The gut, or digestive system, is made up of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Ideally, parts of our body such as the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines all work properly so we can eat and digest food without discomfort.

The gut absorbs nutrients from the food we eat while eliminating waste. It also has many other important functions, like keeping harmful substances out of our bodies and supporting a balance of helpful bacteria.

You have a healthy gut if all things are working well. If the gut doesn’t do these things well, then illnesses may occur, such as:

  • type 2 diabetes
  • inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • colon cancer

Gut health plays an important role in optimal health and wellness.

A healthy gut contains different types of healthy bacteria that aid with nutrient digestion, support a healthy immune system, and even help with proper nervous system function.

A healthy gut also communicates with the brain through nerves and hormones, which helps maintain general health and well-being.

Symptoms that may indicate gut issues include:

  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • heartburn
  • nausea
  • vomiting

It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific condition that may be causing your gut issues.

The gut is complex, and symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, excessive gas, intestinal inflammation, bloating, and abdominal pain have many causes.

When symptoms persist, it may be a sign of an underlying problem that needs medical attention. Consult your doctor if you are having gut issues.

The key difference between a food allergy and food intolerance is that a food intolerance may cause a lot of discomfort, whereas a food allergy can be life threatening.

A food allergy happens when your immune system overreacts to a food protein that other people would find harmless. This causes the body to produce an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE), triggering a wide range of symptoms that can vary in onset and severity.

Food allergy symptoms range from mild (such as hives) to severe (anaphylactic shock) and can potentially result in death.

The main treatment for an anaphylactic (allergic) reaction is to use an epinephrine auto-injector and dial 911 or local emergency services.

Most food-related symptoms occur within 2 hours of eating. Often, they start within minutes. In some very rare cases, the reaction may be delayed by 4 to 6 hours or even longer.

Food intolerance occurs when the body can’t properly digest the food that is eaten or when a particular food might irritate the digestive system. Lactose intolerance is an example of food intolerance.

There’s no doubt many aspects of modern life can damage our gut health, including:

  • a high stress lifestyle
  • lack of sleep
  • a diet of highly processed foods
  • illnesses
  • antibiotics

An imbalance in the gut’s microflora, also known as dysbiosis, can make you more likely to develop some health conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), IBD, diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart disease, and central nervous system disorders.

Probiotics are the “good” bacteria similar to those found in your gut and in fermented foods like yogurt. They contain added live cultures like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. Not all fermented foods contain probiotics, however.

Kimchi (a Korean fermented cabbage dish) and kombucha (fermented tea) also contain live cultures, but their potential probiotic benefits haven’t been well studied.

Between 25 to 45 million people in the United States experience frequent stomach pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea, which are all symptoms of IBS. Probiotics may provide relief.

According to a review published in the journal Nutrients, participants who took multiple-strain probiotics for 8 weeks experienced less stomach pain and enhanced quality of life.

Choose a probiotic with live and active bacterial cultures like Lactobacillus acidophilus ABC. The product should display the species, strains, and dosage.

But it’s important to note that not all strains are the same. I recommend using or to match the strain to the benefit you want.

Be sure the product contains at least the level of probiotics that was used in the study from the U.S. Probiotic Guide or the Probiotic Chart. Higher counts are not necessarily better.

Make sure to look at the “best by” date rather than the production date to ensure the product contains sufficient levels of live probiotics.

Finally, check the label for recommended storage guidelines. For example, some require refrigeration while others can be stored at room temperature.

Research shows probiotics are safe and may be useful in preventing upper respiratory tract infections and diarrhea in healthy children.

The two probiotic strains found effective in a 2017 study were Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG) and S. boulardii. LGG reduced the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea by 13 percent. The S. boulardii strain reduced C. difficile associated diarrhea by 12 percent.

Speak with your doctor first before giving probiotics to an infant.

Probiotics are safe for most people. But talk with your doctor first if you have health issues. Anyone with a serious underlying health condition should be monitored closely by a healthcare professional while taking probiotics.

Incorporating health-promoting functional foods, such as those containing both prebiotics and probiotics, helps support a healthier gut.

In terms of meals, that might mean enjoying sliced bananas in plain yogurt, flavoring dishes with garlic or leeks, or stir-frying asparagus with tempeh.

Jerlyn Jones is a registered dietitian nutritionist, national media spokesperson, nutrition writer, and owner of The Lifestyle Dietitian LLC, an Atlanta-based nutrition consulting practice. She specializes in integrative nutrition with an emphasis on food sensitivities, digestive problems, and women’s health.