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How 3 Common New Year’s Resolutions Impact Your Gut

Read before you resolve. Here, we dive into three common New Year's health trends to explore how they’ll impact your world within.

8 minutes

17 Citations

It’s January. After a holiday season filled with gut disruptors, your body might be feeling off right about now (alcohol, sugar, processed foods, stress, travel, and disrupted sleep will do that to you). As you settle back into your normal habits and routines, the new year can be a great time to hit the reset button and refocus on your gut health. 

But how do you decide what’s best for you (and your microbes)? Here, our SciCare team* answers questions from our community about three New Year’s health trends and how they impact your microbiome. These answers may be more nuanced (read: nerdy) than the tidy wellness sound bites you’ll find on social media this month, but hopefully you’ll feel better equipped to decide how you want to “do” health in 2024. 

* 👋 SciCare is our team of experts who answer all your science, health, and product-related questions. Have a question? Email scicare@seed.com

If I participate in “Dry January,” will cutting out alcohol for a month significantly impact my gut health?

Not to be that person, but alcohol is a well-known gut disruptor. It can contribute to microbial dysbiosis (an imbalance in the gut microbiome that’s linked with negative impacts on skin, immunity, and digestion). Alcohol can also increase the permeability of the gut barrier, leading to what’s known as “leaky gut.”1 (Want to dive deeper into how, exactly, alcohol damages your gut? Read more here.) 

Research suggests that even a single alcohol binge (more than four to five drinks in one sitting) is enough to negatively impact your gut microbiome.2 So, abstaining or limiting alcohol intake for any period of time can certainly help promote your gut health and prevent any damage from happening in the first place. 

The question is: If you are someone who regularly consumes alcohol, and are looking to Dry January as an opportunity to reverse any prior gut damage from drinking, will one month of abstinence be enough to make an impact? 

A 2014 study suggests so.3 Researchers assessed the impact of eliminating alcohol in heavy drinkers for three weeks, and found this time period was enough for positive changes in the gut microbiome and gut permeability to occur. Most notably, they observed a significant correlation between alcohol elimination and an increase in levels of certain beneficial bacteria (like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus). However, participants with disrupted gut microbiomes did not fully “recover” in this three-week time span, so complete reversal of damage may not be entirely achievable in just one month.

Interestingly, the more alcohol you consume prior to a period of abstinence, the more significant the changes in your gut microbiome may be when you stop drinking. A 2020 study in participants with alcohol use disorder found that those who were heavier drinkers had a greater change in their gut microbiomes over four weeks of abstinence compared to a less heavy drinking group.4 

All this to say, there is some solid evidence to suggest that abstaining from alcohol for even a short period of time is enough to have positive effects on your gut health and microbiome. So, whether it’s the full month of January or a few weeks here and there, limiting your intake will never be a bad idea. But (of course, there’s a but) remember that while taking a break from alcohol can be instantly beneficial for the gut, the reverse is also true: If you jump back into drinking full force on February 1st, your gut will be negatively impacted by that alcohol. 

The gastrointestinal system is remarkably resilient, but it does require regular upkeep—meaning sustained lifestyle changes are your best bet if your goal is to optimize your gut health. So, more important than committing to a dry month is taking a moment to consider your gut, and the trillions of microbes who reside there, all year long when making decisions about alcohol. One less drink a week could make all the difference if you can keep it up.

How to Support Your Gut When You Drink

Just like the gut, life is about balance. Here are four research-informed ways to support your microbiome if you’re going to drink alcohol: 

 

  1. Take a probiotic after drinking: Research suggests that certain probiotics may be able to help you recover from microbiome disruptions caused by exposure to alcohol stressors by increasing beneficial short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).⁵ 
  2. Eat a diet high in fiber. If you’re not living with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a high-fiber diet can help feed SFCA-producing microbes, which are linked to lower levels of inflammation in the gut. Think: nuts, fruits, and vegetables.
  3. Drink in moderation: We know there are documented health risks to drinking in excess, though some researchers believe that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption may actually have a protective effect on health outcomes like cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, and mortality.⁶ However, this research is mostly observational, and conclusive evidence cannot be drawn about “healthy levels” of alcohol consumption based on associations alone. (For the record, “moderate” alcohol consumption is defined as one U.S. glass, or 14 g alcohol, per day for women and two U.S. glasses, or 28 g alcohol, per day for men.)
  4. Order a glass of red. Microbes love polyphenols, and red wine is full of them. This study suggests that the polyphenols in red wine may contribute to a more diverse microbial community.

Thoughts on “Veganuary”? Should I go 100% plant-based this month?

If improving your gut health is on your resolutions list, diet is one of the best places to start, as the foods you eat have a profound impact on your microbiome. Vegan and vegetarian diets are often regarded as some of the healthiest for your gut microbes. In fact, multiple studies show these diets positively impact the microbiome, reducing inflammatory gut bacteria and fostering protective species. 

This is because plant-based foods are rich in fiber and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that gut microbes utilize as a primary fuel source. In the process of consuming these nutrients, your gut microbes produce beneficial compounds like short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that can strengthen your gut barrier, reduce inflammation, and communicate with your brain, among other positive effects.9 (As a general rule of thumb, more SCFAs in your gut is a good thing.) On the flip side, eating a high amount of animal protein is associated with decreases in “good” gut bacteria, and may even make you more sensitive to intestinal inflammation.10,11 

So, yes, participating in Veganuary is a great way to support your world within. 

