Your gut, or gastrointestinal tract, contain about 100 trillion bacteria, with 500 different species, all of which play a role in your overall health. Some of these bacteria are “good” and some can be “bad”. The balance between these good and bad bacteria have a large impact on immune function, nutrient absorption and synthesis, and digestion of food. The good bacteria can also be thought of as probiotics, which are constantly being replenished in our gut. But they need certain foods to help them grow. Here is where prebiotics come into play, which are fibrous foods that feed the good bacteria.
Gut bacteria changes throughout your life in response to a variety of factors, including diet, stress, medications, and physical location. Diet is the best way to improve your gut microbiome. Probiotic supplements can be beneficial, but most are only effective during consumption (they only replenish the bacteria during ingestion, but not after the supplement is stopped). Damage or imbalance of the gut’s microbiome can lead to symptoms like bloating, gas, brain fog and fatigue.
Follow these five tips to boost your gut health:
1. Eat traditionally fermented foods
Fermented foods contain good bacteria (probiotics) that help cultivate an environment beneficial for growth of all healthy bacteria. A good way to promote the good guys is to ingest 1 to 25 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) daily. Not sure how much that is? Store bought probiotic yogurts contain about 1 billion CFUs per serving and kimchi can contain 4 billion CFUs per serving. As with all foods, it’s important to read product labels and choose those that contain “active, live cultures” and preferably raw, unpasteurized, and organic ingredients (be sure to check with your MD if you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system before consuming).
Shoot for 1-2 servings daily of any of these foods:
Acidophilus milk, Cheese (aged), Cottage cheese, Fermented vegetables (ginger, orange, carrots), Kefir, Kimchi, Kombucha, Miso, Pickled vegetables (raw) (think pickles), Sauerkraut, Tempeh, Yogurt (plain, no added sugar, active cultures)
Probiotic supplements can be a good choice if you do not feel you can eat any of the above foods daily. I always recommend one after a course of antibiotics.
When choosing a probiotic supplement look for:
At least 5-10 billion cells daily (CFU)
Diversity of strains – look for multiple strains of bacteria in the probiotic
Stability – check the potency guaranteed amount on the label; this will tell you how many cells are guaranteed at time of consumption
Ingredients – some contain sugars and dairy products (if you have a lactose intolerance)
2. Load up on prebiotics
What are prebiotics you ask? Prebiotics are fiber that is not digested in the GI tract but fermented by bacteria in the colon. As prebiotics work their way down your GI tract, they become fuel for the good bacteria to thrive. Include prebiotic rich foods as part of your daily fiber intake.
Top sources of prebiotics:
Asparagus, Bananas (green-tip), Dandelion greens, Eggplant, Endive, Flax Seeds, Garlic, Honey, Jicama, Kefir, Leeks, Legumes, Oats, Onions, Peas, Radicchio, Sprouted Wheat, Yams
3. Aim for at least 25g-38g of fiber daily
The national recommendations of daily fiber intake is 25g of fiber for women and 38g of fiber for men. Fiber can fall into two main categories, soluble and insoluble, both of which are important to your health. Soluble fiber is what makes up many of the prebiotic foods; it is soluble in water, slows down transit time (the time it takes for food to pass through your GI tract and leave your body) and fermented by the good bacteria in your GI tract. Insoluble fiber, or roughage, is not water soluble, increases transit time and provides bulk to your stool (good for constipation).
Check out this link for a list of food sources of dietary fiber:
4. Manage stress
Stress has been shown to alter your microbiome. Your body cannot differentiate from the different stressors you may experience. Whether you are sick, scared, angry, or in danger your body physiologically will react the same way. The key is to manage stress and your reaction to it. Find strategies that help change your mindset and allow you to relax. This could include meditation, deep breathing, yoga, walks, reading, and/or drawing.
5. Practice mindful eating
Mindful, or intuitive eating, provides a variety of benefits that also extend to gut health. The action of eating slowly and chewing food completely will start the process of digestion by releasing enzymes in the mouth and HCL (hydrochloric acid) in the stomach. Check out this prior blog post on how to practice mindful eating: