Having a healthy gut means more than just proper digestion. While the health of our gut determines how we digest and assimilate foods, it can also significantly impact our overall well-being, including our mental health, (19) nervous system function, (7) immunity, and inflammation. (20)
A healthy gut is in part determined by the health of essential microbes that inhabit the gut, known as microbiota, with the microbiome referring to the combined genes that these microbes share. (28) When the ratio of beneficial to harmful microbes is out of balance, dysbiosis occurs, creating a disease-prone state. (19)(22) Environmental, physical, and psychological factors play a large role in determining the health of our gut and, ultimately, our overall health and well-being.
In this article, we will explore what to eat for a healthy gut, as well as lifestyle and supplement recommendations for supporting optimal digestive health. Keep reading to learn about five easy ways to keep your gut healthy.
One thing most of us can agree on is that vegetables and fruit are the cornerstones of a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with fiber, which is essential for maintaining digestive function and a healthy gut. A diet high in fiber and nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables has been shown to protect the microbiome, reducing the risk of degenerative disease. (16) The number of harmful bacteria, such as Escherichia coli and Enterobacteriaceae, has also been shown to be significantly lower in individuals who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. (32) Regular consumption of apples, specifically due to their pectin content, has been shown to increase Bifidobacterium bacteria in the gut. (25) Bifidobacteria are a type of “good” bacteria residing in our gastrointestinal tract that help to reduce inflammation and support overall digestive health. (12) Nuts are also included in this category–the fiber found in almonds and pistachios have been shown to impact the microbiome by supporting the production of beneficial bacteria in the gut. (26)
Furthermore, polyphenols are naturally-occurring compounds found in plant-based foods that have been shown to play a role in supporting a healthy microbiome. (6) Polyphenols are typically found in pigment-rich plants and foods and beverages such as dark chocolate, blueberries, broccoli, coffee, and green tea. (24) Researchers have investigated the benefits of polyphenols found in red wine and their impact on gut health. One study reported that red wine consumption may have prebiotic benefits, with moderate consumption increasing the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. (21) The polyphenols and fibers found in blueberries have also been studied for their ability to increase bacteria such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus species. (29) Everywhere you look, the benefits of fruits and vegetables for gut health are plentiful.
Focus on fermented foods
Although fermented foods are a popular topic in the wellness industry today, people have long been consuming these probiotic-rich foods to support optimal digestive health. Therapeutic foods, such as kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, yoghurt, and tempeh, have been enjoyed by cultures all over the world for centuries, even before the research was able to confirm their benefits for digestive health. (9) Today, these traditional uses are supported by modern research demonstrating their positive effects on health.
Fermentation involves converting the sugars in foods into acids or alcohols using bacteria or yeast. Much of the research examining the benefits of fermented foods has been conducted with yogurt made from cow’s milk. In fact, the presence of Enterobacteriaceae, a bacteria associated with inflammation, has been found to be lower in individuals who regularly consume yogurt. (2) Kimchi has also been shown to alter the microbiome. In a group of women struggling with metabolic syndrome, kimchi intake increased counts of beneficial bacteria, resulting in weight loss. (13) Further, kombucha, a popular fermented beverage, not only tastes delicious but has also been studied for its ability to increase immunity, aid digestion, and reduce inflammation. (8)
Include prebiotic-rich foods
Probiotics and prebiotics go together like peanut butter and jelly. Prebiotics are fiber and complex carbohydrates that can not be broken down during digestion. Instead, they fuel those beneficial bacteria living in our guts. Prebiotics have been shown to improve conditions associated with compromised intestinal health, such as atopic eczema, irritable bowel disease, and gastroenteritis. (22)
Plant matter like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables contain varying amounts of these fibers. Green bananas, oats, beans, legumes, and cooked (and then cooled) rice contain resistant starch that acts as a prebiotic for our gut bacteria. (27)(31) Consumption of resistant starch was found to increase the production of butyrate in the colon, a beneficial short-chain fatty acid linked to colon cancer prevention. (4)(10) Resistant starch has also been linked to the prevention of chronic health concerns such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. (5) These non-digestible prebiotic fibers seem to have a therapeutic effect on individuals struggling with obesity and metabolic syndrome by improving dysbiosis. (1) Regularly consuming ingredients such as oats for a gut-healthy breakfast or beans and legumes at your next meal can go a long way in supporting overall digestive wellness.
Consider a probiotic supplement
As we already have learned, probiotics are live microorganisms that are essential to optimal gut health. Probiotics restore and influence the colonization of bacteria in our gut. (14)(23) Probiotic supplementation can help strengthen the immune response, improve digestion and absorption of essential nutrients, inhibit colonization of pathogenic bacteria, and reduce inflammation. (23) Specifically, taking a probiotic with Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains has been associated with these health benefits. (23) Supplementation has been shown to be especially helpful with individuals struggling with gastrointestinal conditions, such as acute diarrhea. (30) Specifically in elderly populations, regular probiotic consumption has been shown to positively affect the microbiota. (9)
When considering the benefits, research suggests that long-term supplementation is the most impactful. (23) With so many stains and dosages available on the market, it’s important to speak to your integrative health care practitioner for guidance on choosing the probiotic supplement that is best for you.
Taking care of our digestive health extends far beyond just the foods we eat and the supplements we take. Stress can also play a major role in the health of our microbiome, therefore affecting our overall health and well-being. Physical, psychological, and environmental factors all play a role in influencing our digestive health. (15) These stressors can include factors like sleep deprivation, environmental toxins, climate extremes, and strenuous physical exercise. (11) Adding relaxing activities into your routine, such as yin yoga and getting a good night’s sleep may go a long way in both protecting and strengthening your gut, with sleep specifically shown to influence and alter the composition of the microbiome. (3) On the flip side, a health gut has also been shown to help regulate blood pressure, aiding in stress relief. (18)
Furthermore, research indicates that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy used to address various mental health concerns, may provide sustained gastrointestinal symptom improvement for patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). (17)
Did you know? According to one study, better sleep quality was associated with higher concentrations of certain gut bacteria. (3)
The bottom line
A healthy gut aids in improving immune function, optimizing digestion, supporting mental health, preventing degenerative disease, and promoting general wellness. From focusing on fiber and polyphenol-rich plant-based foods to consuming fermented foods and foods rich in prebiotics, maintaining a healthy diet is a great place to start when it comes to supporting your gut health. Adding a probiotic supplement to your routine can help to restore and support the colonization of healthy bacteria in the gut. Managing stress levels and getting a good night’s sleep can also protect and support a healthy microbiome.
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