It may surprise you that your health, fertility, and longevity are reliant on the balance of organisms and bacteria living within the gut.
Our Western diet and other lifestyle influences can wreak havoc on the delicate balance of bacteria in our guts and cause issues such as stomach ache, indigestion and even more serious conditions.
Recent articles from Harvard University show how poor gut health can contribute to many diseases and disorders like leaky gut syndrome, autoimmune disease, arthritis, dementia, heart disease, and cancer.
This post contains affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more information.
How does gut health affect us?
Most of us are aware that the bacteria in our gut plays an important role in digestion. When the stomach and small intestine are unable to digest certain foods we eat, gut microbes jump in to offer a helping hand, ensuring we get the nutrients we need.
In addition, gut bacteria may help aid the production of certain vitamins like B and K along with other essential nutrients. This is leading researchers to study the impact that gut bacteria has on our health.
Research suggests that the gut bacteria in healthy people are different from those with certain diseases. Every human being has a gut microbiota (community of bacteria) that is unique.
People who are sick may have too little or too much of a certain type of gut bacteria, or they may lack a variety of bacteria.
How do you know if your gut microbiome is healthy or out of balance?
The easiest way to tell is by the symptoms and they are obvious enough that no one needs to worry about misunderstanding them.
Here are five signs that your microbiome is out of balance:
- Gas or bloating
- Indigestion or heartburn after meals
- Irregular bowel movements (diarrhea or constipation)
- Food allergies or sensitivities
- Frequent colds
The good news is that you can fix your gut microbiome through diet, reducing stress, and sleeping better.
For stress reduction and sleeping better, look to regular exercise and movement of the body.
Consider adding yoga meditation to your morning routine before you begin exercising. Add a walk outdoors to your afternoon routine following a good, healthy lunch.
The bacteria in your gut may also play a role in the following illnesses:
Obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease
Your gut bacteria affects the body’s metabolism. They determine how many calories you get from food and what kinds of nutrients you receive. Too much gut bacteria can make you turn fibre into fatty acids.
This can cause fat deposits in your liver, leading to something called metabolic syndrome – a condition that can lead to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
It’s believed that people with these conditions have lower levels of certain anti-inflammatory gut bacteria. The exact connection is unclear, but researchers think that some bacteria may make your body attack your intestines and set the stage for these diseases.
95% of the body’s supply of serotonin is produced by gut bacteria.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), gut bacteria produce an array of neurochemicals that the brain uses for the regulation of physiological and mental processes, including memory, learning, and mood.
Why is gut microbiota important?
All human beings have bacteria in and on their body.
In fact, research has shown that the human body is composed of more bacteria than cells.
A healthy human body is actually swarming with microorganisms inhabiting every nook and cranny on the body.
It is in our gut, the gastrointestinal tract, that we can find the largest collection of microorganisms.
These microorganisms are a community and as such make up our gut microbiota.
Combine the microbiota, the products it makes, and the entire environment it lives within and we have a microbiome.
The human microbiome (all of our microbes’ genes) can be considered a counterpart to the human genome (all of our genes).
Every human being has a gut microbiota and the composition for each person is unique.
Regardless of the composition, the microbiota has the same physiological functions with a direct impact on the health of the human body.
Some of the functions of gut microbiota:
- Helps the body to digest certain foods that the stomach and small intestine haven’t been able to digest.
- Helps with the production of vitamins B and K.
- Helps the body combat other microorganisms that would others harm the gastrointestinal tract.
- Plays an important role in the immune system, primarily by performing as a barrier.
- A healthy and balanced gut microbiota is key to ensuring proper digestive functioning.
These are vital and important functions of the human body and the immune system.
Some researchers have said that up to 90 percent of all diseases can be traced in some way back to the gut and health of the microbiome.
Every human being shapes their own microbiome, which in turn adapts to changes in their environment.
For example, the foods that are eaten, sleeping patterns, the amount of bacteria the person is exposed to every day, and the level of stress the person lives with all help to establish the state of the gut microbiota.
Which brings us to the good news: you can affect your microbiome through diet, physical exercise, sleep, and stress management.
Depending on the symptoms you are experiencing, your microbiome could need a minor adjustment or a major adjustment.
What can you do to improve your gut health?
