The Best Foods for Gut Health (and Why It Matters)
The health industry is overloaded with trends and fads. Would-be solutions to problems that, well, aren’t really the root of your struggle. You can slot almost any fat loss supplement into that category.
And then there are the other products -- the ones that are just the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come. It’s why natural food sources -- like mushrooms -- are being used more and more to help support well-being instead of relying on synthetic products.
Few areas of research have more testing going on than gut health. And if recent findings are any suggestion, finding ways to improve the function of your “second brain” will be important for years to come.
We’ve known for some time that consuming probiotics, or bacteria that have a positive effect on the gut, can improve digestion. Seeing them on the shelves of your local supplement store is nothing new.
But it wasn’t until recently that we really understood the far reaching effects of gut function.
Your Gut: The Future of Health
It helps to first understand that your gut isn’t exactly all yours. Yes, it’s inside your body, but it plays host to trillions upon trillions of bacterial cells that form their own living environment called the gut microbiome. It’s a mini ecosystem that pulses and squirms throughout your digestive tract. In the most basic sense, it helps you digest food and absorb nutrients. This is an extremely important function, and something that can be aided by many natural food sources, such as chaga. But the microbiome does so much more.
“Some scientists call the microbiome an organ because it does do metabolism and it creates signals that go into your body and cause some physiological effects,” says Dr. Trevor Kashey, an Arizona-based nutritionist and biochemist.
“It’s worth saying that the microbes in and of themselves do not control our behavior, however, when we eat food our bacteria eat the food as well, and essentially, the bacteria causes physiological and immunological responses in our bodies..”
That’s one reason why you hear a lot of people talk about the importance of gut diversity; you don’t just want to have a lot of bacteria in your gut, you want a lot of different kinds of bacteria. Any one kind of bacteria taking over the gut is essentially considered an infection, says Kashey, which is another good reason to eat a varied diet and to do what you can to keep your gut happy.
But what do they do, besides help us break down our food and absorb nutrients?
“The gut is very intimately connected with the immune system,” says Kashey. “The more diverse you are, the more immune you are.”
This is an enormously complicated topic, but the health of your gut can shape your immune response. Studies suggest that improving gut health can improve certain allergies, lower the odds of contracting autoimmune diseases, protect against heart disease, and even make you less susceptible to cancer.
Gut Health Importance: Healthy Weight and Mental Health
In addition to impacting your immunity, studies have found that your gut microbiome also has a significant impact on your insulin sensitivity, which is why gut health has become an important subject not just for folks with diabetes, but anybody looking to maintain a healthy weight.
Put very simply, insulin sensitivity can help and insulin resistance can hurt. When you eat carbs (and a little bit when you eat protein), the pancreas releases insulin to help move the sugars out of your bloodstream and to the organs and muscles where they can be used. If your body is sensitive to insulin, that means you need relatively small amounts of insulin to get this job done.
Problems arise when we become resistant to insulin, something that can be caused by too many sugary foods on a consistent basis, as well as by inactivity, certain diseases, and as we’re now learning, poor gut diversity. When you’re insulin resistant, your body needs to release more and more insulin to get sugar out of the blood. In some cases, we need to release so much insulin that the pancreas gets exhausted and stops being able to produce the stuff properly— that’s when Type 2 diabetes occurs.
It’s also true that the more insulin resistant you are, the more likely your body is to store carbs as fat. Keeping your gut microbiome rich and diverse is one way to help minimize the chances of that happening. In fact, one study even found that putting the gut bacteria of obese mice into healthy mice caused them to gain body fat, even though the mice’s diet didn’t change.
There’s also something called the gut-brain axis, the interplay between the gut and the mind. It might not be surprising to learn that this exists, since it’s relatively well known that indigestion can be a symptom of stress. But the connection works the other way, too: the gut can affect the mind.
“It’s because certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin, are created in the gut through the microbiome,” says Kashey. “The gut microbes have an impact on inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract and that inflammation can cause the immune system to be more active. That can activate our nervous system and when that’s too active for too long, that can cause some psychological problems. Basically, if your body is super stressed out, that’ll impact your psychology.”
This area of science is still pretty young, but a 2011 study from Britain found that a month of probiotics reduced levels of anger, hostility, and depression in human subjects. More recent research from Oxford University found that supplements intended to improve intestinal health improved anxiety levels by changing the way we process emotional information — after three weeks of supplementing, the participants actually paid more attention to positive words than negative words.
How to Eat for Better Gut Health
So what can you do to keep your gut in tip top shape? The following can help encourage a healthy microbiome.
“Generally speaking, anything that has fiber in it is going to be food for your bacteria,” says Kashey. “Bacteria eat the normal sugars we eat, but the foods that are considered probiotic are the ones that have fermentable oligosaccharides, and that’s anything with any kind of fiber.”
On a per serving basis, legumes are one of the best sources of fiber. Lentils, beans, and split peas all provide about 15 grams of fiber per cup, about half the recommended daily intake. For comparison’s sake, a cup of cooked oatmeal just provides 4 grams of fiber.
But the best type of fiber for your gut microbiome is what’s called prebiotic fiber, which nourishes the bacteria. Inulin is one of the best; you can find it in high amounts in garlic, leeks, onions, asparagus, and wheat bran.
“Probiotics refers to any food that has live bacteria that can live inside of your gut,” says Kashey. “So this is gonna be your fermented foods and honestly, eating food that has dirt on it, like mushrooms and carrots, is probably a good probiotic too.”
Great food sources of probiotics are sauerkraut, yogurt, and the Korean staple kimchi. These foods taste a little tangy because they’re crawling with bacteria, but it’s important to note that there are a lot of phony sauerkrauts out there. You want to make absolutely certain that your kraut contains live strains of bacteria. If it contains vinegar, avoid — that kills them.
If you want to get a wide variety of probiotics, don’t just consume several sources of them — try and get your probiotics from different regions.
“The variability of diversity of bacteria strains has a lot to do with the geographic location that the food came from,” says Kashey. “So different parts of the world are going to have different cooties. American sauerkraut will have different bacteria to German sauerkraut and Swiss sauerkraut.”
More of a yogurt person? Don’t just pick up the same tub of Greek yogurt every time you hit the supermarket. Try the occasional tub of Icelandic yogurt (Skyr), Indian yogurt, and labneh.
“I think that most gut health ends up getting destroyed by things like excessive alcohol intake, because alcohol kills germs,” says Kashey.
The data supports it, suggesting that excessive alcohol consumption changes the gastrointestinal microbiome and might contribute to the link between alcohol consumption, stress, and intestinal hyperpermeability, which is a factor in “leaky gut syndrome.”
Be Mindful of Antibiotics
We’re not about to say that you should never, under any circumstances, take antibiotics. But as their name suggests, they’re fantastic at killing bacteria and sadly, they don’t discriminate. Good and bad bacteria both get wiped out.
That’s a reason to use the tips in this article to maintain and improve your gut health during and after courses of antibiotics.
That’s the best advice to maintain a healthy gut as far as what you should and shouldn’t consume. Outside of your diet, getting plenty of sleep and maintaining a healthy weight are both factors that contribute to a healthy, thriving microbiome.