A healthy gut isn’t just about avoiding gastrointestinal symptoms. Did you know that your gut health impacts almost every aspect of your health? For example, your gut’s microbiome impacts:
- Your immune system
- Even your skin
The good news is, what you eat has the biggest impact on the microbiome of your gut. Follow these four food strategies to supercharge your gut health!
Healthy Bacteria = Healthy Gut
You have an estimated 100 trillion bacteria living in your large intestines! Those bacteria can weigh up to two pounds. The key to a healthy gut is to maintain the diversity and balance of your gut microbes.
Here are four strategies to make sure you eat for a healthy gut.
Strategy 1: Incorporate Probiotics Into Your Diet
Probiotics are live bacteria or yeast that have positive effects in the body. That is why they are often referred to as “good” bacteria. Healthy bacteria in the colon improve digestion and absorption. They can also improve digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) , inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) , and diarrhea caused by infections or antibiotics.
That’s not all. The advantages of healthy bacteria go beyond your gut. Probiotics can improve vaginal and urinary infections , allergies and colds , and even mood disorders . Probiotics have a general anti-inflammatory effect in the body. Newer research is focusing on the effect of probiotics on other inflammation-mediated conditions, such as depression , migraines , obesity , heart disease , and diabetes .
So, where should you get your probiotics from?
Where to Find Probiotics in Food
Your best food source of probiotics are fermented foods. Eating fermented food replenishes the bacteria in your gut. Foods that are commonly fermented and contain probiotics include:
- Dairy: yogurt and kefir
- Vegetables: sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles
- Soybeans: miso, tempeh, and natto
- Tea: kombucha
But, be aware that some conventional brands of sauerkraut and pickles aren’t fermented at all and may be made with vinegar. Also, although yogurt and kombucha contain probiotics, both of these products can contain high amounts of added sugar.
For store bought products, check the food labels for “live active cultures.” Also, be sure to check the added sugar content. When in doubt, consider making your own fermented foods! Homemade sauerkraut, pickles, and other fermented vegetables are inexpensive and easy to make.
One caveat: not all fermented food types contain live bacteria cultures. Cheese, sourdough bread, and alcohol are all fermented foods. However, the bacteria and yeast are destroyed due to heat exposure or other aspects of processing, which means they don’t actually contain probiotics. So, unfortunately a dinner of bread, cheese and wine is not good for your gut.
Choosing Probiotic Supplements
What if you don’t really like sauerkraut, kombucha, or yogurt? Probiotic supplements can also help support and replenish your digestive tract microbes. Probiotics are a supplement I recommend often. This is especially true if you aren’t eating fermented foods on a regular basis.
In addition to general gut health, depending on your history and symptoms, I often recommend higher doses and specific strains of probiotics. It’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Lactobacillus, Bifidobacteria, or Saccharomyces (a probiotic yeast) are some of the most common bacteria found in probiotic supplements. Thankfully, we now know which strains to treat certain symptoms and conditions.
Of course the amount and type of probiotics vary across brands. However, it’s important to note, the quality also varies greatly. Probiotics are live bacteria and are susceptible to damage. I recommend using professional grade supplements that obtain 3rd party testing. This ensures the amount and type of probiotics survive processing and their shelf life.
If you’re not sure which probiotics you need, consider making an appointment with a naturopathic doctor specializing in gut health. I am always happy to help work out what probiotics and other foods will best promote healing.
Strategy 2: Get Fiber to Feed the Bacteria
Probiotics get more attention for your gut’s microbiome. There’s been an increase in popularity of fermented foods, beverages, and probiotic supplements, and rightfully so. But, along with consuming fermented foods, a key component to colon health is to consume the right fuel for the healthy bacteria to survive. Can you guess what that is?
That’s right: fiber. In fact, many types of fiber are called “prebiotics.” That’s because you need them in order for probiotics to function well. A diet rich in fiber and prebiotics has been shown to improve and maintain a more diverse community of bacterial species than a low-fiber diet.
The good news is that your gut bacteria are highly adaptable. You can increase the diversity of your gut bacteria in as little as 24 hours after switching from a low fiber diet to consuming 30 or more grams of fiber!
How do fiber and probiotics work together?
When the bacteria and yeast in your gut consume your dietary fiber, they generate short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), like butyrate, propionate, and acetate. You don’t need to know the compound names in order to understand these fatty acids help your body.
In general, SCFAs (especially butyrate):
- are anti-inflammatory
- improve the health of your intestinal lining
- promote a healthy gut immune system
Why? Because SCFAs are the main source of energy for colon cells. They provide approximately 10% of your caloric needs. Moreover, they are critical to metabolizing important nutrients, like carbs and fats .
Where do I find prebiotic fiber?
