Supplements and Habits to Naturally Support Gut Health
Culturally, our guts are very involved in everyday life. We are told to trust our gut instincts when we have a gut feeling about something or someone. If we're afraid to do something, we may be told we don't have the guts for it. When we tell the truth, we spill our guts. If something is really hilarious, we may bust a gut. And if something is very sad, it may be gut-wrenching. But perhaps the most apropos phrase for those needing a gut check on their gastrointestinal health is: I hate your guts!
For those who suffer from an uncooperative digestive system, it's forgivable to want to say, "I hate MY guts!" However, for the sake of your well-being, not to mention your mental health, let's see what steps can be taken to improve your digestive health.
"Say, what a healthy gut microbiome you have," said no one ever! As important as our digestive tract's wellbeing is, discussing our gut flora is not always in keeping with decorum. But it is important! It turns out that the gut feelings we get are real and are part of the "Gut-Brain Axis." In an article titledThe Simplified Guide to the Gut-Brain Axis, the authors discuss the connection between our brains and guts. It's fascinating stuff, to be sure, but what does it have to do with gut health? Well, the authors point out that our gastrointestinal systems have 10 to the power 14 microorganisms in our guts. That's a ten followed by fourteen zeros or one hundred trillion. That friend is a bunch! In fact, that's ten times more than the total number of cells in the human body.
So it's easy to see why promoting and maintaining healthy gut microbiota is important. There are a hundred trillion of them and only one of you! Basically, the goal of having a healthy gut is achieved by increasing the good bacteria while minimizing the bad bacteria. An imbalance in gut bacteria, where healthy bacteria are either low in number or outnumbered by bad bacteria, is called "dysbiosis." This word may sound ominous, perhaps rightly so, because certain types of bacteria in your intestines can also contribute to disease. Interestingly, the food that you eat greatly affects the types of bacteria that live inside you.
So how can you increase your healthy bacteria? One way is to eat a wide variety of foods.
Those 100 trillion bacteria in your digestive system are made up of lots of different species; hundreds of species in fact. Naturally, each species contributes differently to your wellness and requires different nutrients for growth. So it stands to reason that a diet consisting of different types of food can promote a diverse microbiota. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and beans are the best sources of nutrients for a healthy microbiota. They are high in fiber, which can’t be digested by your body, but can be digested by certain bacteria in your gut, encouraging their growth.
Following a diet high in fruits and vegetables may prevent the growth of some disease-causing bacteria, while promoting healthy bacteria such as bifidobacteria. There are literally dozens of members of the genus "Bifidobacterium;" they are among the first microbes to colonize the human gastrointestinal tract and are believed to exert positive health benefits.
Some high-fiber foods that are good for your gut bacteria include:
Fresh fruits, especially apples, pears, oranges, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries
Dried fruits, such as prunes and raisins
Vegetables, especially artichokes, broccoli, green peas, winter squash, and sweet potatoes
Legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils, and peas
Bran (oat and wheat)
Beans (kidney, pinto and white)
Whole grains, such as barley, quinoa, bulgur and brown rice
Foods made with whole grains, such as whole-grain bread, whole-grain cereal and whole-grain pasta
Nuts, especially almonds and pistachios
Fermented foods contain another healthy bacterium, lactobacillus. Fermented foods are foods altered by microbes. The process of fermenting usually involves bacteria or yeasts converting the sugars in food to organic acids or alcohol. For the scope of this blog, we won't be delving into how to distill alcohol, mainly because alcohol can negatively affect gut health, but also because that is a whole different process with many pitfalls.
Fermentation makes the foods you eat more digestible. It makes nutrients more bioavailable by producing enzymes to make them easier to absorb, digest, and utilize. Examples of fermented foods include:
According to an article on Healthline.com, 10 Ways to Improve Your Gut Bacteria, Based on Science, many of these foods are rich in lactobacillus bacteria. Eating yogurt appears to be of especially great benefit. Folks who regularly eat yogurt generally have more lactobacilli in their intestines and have fewer Enterobacteriaceae, a bacteria associated with inflammation and a number of chronic diseases. Certain yogurt products may also reduce the abundance of certain disease-causing bacteria in people with irritable bowel syndrome. And since the lactose is converted to simpler sugars, those who are lactose intolerant can generally tolerate yogurt.
Making your own fermented veggies is rather easy and safe. Sauerkraut is simply fermented cabbage, after all! Essentially, Lacto-fermented vegetables are no more than grated, sliced, chopped, or whole vegetables placed in a brine of salt and water for a period of time at room temperature to let the beneficial bacteria develop. However, by fermenting your own veggies, you will save money and increase your menu choices. Fermenting your favorite veggies with your favorite seasonings will help you from getting bored (sauerkraut again?) and will help keep you motivated to include them in your diet. Check out this handy website: Boost your gut health and save money: how to ferment your own foods! Recipes such as Ginger-Lime Carrot Ferment with step-by-step instructions will get you started.
Almost any vegetable can be fermented. Cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, beets, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, green tomatoes all make excellent ferments. Ferment one vegetable alone, or create a mix, adding suitable herbs and spices like peppercorns, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, fennel seeds, bay leaves, etc. The only types of vegetables that fermentation is not recommended for are those with lots of chlorophyll, like kale or spinach.