The good news for meat, egg, honey and dairy lovers? You don’t need to fully cut out animal products to reap these benefits. In general, any diet that is at least 70% plant-based and high in different types of fiber and fermented foods—whether it’s Mediterranean, paleo, pescatarian, and even “flexitarian” diets— can promote a balanced and diverse microbiome, increase beneficial bacteria (like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium), protect against dysbiosis, and increase beneficial metabolites like the aforementioned SCFAs.12,13 

Another important point: The gut microbiome responds rapidly—we’re talking 24 hours—to changes in diet.14 So, even upping your plant intake for 30 days could have a noticeable impact. However, these changes are usually temporary. Sustained dietary patterns are the dominant force in determining the composition of your gut microbiome, so if you want to experience long-term benefits of Veganuary, you’d need to keep up similar eating patterns all year long. (Noticing a theme here?)  

There is Only One Health

We’d also be remiss not to mention that plant-based diets are also good for the planet’s health!¹⁵ Over-consuming foods with higher ecological footprints (such as red meat, dairy, and even off-season produce) will have a greater impact on climate change and the balance of ecosystems—which can take a major toll on human health. While completely removing animal products from your diet is a personal choice, consider replacing or complementing your meals with more locally sourced, plant-based options to support both the planet and your gut microbiome.

Are gut and colon “cleanses” a good idea? 

If you’re coming out of the holiday season with digestive discomforts like bloating, gas, stomach pain, and changes in bowel movements, it’s possible the balance of your gut microbiome has been disrupted. While social media might swear by an array of detoxes and cleanses to “reset” your gut, you don’t need to go to these extremes. 

That’s because a diverse microbiome is resilient. Temporary shifts in your lifestyle can cause changes in microbial composition, but these are not permanent, and your microbiome will bounce back. Interestingly, your gut appears to have its own built-in “reset” function. The gut microbiome undergoes regular turnover every 24–48 hours14, known as “purging”, which can help maintain the overall balance of the gut environment and prevent overgrowth of harmful microbes. 

So, instead of a quick fix, focus on the long game and build sustainable habits, like eating well, exercising consistently, spending time outdoors, and managing stress. This will set you up for success in the long run and help your gut withstand temporary disruptions that may come your way. 

When it comes to colon cleanses, traditionally this practice is reserved for use prior to preparing for certain medical procedures (like a colonoscopy). In recent years, though, more and more people have become interested in colon cleansing to promote supposed detoxification and general health. But when we turn to the research, there is little to no scientific or clinical evidence to support this.16 In fact, similar to gut resets, colon cleansing for these purposes isn’t typically necessary since your digestive system naturally eliminates waste material from your body. Not to mention, the majority of your gut bacteria are found in your colon, so flushing this area could disrupt the delicate balance of microbes residing there. 

The Dangers of Commercial Colon Cleanses

There have actually been several reports of colon cleansing being harmful. One 2009 study highlights risks associated with electrolyte imbalances, sepsis, and colitis of individuals who had undergone colonic cleaning.¹⁷ The risk of developing a rectal tear has also been reported. While we don’t mean to elicit fear with this information, we hope to share an honest representation of the body of scientific and clinical evidence surrounding colon cleanses so you can make an informed decision. 

So, as you think about your goals and resolutions this month, keep in mind the impact your daily choices have on your gut microbiome and overall health. Sure, short-term lifestyle changes can kickstart improvements in your gut, but the real magic lies in what you do in the long haul. Your choices February 1st and beyond are just as important as what happens these first few weeks of the year—and as we’ve learned from the invisible world of microbes, micro actions can have a macro impact.

Want to keep learning about how to care for your microbiome? 

  1. What is the “best” diet for your gut?
  2. Exploring the oral microbiome: The hidden world in your mouth
  3. If I eat fermented foods, do I need a probiotic? 
  4. How your microbiome is made—and how it informs your lifelong health 

We receive and answer questions like these every day. Stay tuned for more SciCare roundups on Cultured. If you have any questions of your own, email us at scicare@seed.com.

Citations

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  3. Leclercq, S., Matamoros, S., Cani, P. D., Neyrinck, A. M., Jamar, F., Stärkel, P., Windey, K., Tremaroli, V., Bäckhed, F., Verbeke, K., de Timary, P., & Delzenne, N. M. (2014). Intestinal permeability, gut-bacterial dysbiosis, and behavioral markers of alcohol-dependence severity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(42), E4485–E4493. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1415174111
  4. Ames, N. J., Barb, J. J., Schuebel, K., Mudra, S., Meeks, B. K., Tuason, R. T. S., Brooks, A. T., Kazmi, N., Yang, S., Ratteree, K., Diazgranados, N., Krumlauf, M., Wallen, G. R., & Goldman, D. (2020). Longitudinal gut microbiome changes in alcohol use disorder are influenced by abstinence and drinking quantity. Gut microbes, 11(6), 1608–1631. https://doi.org/10.1080/19490976.2020.1758010
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  8. Roy, C. I. L., Wells, P. M., Si, J., Raes, J., Bell, J. T., & Spector, T. D. (2019). Red Wine Consumption Associated With Increased Gut Microbiota α-Diversity in 3 Independent Cohorts. Gastroenterology, 158(1), 270-272.e2. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2019.08.024
  9. Blaak, E. E., Canfora, E. E., Theis, S., Frost, G., Groen, A. K., Mithieux, G., Nauta, A., Scott, K., Stahl, B., van Harsselaar, J., van Tol, R., Vaughan, E. E., & Verbeke, K. (2020). Short chain fatty acids in human gut and metabolic health. Beneficial microbes, 11(5), 411–455. https://doi.org/10.3920/BM2020.0057
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