Nutrition plays a huge role in the health of your gut microbiome.
When it comes to popular health topics and trends, all eyes are on the gut microbiome—its importance for overall health and the many actions we can take everyday to improve its vitality. Over recent years, interest in the gut microbiome has skyrocketed, and research surrounding it has become more robust.
What Is the Gut Microbiome?
Found primarily in the large intestine, the gut microbiome is a group of trillions of micro-organisms—mostly bacteria, but also some yeast varieties and viruses. As more studies are completed, we’re finding that these microorganisms may actually be steering the ship when it comes to so many different health outcomes.
What Role Does Gut Health Play in Overall Health?
Digestion, Metabolism, and Nutrient Absorption
Given the location of its headquarters, you might guess that the microbiome is charged with healthy digestion and metabolism—and it most certainly is. But it also plays a key role in synthesis of certain amino acids and vitamins, while helping to potentially break down toxic compounds found in our food.
The microbiome contains both beneficial and harmful bacteria, so boosting the population of healthy bacteria in this ecosystem is essential to a healthy immune system too. Plus, the biome plays a large role in the modulation of many different types of immune cells in our body, further establishing it as an MVP in immune health.
Brain Function, Nervous System, Mental Health
The gut microbiome also has a surprisingly deep connection to your mind and mood: The intestines are actually lined with nerve cells that communicate with the central nervous system. This connection, called the gut-brain axis, is a bidirectional communication pathway between these intestinal nerve cells and the central nervous system, of which the brain is the star. And because of this connection, the health of our brains can affect our gut health, and vice versa. In fact, research has shown that the health of our gut microbiome is tied to mood disorders like anxiety and depression, cognitive function, and stress management.
Longevity and Chronic Diseases
Finally, the gut microbiome plays another super-important role in the development and expression of chronic disease. One review done of multiple studies found that the health of the microbiome is closely tied to the prevention (or the expression) of many chronic diseases ranging from metabolic, neurologic, cardiovascular, and respiratory diseases. Some of these include type 1 and 2 diabetes, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, kidney disease, liver disease, and asthma. Plus, gut health has also been found to play a vital role in calcium absorption and bone cell health, helping to maintain healthy bones and prevent osteoporosis.
What Can Help and Hurt Your Gut Health?
Several genetic and lifestyle factors can influence the balance of microbes in the gut, both directly and indirectly, including exercise, stress levels, sleep, hydration status, and, of course, nutrition. What you eat really is the foundation of the microbiome. The best foods for gut health are those rich in good gut bacteria, rich in nutrients to feed all that good bacteria, and rich in compounds that temper and prevent inflammation.
Armed with all this information on the importance of gut health for overall health, you may be raring to go to start boosting your microbiome. Well, thankfully, one of the best ways to fix your gut is to make informed food choices. Here are some core guidelines when it comes to healthy eating for your gut.
The Best Types of Food to Eat for Gut Health
Fiber—to feed healthy gut bacteria and regulate digestion.
When it comes to healthy digestion, fiber is a key player, providing structure to aid digestive regularity. There are two main types of fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber, and we all need both since they provide different benefits. Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Whereas insoluble fiber does basically the opposite: It does not dissolve in water and adds bulk, helping to keep things moving and prevent constipation.
Certain types of fiber aren’t completely broken down in the digestive process and make it all the way to the intestines. These survivors are really important sources of food for our healthy gut bacteria and another name for them, that you may be familiar with, are prebiotics (which we’ll get to in a second). While not all sources of fiber are prebiotics, many of favorite fiber-rich foods are, including bananas, apples, asparagus, berries, flaxseed, broccoli, garlic, oats, onions, leafy greens, tomatoes, and legumes including beans, lentils, and peas.
Prebiotics—to feed gut bacteria.
Prebiotics are typically soluble fibers that are indigestible by humans, but not by our gut bacteria. Prebiotics act as food for our intestinal bacteria, helping them to flourish. There are so many prebiotic foods available to us. Some examples of prebiotic food sources include barley, onions, garlic, leeks, honey, cocoa, flaxseed, seaweed, whole wheat products, dandelion greens, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage, apples, oats, watermelon, bananas, and chickpeas.
Probiotics—to increase healthy gut bacteria.
An important way to start building a thriving gut microbiome is to introduce more healthy bacteria into the biome. This can most easily be accomplished by consuming foods rich in probiotics, a term for healthy bacteria. Probiotic foods will either be enriched with bacteria or bacteria will be grown in the food through fermentation. Fermentation is a metabolic process through which bacteria facilitate a chemical change in the food or beverage in question, producing desirable results. These results could be increased health benefits, longer shelf life, or enhanced flavor profile. Some fermented foods, like sourdough bread or beer, don’t contain probiotics, but many others do. A few fantastic ways to eat your probiotics include sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha, miso, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, buttermilk, and certain types of pickles (that are actually fermented, not just pickled in vinegar).
Anti-inflammatory foods—to keep your gut happy.
A final pillar of gut-healthy food choices is eating foods that help your body fight and prevent inflammation. Pro-inflammatory foods can irritate the gut and negatively influence the microbiome, especially if consumed in excess, and this can inhibit the biome from carrying out its vital bodily functions. Generally, anti-inflammatory foods will be full of vitamins and minerals. Some will also provide omega-3 fatty acids, while others will contain important plant compounds. Polyphenols, or plant compounds, are particularly beneficial for gut health because they have antioxidant properties, encouraging healthy microorganism growth while inhibiting the growth of harmful pathogens in the gut.
Sources of polyphenols include berries, nuts, dark green veggies, tea, beans, apples, cherries, onions, olives, cloves, capers, oregano, sage, thyme,and many more. The list is long, because all plants will contain some of these amazing compounds (hence why eating more, and a variety of plants is fantastic for gut health). A good rule of thumb: The more brilliantly colored the plant food is, the more likely it’ll be packed with polyphenols. Other anti-inflammatory foods contain omega-3 fats: walnuts, chia seeds, hemp, salmon, sardines, anchovies, and soybeans.
Limit or omit gut-inflammatory foods when you can.
There are some foods and ingredients that unfortunately don’t support—or in some cases actively irritate—gut health. All foods have a place in our diets, and nothing is completely off-limits. However, striking the right balance and de-emphasizing the less-beneficial bites and drinks will be a game-changer for your microbiome. Mindfulness and moderation are key when it comes to inflammatory foods, many of which either inherently lack fiber or have been stripped of their natural fibers (think: refined grains). Alcohol, processed foods, added sugars, and fried foods fit into this category. Red meat is also something to be careful of, as research has found that consuming red meat can releases a pro-inflammatory metabolite the body that’s been linked to heart disease. (Plus, there’s robust evidence linking red meat to colon cancer.) Added sugars are also an ingredient to be wary of and limit wherever possible. Not only are they a major inflammatory agent in the gut, but research has shown that added sugars can negatively impact the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut as well as compromise the gut mucosal barrier, leaving us more susceptible to illness and infection. Artificial sweeteners, too, may disrupt the balance of bacteria in our biome.
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