The specific type of fiber that feeds your gut bacteria is called prebiotics. Prebiotics contain carbohydrates that remain undigested until they reach the colon. There the bacteria will ferment and consume the fiber. Examples of prebiotics include fiber that contains fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), or inulin.
Good food sources of prebiotics include:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Chicory root
- Dandelion greens
In addition, certain ways of cooking and then cooling whole grains, legumes, and potatoes provides resistant starches that can also fuel your microbiome.
Types of Fiber
There are two main groups of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber can dissolve in water and makes a gel-like substance. It is also the main source of prebiotics.
- Binds and eliminates excess cholesterol in the gut
- Slows the absorption of dietary sugar, allowing for better blood sugar control in people with or at risk for prediabetes and diabetes
Good sources of soluble fiber include:
- Seeds (including ground flaxseed and chia seed)
- Citrus fruits
Insoluble fiber, unlike soluble fiber, does not dissolve in water. That means it helps to provide bulk in the digestive tract.
- Makes you feel fuller with meals
- Prevents and improves constipation
- Aids in weight loss
Good sources of insoluble fiber include:
- Whole grains
- Dark leafy greens
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Fruits, especially raspberries, pears, and apples
The good news is most plant-based foods contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, but they will be higher in one type. The healthiest approach is to include an abundance of both types of fiber in your daily diet.
How much fiber do I need for a healthy gut?
I recommend a minimum of 30 grams and up to 50 or more grams of fiber a day. Most adults in the United States only consume about 15 grams of fiber a day. It can be helpful to track your fiber intake for a few days to see how much you consume. Then you can slowly add more fiber-rich foods to your diet until you hit your goal.
It’s important to make sure you drink enough water when increasing your fiber. Remember, soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance, and insoluble fiber absorbs fluid in the gastrointestinal tract. If you don’t drink enough water, you will miss out on many of the benefits of fiber. You need to hydrate yourself in order to let the fiber do its job!
It is difficult to consume enough fiber if your diet is high in processed foods, refined grains, added sugars, and processed meats and fats. In addition, animal foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs, contain no fiber. That’s why it’s important to balance your meat intake with unrefined plant-based foods.
Strategy 3: Avoid the Big Gut Sabotagers
If you’re eating lots of fruits and vegetables, you probably don’t have a lot of space for the big gut sabotagers. However, if you’re relying primarily on fiber and probiotic supplements to feed your microbiome, you may still be filling up on the worst foods for your gut. In that case, despite all the fiber and probiotics in your supplements, your gut is fighting an uphill battle to regain balance.
What foods sabotage your gut’s health? The two worst foods for gut health are:
- Added Sugars and Refined Carbs
A. Added sugars and refined carbohydrates
Sugar gets a lot of attention for wreaking havoc on your health already. You probably don’t need me to tell you that you should eat less sugar. However, you might not know that sugar and refined carbohydrates (such as white flour and white pasta) also affect the bacteria growing in your intestines.
Examples of added sugars and refined carbohydrates:
- Table sugar
- Corn syrup
- High fructose syrup
- Maple syrup
- Juice – Yes, juice counts as an added sugar, because you get all the sugar content of the fruit with none of the fiber.
- White bread
- White pasta
- Baked goods using white flour
- Most already-made foods
It’s easy to imagine why. The bacteria and yeasts in the human gut never consumed added sugars or processed foods until quite recent history . It turns out, the ones that have always existed in humans do not survive well on a diet of ultra-processed foods.
When you drink a cup of apple juice, you’re missing out on the apple fiber. Remember, fiber is essential to feeding the healthy bacteria in your intestines. The sugar count in that cup of apple juice will add to your daily caloric intake while doing nothing for your body nutritionally.
The same is true for your refined carbohydrates (hint: they’re usually white, not brown). For example, most of a wheat’s fiber exists in the bran (the brown outer husk of the seed). When grinding white flour, wheat bran is discarded. The same is true for white rice.
When you fill up on white rice or white pasta, your body loses the opportunity to feed the best bacteria.
Researchers currently debate and hypothesize whether the refined ingredients in a diet of processed foods actually feed the “bad bacteria.” There’s an imbalance of bacteria and yeast that comes with a Western diet of processed foods. What we don’t know is whether the processed foods directly feed the bad bacteria. The lack of natural fiber that occurs when you fill up on low-fiber, processed foods plays a role. There appears to be mounting evidence that simple sugars and some of the ingredients in processed foods (such as emulsifiers ) do directly disrupt the microbial balance in your gut. But there’s a lot we don’t know yet.
We do know the healthiest individuals don’t rely on their supplements for all their fiber and probiotics.
Supplements are just that. They should supplement a diet rich in fiber and probiotic foods. Too many refined flours and simple sugars are the hallmarks of an imbalanced microbiome.
