“All disease begins in the gut.”– Hippocrates
Gut health is fascinating. Not because it is the latest health buzz, but because of the emerging research that is showing why gut health matters and how intricate our gut health really is. Keeping your gut health in check is one of the biggest factors to your overall health because it protects you from infection, supports your metabolism, promotes healthy digestion and elimination. What is even more fascinating is that everyone’s microbiome is unique, almost like your own individual footprint. There are however a few generalities for everyone about what’s healthy and what’s not. While research on gut health is still in its infancy, we can already see that certain environments, foods and behaviors can influence your gut health for better or worse. Here’s why gut health matters and what you can do to improve yours.
YOUR GUT HEALTH
Gut health typically refers to your entire digestive system starting from where food enters your mouth to where it exits. Your gut is so complex because it contributes to everything from your weight, your mood to brain health, inflammation and immune function.
You get your gut microbiome at birth, and the world around you – including what you eat, affects it as you grow up. From birth, there are many factors that influence the types of bacteria that will live and flourish in your gut. Genetics and health of your parents, how you were delivered, and if you were breast or bottle-fed can all contribute. Also, throughout your life other factors can shape the bacteria that live in your gut. Some of these things are difficult to change, like genetics, stress or illness, but other factors you can modify or control, such as your daily behaviors – especially diet.
As you grow and develop, inside your gut, microbiota can weigh up to 2 kilos in total. One third of your gut microbiota is common to most other people, while two thirds are specific to only you. All of the trillions of bacteria that help keep you healthy and regular are hard at work helping you digest your meals, making essential nutrients you can’t produce on your own, and protecting you from disease. Your gut also plays a role in shaping your appetite, allergies, metabolism, and neurological function. In fact, scientists have found that gut bacteria produce hormones, such as serotonin and dopamine, all of which play a key role in determining your mood. All of these factors truly show why your gut health matters and why you should take care of it.
WHICH BACTERIA ARE YOU FEEDING?
When it comes to the bacteria in your gut, every time you eat, you are feeding somebody. While you should aim to promote healthy gut bacteria, the ideal balance of your gut can easily be disturbed.
Your gut has several important jobs, including fighting off infection and performing all of its usual digestive and regulatory functions. The good bacteria that live inside your get help with your digestion and removing toxins from the body. They keep your immune system strong. They also help keep your “bad” bacteria in check. Unfortunately, the modern industrialized diet often feeds the bad guys and, just as important, starves the good guys. To put it simply, “bad” bacteria tend to feed on sugar and unhealthy fats. And the single most important nutrient that good bacteria need to thrive inside you is fiber. When your gut has sufficient fiber to work with, it can do its job effectively. This means that your digestion, mental function, and even your mood reap the benefits.
FEED THE GOOD ONES!
If your good bacteria were in charge of your daily menu, they would want abundant sources of healthy, nutritious foods. Focus on eating whole foods – especially fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
- Eat a wide range of whole foods – A healthy gut has a diverse community of microbes, each of which prefers different foods. Whole, fresh vegetables, beans and legumes, and a variety of fresh fruits serve as nutrition for the bacteria in your gut.
- Eat more fiber – If your diet is already low in fiber, a sudden increase can cause wind and bloating. This is less likely if you make gradual changes and drink more water. Most people eat less fiber than they should so try to gradually add fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts and whole grains as they all help feed healthy bacteria.
- Chew properly – Your mouth has digestive enzymes that help break food down. If we inhale our food, it places an extra workload on the stomach to break the food down. Digestion truly begins in the mouth, so be sure to eat slowly and chew your food properly.
- Avoid highly processed foods – Processed foods often contain ingredients that either suppress ‘good’ bacteria or increase ‘bad’ bacteria. No need to completely deprive yourself for the rest of your life, but simply be mindful and consume processed foods in moderation.
- Antibiotics kill ‘good’ bacteria as well as ‘bad’ – Of course, antibiotics are needed for life threatening infections. No question about that. If you need antibiotics, make sure you eat lots of foods that boost your microbes afterwards.
- Reduce artificial sweetener intake – Sugar can not only feed the bad bacteria, but may suppress the growth of good bacteria. If cutting out sugar feels overwhelming, start small. Perhaps avoid sugar in your coffee or processed sweets that are typically loaded with sugar.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU MAY HAVE A TROUBLED GUT?
When your gut health is thrown out of balance for any reason, it’s often easy to tell. Experiencing bloating, gas, diarrhea or stomach pain can be signs that something in the gut isn’t working as it should. The imbalances often fix themselves after a short time, but if they become chronic, they may require a medical diagnosis and treatment.
