Within the last ten to 15 years, a great deal of research has been conducted on the gut microbiome, allowing us to better understand the role that the gut microbiota play in health and disease—a role which is now known to extend far beyond digestive wellness alone. In fact, researchers have discovered that roughly 70% of the immune system resides within the gastrointestinal tract (GI), suggesting a connection between gut health and immune function. (11)(12)(21)(65)
The primary role of the gut is to digest and absorb foods and excrete waste. A healthy gut and digestive system ensures that food is broken down properly, nutrients from the foods are being absorbed, and excess toxins and waste are excreted from the body.
A variety of factors affect the overall health of the gut, including the foods that we eat every day. Food choices can either support optimal gut health or contribute to ill health and gut-related health concerns, which can range from constipation or diarrhea to autoimmune disease, low mood and mental health issues, and increased skin breakouts. (30)
Continue reading below to learn about the top eight best foods for gut health and the importance of incorporating these foods to balance, support, and improve overall gut health.
Top 8 foods good for gut health
Outlined below are the top gut-friendly foods, including garlic, pineapple, papaya, and a number of fermented foods.
Kefir is a fermented, sour-tasting milk that has been consumed as a traditional beverage since the 19th century in Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey. Today, kefir is produced and consumed throughout the world and is known for its nutritional and therapeutic properties for maintaining and improving gut health. To produce kefir, milk typically undergoes a 24-hour fermentation process using kefir grains that contain bacteria and yeast. Kefir grains convert lactose into lactic acid bacteria (LAB) that helps preserve the milk and lower its pH. (6)(14)(33)(34)(40)
Did you know? The word kefir originated from keyif, a Turkish word meaning “feeling good” after consumption. (33)
Kefir is rich in probiotics, which help maintain gut health and a favorable composition of the microbiota, especially in individuals with GI issues and those who have received antibiotic, radiation, and immunosuppressive therapies. (22)(31)(41) Kefir provides anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-hypertensive, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-carcinogenic, and anti-allergenic properties. (7)(13)(52)(55)(68) In addition, kefir benefits individuals with lactose sensitivity, improving symptoms of lactose intolerance and digestion. (25)
Sauerkraut, meaning “sour cabbage” in German, is one of the oldest and most common methods of cabbage preservation, which can be traced back to 400 BC. (61) Sauerkraut has been a popular traditional food in Germany, Poland, and Russia for hundreds of years.
Sauerkraut is made using shredded or sliced cabbage and salt. (46) During the fermentation process, the salt pulls liquid from the cabbage and produces bacteria such as LAB. These live bacteria are responsible for the primary health benefits obtained from consuming sauerkraut. (4)(61)(64) Sauerkraut provides anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant, and anti-carcinogenic properties. (4)(35)(39)(46)(62) In addition, cabbage is a source of several beneficial nutrients, including digestive enzymes, fiber, minerals, and vitamins such as vitamin C. (19)(24)
Kimchi is another traditional form of fermented cabbage that originated in Northeastern Asia and is a popular condiment in Korea. Kimchi undergoes a similar fermentation process as sauerkraut; however, many additional ingredients are added to enhance flavor, taste, and nutritional value. The ingredients typically used in kimchi include cabbage, red bell pepper, garlic, onion, ginger, and salt. (5)(43)(44)
Kimchi is rich in live bacterial cultures, LAB being found in the highest concentrations following the fermentation process. Kimchi may prevent and address GI disorders and infections by supporting and balancing the gut microbiome. Kimchi, again similarly to sauerkraut, contains many vitamins, digestive enzymes, fiber, and minerals. Kimchi also provides antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic, and anti-aging properties. (2)(44)(43)(58)(61)
Miso is a thick, salty-tasting paste made from fermented soybeans that have undergone fermentation with salt and koji, a type of starter fungus known as Aspergillus oryzae. (37)(48) Miso, used throughout Asia, is a traditional Japanese condiment that can be used in spreads, sauces, and broths. (36)
Miso contains probiotics and digestive enzymes such as lipase, protease, lactase, and amylase, which assist in the breakdown, digestion, and absorption of foods and nutrients. Miso also contains a variety of vitamins, minerals, amino acids. It is a suitable source of protein, particularly for vegetarians, vegans, and individuals following a plant-based diet. (17)(27)(36)(61)(69)
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is made by fermenting the juice of apples, creating a sour tasting and smelling liquid. Dating back to 5,000 BC, ACV is still used for medicinal, culinary, and cleaning purposes throughout the world. (8)(26)(28)(59)
ACV may provide benefits by increasing acid production in the stomach and stimulating digestive juices, which help break down foods. In addition, ACV provides anti-microbial, antibiotic, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and antiviral properties, which may assist in treating yeast overgrowth in the gut, inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria in the GI tract, and support a healthy microbiome. (20)(54)(59)(67)
When purchasing ACV, it’s important to note that there is a difference between apple cider vinegar and organic, unfiltered ACV. The organic, unfiltered ACV contains yeast and bacteria known as the “mother”. It is reported that the “mother” produces live-active bacteria, enzymes, and proteins that may work together to support a healthy environment in the gut. (28)(59)
Garlic, also known as Allium sativum, is a plant that is a part of the Allium family and grows throughout the world. Allicin is a compound that is released with the help of the enzyme alliinase when garlic is crushed or chopped. Allicin is responsible for the pungent taste and smell of garlic. (3)(32)
Garlic is well known for both its medicinal and culinary uses. Its use has been traced back to 400 BC, and ancient medical texts indicate that garlic was prescribed for medicinal purposes in Greece, Rome, India, China, and Egypt. Even the great Hippocrates, an admired physician, prescribed garlic for a variety of ailments. (51)
Pineapple, also known as Ananas comosus, is a nutritious and sweet fruit grown in tropical countries. Pineapple has been used since ancient times as traditional and folk medicine as it contains the enzyme bromelain that assists in the breakdown, digestion, and absorption of protein in the digestive tract. (47)(63) Bromelain provides immunomodulatory, anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic, fibrinolytic (reduces formation of blood clots), and anti-carcinogenic properties. (15)(45)(47)(63)
Bromelain may also provide therapeutic benefits for inflammatory bowel disease. A study that was conducted on mice showed a decrease in the symptoms of colitis after six months of bromelain treatment. (23)
Today, the components of pineapple, particularly bromelain, are used in many dietary supplements.
Papaya, also known as Carica papaya, is a fruit grown in tropical and subtropical countries, such as Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. Papaya has traditionally been used as a remedy to treat abnormal digestion and inflammatory conditions. (9)(38)(42)
Papaya contains a proteolytic enzyme called papain, which assists in the breakdown of proteins into amino acids and peptides. (50)(66) A study conducted in 2013 showed that papaya taken in supplement form significantly improved bloating and constipation in individuals with GI tract disorders. (38) Papaya also contains antioxidants known as carotenoids, specifically beta-carotene and lycopene, which may aid in reducing the risk of many health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, male infertility, osteoporosis, and some forms of cancers. (18)(56)
The bottom line
When it comes to a thriving and healthy gut, the food we eat really does matter. Food can either support optimal gut health or contribute to ill health. Including fermented foods and certain vegetables and fruits, such as garlic, pineapple, and papaya, can support your gut health and help prevent many GI-related health issues. If you’re a patient, talk to your integrative healthcare practitioner to find the gut health foods and gut health diet best suited to you.
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