B. Alcohol: But isn’t a glass of wine healthy?
It’s true that some studies have found that the polyphenols found in red wine may help diversify the healthy bacteria in your gut. But that’s not exactly a resounding recommendation to increase your wine intake.
Consider this: those same helpful polyphenols are also found in a lot of other foods. In fact, when a 2010 study ranked the highest sources of polyphenols, red wine was not even close to the top. Cloves turned out to be #1.
Other great sources of polyphenols include:
- Celery seed
- Flaxseed meal
- Cocoa powder and dark chocolate
- Black olives
Considering you can get the beneficial polyphenols from lots of sources besides red wine, how does alcohol otherwise impact your gut’s microbiome?
The dark side to alcohol and your gut’s health
To be clear: heavy drinking has catastrophic effects on your intestinal microbiome.
Chronic alcohol consumption leads to intestinal dysbiosis and increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut” syndrome). Dysbiosis is a fancy word for bacterial or yeast imbalance. Remember, your gut’s health is all about balance. When we kill off or feed the wrong organisms, all other bacteria and yeast in your gut also diminish or increase accordingly. What you end up with is too much of the wrong type.
Leaky gut syndrome is exactly what it sounds like: your gut leaks bacteria, food particles, and toxins to enter your bloodstream. Ordinarily, your intestinal wall is full of tight openings to allow the passing of nutrients and water. However, alcohol damages those openings, leading them to widen and weaken. The result is a wide range of symptoms as food and toxins enter your bloodstream.
That’s not to mention the liver damage and increased risk for cancer, heart disease, and a whole range of illnesses and accidents related to chronic heavy drinking and alcoholism.
Interestingly, your gut plays a bigger role than you might think in some of these symptoms too. For example, research increasingly suggests that some of the liver damage associated with heavy drinking is a direct result of intestinal dysbiosis. Too much alcohol turns off the expression of a couple of antimicrobial genes. Once turned off, bacteria in the intestine’s mucosa take off. They increase dramatically, leading to intestinal problems at first. Eventually, however, bacteria move through the bloodstream to the rest of the body. Your body fights back, but the process of fighting the bacteria scars the liver.
The result is irrevocable liver disease.
But what about moderate drinking?
Researchers are just now investigating alcohol’s impact on the gut’s microbiome. There’s a lot we don’t know. However, new research suggests that even moderate drinking impacts which bacteria grow in your gut . The microbes found in the fecal matter of moderate drinkers are associated with metabolic disease. Metabolic disease includes heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
While we don’t yet know all the risks or caveats associated with moderate drinking, citizen scientists should be cautious. If you have a family history of alcoholism, drinking simply might not be worth it.
Strategy 4: Avoid Unnecessary Antibiotics
Antibiotics kill bacteria. If you have a bacterial infection, antibiotics can be a lifesaver. Before scientists discovered antibiotics, people died regularly of common bacterial infections.
However, as we’ve discussed, there are lots of good bacteria in your gut. Your body suffers when you kill them off. Unfortunately, antibiotics cannot distinguish between good bacteria and bad. A study found that your intestinal microbiome takes up to two years to return to normal after treatment with antibiotics.
In the short term, as your body recovers from antibiotics, you may experience yeast infections or diarrhea due to a gut imbalance.
Since your microbiome impacts all aspects of your health, it’s important to exercise caution with antibiotics. For example, most respiratory infections are viral–not bacterial. Antibiotics won’t help.
Ask good questions when you visit your doctor. If your doctor recommends antibiotics, ask why. It’s okay to ask, “Will this clear up on its own without antibiotics?” Sometimes a doctor may feel under pressure to “do something” when you show up at their office with symptoms. Talk to your doctor. If your doctor wants to prescribe antibiotics every time you visit them, it may be time to consider making an appointment with a different doctor.
A naturopathic doctor or functional medicine practitioner can help you work through your symptoms and find gentle, natural ways of treating them. Sometimes you need antibiotics, but you should certainly avoid unnecessary antibiotics.
Fiber + Probiotics = A Healthy Gut
When you put together the two strategies of increasing your probiotics and eating more fiber (and take out the gut sabotagers), you get a healthy gut microbiome.
However, keep in mind that the same approach may not work for everyone. For some people, consuming fermented foods or certain fibers can cause uncomfortable symptoms: gas, bloating, abdominal distention, constipation, or loose stools. For people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), certain fibers can make symptoms worse.
That’s why I do what I do. I work with people with all of the above symptoms to help them figure out how to get their gut back into health.
If the general recommendations above don’t work for you, you need to meet with a naturopathic doctor specializing in gut health. A naturopathic doctor will assess whether your diet is helping or hurting your gut. Then they will recommend individualized dietary, lifestyle, and supplement approaches to heal your gut and help you feel your best.