Signs of an unhealthy gut vary between people, but the most common symptoms include:
- Abdominal bloating
- Weight changes
- Difficulties with sleep
- Constant Fatigue
You don’t have to know exactly what’s going on in your gut at all times. The general advice is to eat a balanced diet, stay hydrated, exercise regularly and sleep well. Seek professional medical advice if any efforts or remedies do not seem to do the trick! Your gut is so complex, which means sometimes more deep rooted issues could be present.
FOODS THAT BENEFIT YOUR GUT HEALTH
The internal environment of your gut is dictated by what you put in your mouth — so the foods you choose to eat are a crucial component of maintaining gut health. Below are some foods that I find keep my gut health in check and could help you as well!
- Legumes – One cup of legumes can provide half of your daily fiber, and at a low cost, they’re a great deal, too! Foods like lentils, beans, split peas, or chickpeas are great options!
- Fruit – Bananas , berries and citrus fruits, such as oranges, contain less fructose, making them easier to tolerate and less likely to cause gas. Bananas are a low-fructose fruit, fiber-rich and contain inulin, a substance that stimulates the growth of good bacteria in your gut.
- Whole Grains – If you want your gut to work better, choose whole grains. They provide lots of fiber, as well as added nutrients. Opt for whole grain breads or cereals.
- Yogurt – Fermented dairy foods contain beneficial bacteria. Look out for sugar-free, full-fat versions and avoid flavoured yogurts.
- Kefir – This probiotic yogurt drink is made by fermenting milk and is packed with good bacteria. Kefir usually contains at least 10 live and active strains of bacteria, compared to most yogurts which usually have three.
- Cruciferous Vegetables – Excellent sources of vitamins A and C. They’re also rich in phytonutrients which may help to lower inflammation in your body. Load up on veggies such as cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage.
- Leafy Greens – Leafy greens, such as spinach or kale, are great sources of fiber, as well as folate, vitamin C, vitamin K and vitamin A. Add leafy greens to salads or even sandwiches.
- Dark Chocolate – Beneficial bacteria can ferment dark chocolate fiber into short-chain fatty acids that help fend off harmful microbes and reinforce the gut barrier against antigens and invaders. A square of dark chocolate every now and then can do more good than harm.
- Onions – Onions, as well as Jerusalem artichokes are high in prebiotics, which can help promote the growth of good bacteria. Use onions in your cooking as often as possible.
- Garlic – Inulin and fructooligosaccharides are the two main fibers in garlic which makes it a dynamic prebiotic duo. You can use garlic in many inventive ways in your cooking.
It all goes back to eating lots of vegetables, some fruit, nuts, seeds and whole grains. There are many more foods we could add to this list, however as we all have a unique microbiome, different varieties of whole foods suit us individually in different ways.
OTHER FACTORS THAT SUPPORT A HEALTHY GUT
- Getting enough sleep – Your gut can have an effect on how you sleep. In turn, sleep and circadian rhythms appear to affect the health and diversity of the bacterial world that lives in your gut.
- Managing Stress – Your gut is your second brain. You can be eating the healthiest foods, but if you are experiencing stress every day, you could be sabotaging your efforts in keeping your gut healthy. Alongside a healthy diet, try meditate and remove yourself from stressful scenarios, conversations or people.
- Keeping Active – Exercise has been shown to increase useful strains of bacteria like lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, which help with things like isolating inflammation. Exercising also increases blood flow towards the muscles and digestive tract, which can help move food through your digestive tract.
- The environment you grow up and live in also matters – More exposure to germs and bacteria, within reason, can strengthen your microbiomes. Spend time outside, dig in the dirt, be around animals. These are things that will help establish a healthy gut.
TRUST YOUR GUT
Trust your gut, your body really does know what’s best for it, so pay attention to your body’s signals. What are your true cravings? Does broccoli make you bloated or does coffee make you more tired? While we can identify some health benefits of foods, lifestyle habits, and activities, every body is different. Only you can know what’s really good and bad for your gut. If a food that is promoted as “healthy” is making you feel sluggish or bloated, trust your instinct. Just because a food trend is deemed as healthy it does not mean that it will benefit your unique microbiome. Understanding why your gut helath matters to your overall health is important. Spend some time learning to become in tune with what your body likes, and dislikes.
With so much still to explore about the microbiome and why gut health matters, the best advice is stick to the basics. Eating a well balanced diet that is best suitable to you is the most obvious place to start improving your gut health, but there are other lifestyle issues that can affect your gut too. Getting enough sleep, reducing your stress and getting enough exercise also play a role. You should also drink enough water as it helps your gut keep things moving. There are many other factors that show why your gut health matters, but remember, you really do have the power to change, one step at a time.
Disclaimer – I am not a health care professional. This blog provides general information and discussions about health and wellness. The information and other content provided in this blog are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.