, bloating and constipation. If you experience these symptoms, start using a food diary to see if there are links between your symptoms and certain foods. Avoid fried foods and consume alcohol and caffeine in moderation, as they are not healthy in the long run. If you keep having gastrointestinal problems despite making wise food choices, consult your doctor.

Adequate sleep is essential for gut health. It is not uncommon for people with disturbed sleep to suffer from nausea, bloating, constipation and other digestive concerns.

Regular exercise is known to reduce stress levels and help maintain a healthy weight, which can have positive effects on gut health.

Antibiotics can wipe out both bad and good germs in the gut. Avoid taking antibiotics for conditions such as common colds or sore throats. These illnesses are usually due to viral infections that do not respond to antibiotics anyway.

Related stories and information

Gastroenterology and hepatology at UC Davis Health
How dietary fiber helps the intestine maintain gut health
UC Davis study finds antibiotics increase availability of nutrients in the gut, enabling the growth of pathogens
Scientists find key to growth of “bad” bacteria in inflammatory bowel disease
NIH news in health: Keeping your gut in check