Eating lots of probiotic foods helps encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria, but we also need foods that help keep these microorganisms alive. That’s where certain types of soluble fiber called prebiotics to come in. They are mainly fiber or complex carbs that can’t be digested by human cells. Instead, certain species of bacteria break them down and use them for fuel.
Think of them as nutrient-dense food for your healthy gut microbes; when you eat prebiotic foods, you effectively feed the good bacteria that keep your gut in balance. Prebiotic foods contain compounds, such as fructooligosaccharides, inulin, and galactooligosaccharides, which are types of soluble dietary fiber.
Foods rich in prebiotic fiber include:
The Healthline.com article, mentioned above, says that studies have shown that prebiotics can be beneficial to those with certain diseases. For example, certain prebiotics can reduce insulin, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels in people who are obese. These results suggest that prebiotics may reduce the risk factors for many diseases associated with obesity, including heart disease and diabetes. Prebiotics especially promote the growth of Bifidobacteria which may help reduce symptoms of metabolic syndrome in obese people.
Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, reduces weight gain, but it also increases blood sugar and impaired insulin response. Rats fed aspartame had higher clostridium and Enterobacteriaceae in their intestines. Clostridium includes several significant human pathogens, including the ones that cause botulism and tetanus. Enterobacteriaceae are a large family of bacteria, including many well-known pathogens, including Salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli.
The benefits of eating whole grains were touched on earlier, but they're important enough to warrant their own section. Whole grains contain lots of fiber and non-digestible carbohydrates, such as beta-glucan. However, we don’t have the enzymes needed to break them down. When we eat a piece of whole wheat bread or a bowl of popcorn, the fiber passes intact through to the large intestine where it’s fermented by the gut microbiota.
This fermentation produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) butyrate, propionate, and acetate. These SCFAs are beneficial for gut health because they provide our intestinal cells with a source of energy and are linked to maintaining the integrity of the gastrointestinal tract, which is important for keeping foreign invaders, like bad bacteria, from causing infections or inflammation. Eating whole grains can promote the growth of bifidobacteria and lactobacillus, mentioned earlier, as well as Bacteroides which expel toxic substances, and influence the immune system to help it control competing pathogens.
Foods Rich in Polyphenols
Polyphenols are the most abundant antioxidant in the human body. They are plant compounds that have many health benefits, including reductions in blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol levels, and oxidative stress. Polyphenols act on the gut microbiota by increasing the growth of beneficial bacteria which produce compounds that promote health and wellbeing. These "phytochemicals" are produced by plants to protect themselves from fungi, bacteria, and plant virus infections. They have the potential to improve depression because of their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Most polyphenols can’t be digested by humans, so they arrive in the colon intact, where they are digested by gut bacteria.
Good sources of polyphenols include:
Cocoa and dark chocolate
A Healthline.com article, A 16-Week Vegan Diet Can Do Wonders for Your Gut Microbiome, states that research shows that following a vegan diet for about 4 months can boost your gut microbiome. In turn, that can lead to improvements in body weight and blood sugar management. But it DOES NOT mean you need to swear off the meat and dairy entirely. However, since diets containing animal-based foods promote the growth of different types of intestinal bacteria than plant-based diets do, moving toward a more plant-based diet is probably the healthiest choice.
Multiple studies show benefits to a plant-based diet. Plants provide the bulk of antioxidant, phytonutrient, and fiber-rich foods. These, as we've been talking about above, are key ingredients in promoting a healthy gut. Also, when we move towards a more plant-based diet, we tend to eat a wider variety of foods, which, as we also mentioned earlier, supports a wider variety of gut flora. In fact, if you review all the suggested foods in the sections above, you'll notice that they are all plant-based.
It may be tempting to unsettle your coworkers or dodge social obligations by invoking your dysbiosis. "I'm sorry Aunt Sally, I'd LOVE to come to the triplets' Frozen-themed birthday party, but I don't want them to catch my dysbiosis!"
Unfortunately, for those who suffer from a bowel disease like Crohn's disease/irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation, bloating, or heartburn, a severe imbalance in gut flora is no laughing matter. In fact, it may make you "hate your guts." Talk to your healthcare provider and/or nutritionist for the best ways to boost not only your overall health but your gut health as well.
Some other ways to improve one's gut health are to:
Stay well hydrated
Avoid high-fat, processed, and fried foods
Eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day
Get enough sleep
Reduce your stress levels
Maintain a healthy weight
Exercise by engaging in at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity
Avoid/minimize alcohol consumption
Take a probiotic supplement
Probiotics are live microorganisms, good bacteria, that benefit your health by changing the overall composition of your microbiota and supporting your metabolism. Since probiotics aren’t very abundant in our diet, the most effective way to increase your good bacteria is with a high-quality probiotic and prebiotic supplement. Our 1 Body Probioticcontains 30 Billion CFU (Colony Forming Units) from fifteen different strains of lactobacillus, bifidobacteria, and other healthy bacteria. It is a prebiotic booster that has high potency and strain diversity, supports the immune system, improves digestive function, and requires no refrigeration.