We’ve known for a long time that taking antibiotics means the friendly bacteria in our bellies can die off right alongside the bad. When that balance shifts too far in the wrong direction, we’re left with uncomfortable symptoms, like cramps, bloating, or diarrhea. But recent research is even more clear: having a healthy gut is key to good health—and happy hormones.
Plentiful microbiota = plentiful benefits
Think your gut just digests food? Turns out, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Especially when it comes to our gut microbiota, or intestinal flora. Though small in size, these good bacteria are multitaskers and responsible for a lot of work. They:
Help prevent us from getting sick
No one wants the sniffles—or a stomach bug. When you have the right mix of healthy bacteria, it keeps germs at bay by monopolizing the nutrients invaders need to grow and take hold.
May stop the scale from going up
Turns out good gut environments do a better job absorbing nutrients and digesting dietary fiber and fat. They can also help determine how well calories are burned. Or even whether or not you feel full.
Elevate our mood and thinking
We always think our brain is telling us what to do. But recent research shows gut flora may be doing some talking. Certain types of bacteria send out neurotransmitters, which contribute to mental stability and how well we feel.
How gut health is linked to happy hormones
Good bacteria in our gut can also promote healthy hormone levels in both men and women. Let’s look at three important hormones and how they’re affected by the belly.
As women age, hormone production declines. We often label this as menopause, but fluctuation actually occurs much sooner—and it’s not limited to estrogen. At around thirty-five (and sometimes earlier), production of progesterone—the calming, all-important hormone that opposes estrogen—begins to drop. Is this natural? Yes. However, it can trigger a common yet unnatural situation called estrogen dominance.
Estrogen dominance can be a result of the food we eat, lack of exercise, alcohol intake, and also a fall in progesterone. When progesterone levels lower disproportionately to estrogen, there’s not enough to counteract the effects of estrogen. Estrogen in the right amount? Essential. You want it. It does a body good. But too much of it packs a punch—think heavier periods; tender, sore breasts; increased risk for some cancers; and more.
Gut health has the power to help or hurt estrogen levels. Here’s why: estrogen is metabolized by the liver. Your liver should be “turning off,” or deactivating, any extra estrogen your body doesn’t need. From there, it gets sent to your intestines for elimination via the stool.
Without the right bacteria, the process goes wrong. Estrogen turns back on and stays in the body. When compounded by lower progesterone levels, the problem gets bigger, and estrogen dominance becomes even more likely.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. It’s considered a “happy hormone” to the rest of the body. Too little can lead to depression. But, when in balance, serotonin provides a long list of positives: among them, better sleep, bone health, and moods. What does that have to gut health? The digestive tract produces more than ninety percent (90%) of serotonin—which means it’s important to keep those trillions of little microbes intact.
When we have low levels of thyroid hormones (T3 or T4), the condition is called hypothyroid. Usually, hypothyroidism is treated with Synthroid (levothyroxine), a synthetic form of T4. But, for some people, this is an imperfect solution.
Cells need active thyroid hormone, or T3. In order to provide this, our bodies have to convert T4 into T3. Not everyone’s bodies make the conversion efficiently. Which means that, even though you’re on medication and are being treated, you might have trouble getting rid of your symptoms.
If you’re not getting better on your thyroid medication, know there are other options (meds that contain T3 as well as T4). However, about twenty percent of thyroid hormone conversion happens the gut, and building your intestinal flora could be helpful, too.
Ways to improve gut health and hormones
With so much at stake, how do you improve the number and makeup of microbes in your gut—and help your hormones? Here are a few tips:
Choose smart food options
Gut health specialists say food reigns supreme for building a better gut environment. Try fermented options, like kombucha, miso, or kimchi. Or, go for some kefir. Even almonds and olive oil can lend a hand , and so can onions and asparagus. Upping your fiber intake? That helps too.
Probiotic-rich foods should be your first step in helping your digestive tract and gut health. But, sometimes, probiotic supplements can help. Overwhelmed with the number of options in-store? We understand. Look for ones that contain live and active bacteria—about one billion. One expert suggests this isn’t the place to try and save a few dollars. Go for brand names because they’re more likely to be studied for effectiveness.
Avoid antibiotics you don’t need
Have a cold? Don’t ask or press for antibiotics unless your doctor says there are signs of an infection. There are always exceptions, but many of us end up taking medicines for viruses that would run otherwise run their course. Antiobiotics can’t distinguish between good and bad bacteria, and your gut health may suffer.
Eat less sugar
Your sweet tooth doesn’t have to be permanently denied, but it pays to back off. Sugar (and artificial sweeteners) can interfere with healthy flora and maintaining hormone balance.
Change your cleaning crew
Antibacterial soaps and disinfectants have a place. But using them too much might come at a high price. They can encourage growth of the wrong gut microbes—leading to weight gain and other issues. Some gentler options? Seventh Generation and Method.
Even small lifestyle changes can go a long way toward greater gut health and hormone balance. Trying one or all of the tips mentioned here can build your microbiota and help restore your sense of vitality.