Everywhere you turn, people are talking about gut health. You don’t have any stomach problems, so what’s the big deal, right?

Actually, it really is a big deal. With 60 to 80 percent of the immune system being housed in the gut, when something in the digestive system gets out of whack—whether we recognize it as a gut issue or not—problems will emerge.

Signs of Poor Gut Health

It’s important to understand that the gut doesn’t always manifest itself through stomach issues. In fact, studies show there are several signs of poor gut health and only a few of them are your typical stomach problems (diarrhea, constipation, bloating, nausea, and heartburn). Additional signs of an unhealthy gut include sugar cravings, weight fluctuations, anxiety, mood swings, depression, diabetes, insomnia, fatigue, food intolerances, skin problems, and autoimmune disorders among so many others.

What Causes an Unhealthy Gut?

The gut is made up of bacterias, fungi, and viruses. These microbes live together within your digestive system in a microbiome, working together to break down food into the nutrients your body needs. There are trillions of these microbes in the gut. When these microbes get out of balance, the gut becomes unhealthy, the body can’t properly digest or absorb nutrients, inflammation occurs, and almost all of the body’s systems can be affected in one way or another.

How Can We Heal our Gut?

An unbalanced microbiome affects us in so many negative ways. Luckily, there are ways to get our guts healthy and balanced once again:

Dietary changes. One of the first things we should do when making dietary changes is to be tested for food intolerances. For instance, we may have celiac disease and not even know it. It’s been discovered that 22 percent of those with celiac disease have damage to their small intestines without any gastrointestinal symptoms. Other food intolerances can also have similar manifestations. It’s important to know if we have specific intolerances so we can eliminate those offending foods from our diets.

There are some specific things we can add into our diets to start improving our gut health: 1) bone broth to lower histamines; 2) probiotic foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut and fermented drinks such as kombucha to repopulate the good bacteria in the gut; 3) prebiotic foods such as soft-cooked vegetables to encourage the good bacteria to grow; 4) the ketogenic diet to improve inflammation.

Managing stress and stimulating the vagus nerve. When we’re feeling healthy and relaxed, our microbiomes work together. When we’re feeling stressed, the gut microbiome balance becomes compromised: stress increases cortisol (the fight-or-flight hormone); and high cortisol suppresses the immune system housed in the gut and activates inflammation. To heal the gut, we need to do what we can to reduce the inflammation stresses in our lives.

One way to reduce stress is through consciously trying to stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (a rest-and-digest system supporting the opposite of the fight-or-flight effects of cortisol) and as such, is a link between the nervous system and the gut: the brain-gut axis. Deep-breathing exercises, clean eating, and cold temperatures can all activate the vagus nerve and, ultimately, reduce cortisol and begin to heal the gut.

Intermittent fasting. Research shows that intermittent fasting activates anti-inflammatory responses and also gives the gut time to heal. There are several ways to use intermittent fasting to improve gut health: 1) 16:8 method–eating only within and eight-hour time frame with no restriction of calories; 2) 20:4 method–eating only within a four-hour window of time with no restriction of calories; 3) 24-hour fast–refraining from all food for a 24-hour time frame once or twice per week and eating normally the other five or six days; and 4) 5:2 diet–eating only 500-600 calories per day for two non-consecutive days of the week and eating normally the other five days. Always talk to a doctor before attempting this diet, particularly if you have diabetes or blood sugar problems or are pregnant or nursing.

The hype is real. The explosion of research on gut health is bringing to light the root cause of so many of our society’s health issues. But by making dietary changes (including the addition of prebiotics and probiotics), managing our stress and stimulating our vagus system to combat cortisol, and through intermittent fasting to activate anti-inflammatory responses, those who are suffering from minor imbalance issues can see results in just a few weeks. For those with more major issues–autoimmune problems, food sensitivities, and major inflammation, it may take six months to two or more years to heal the damaged and unhealthy gut, but good gut health can be restored.