Knowing the effect that gut bacteria has on our mental and physical health, it’s good to know that there are some things you can do to have a healthy gut:
Eating well for a healthy gut
Gut bacteria can be good or bad. A healthy diet can encourage the presence of good gut bacteria. Certain foods can play a an important role in increasing your levels of good bacteria and cutting down on the bad stuff.
Cut back on refined sugar
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your health, and they feed on prebiotics, which are plant-based fibres from whole foods like apples, onions, garlic, bananas, and oats.
The bad gut bacteria love to eat sugar. When you eat refined sugar, these bad gut bacteria thrive and grow out of control, outworking the good bacteria.
And the results are diseases and disorders like obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD).
Check your gluten intolerance
Gluten is a family of proteins found in grains like wheat, rye, spelt and barley, with wheat being the most common grain consumed.
Researchers say the presence of certain gut bacteria may contribute to the development of celiac disease. Celiac disease is an immune disease in which a person is intolerant to gluten and can get sick from even small amounts.
Start eating fermented foods and probiotics
Fermented goods can help provide balance to your gut bacteria. Foods like pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso soup, apple cider vinegar, and dark chocolate feed the good gut bacteria.
Probiotics For Gut Health
Eating probiotic-rich foods and taking a daily probiotic supplement also help to put good bacteria into our bodies. Probiotic-rich foods include live-cultured yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, miso soup, apple cider vinegar, dark chocolate.
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your health, especially your digestive system. They’re often called often called “good” or “helpful” bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy.
What they do is line your digestive tract and support your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection.
The good news is that probiotics can be increased through diet and supplements. Some foods are probiotic-rich, while others help to feed the probiotics in your gut.
There are foods you can find in a grocery store, and of course, online, that are probiotic-rich.
Fermentation is a traditional way to preserve foods and dates back thousands of years, with most countries of the world having traditional foods that they ferment. The purpose of eating fermented foods is to restore your gut bacteria to a good balance so that your digestion improves, which means you are absorbing more nutrients from the foods you eat and you are improving your overall mental and physical health.
Fermented Foods For Gut Health
Fermented foods are foods that have been through a process of lactofermentation in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid. This process preserves the food and creates beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics.
Allowing bacteria to form in a sealed jar of vegetables over a few months might not seem like the most appealing way to create a meal or side-dish, but fermentation plays an important role in balancing the bacteria in your gut.
There are two ways to ferment foods:
- Fermenting sugar with yeast to produce sugar alcohols; OR
- Using lactic acid-based bacteria (e.g. Lactobacillus) to act on dairy products or vegetables, which aids in their preservation and increases their good probiotic content. (In the case of Candida, this second method is particularly useful).
When talking about eating fermented foods for a healthy gut, the lactic acid-based bacterium is the process to look for. And, it isn’t necessary for you to learn how to ferment your own food as there are many options available to you in your local grocery store.
A note of caution: Not all fermented foods are good for restoring balance to your gut bacteria. Many mass-produced fermented foods, unfortunately, have little actual fermentation left in them (i.e. lacto-acidic beneficial bacteria).
Consider the following tips as guidelines for helping you choose and consume healthy, fermented foods:
Look for foods with no sugar added. Fermented foods will typically have some residual sweetness from the natural sugars that remain in the food, so there should be no need to sweeten them further.
Look for organic ingredients. Great fermented food options that can be certified organic include:
Go unpasteurized. Processes like pasteurization and sterilization kill the beneficial bacteria. Even if bacteria are added back in and cultured after pasteurization, remember the enzymes in the food are still destroyed by pasteurizing. Those enzymes help you to digest foods more easily
Consume your fermented foods with fatty and protein-rich foods. Fatty and protein-rich foods tend to inhibit the natural production of beneficial lactobacillus bacteria in the gut. To offset this, it makes sense to eat a small portion of fermented foods at the same time.
Some that you can include on your next grocery list are:
Yogurt and Kefir
Find the plant-based versions like soy yogurt, coconut yogurt and coconut kefir to get the benefits without the problems often associated with dairy. Kefir is a cultured, fermented milk drink, and is similar to yogurt but it is a drink, with a tart, sour taste, and slight fizz. It can be found in the yogurt section of many grocery stores.
Sauerkraut and Vegetable Ferments
Kimchi is a staple in Korean cuisine. It’s a side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables using napa cabbage and Korean radishes.
Water Kefir and Kombucha
Both can be purchased in bottles.
It’s the fermented beans and rice that make miso magic as a healthy and delicious condiment and adding a tablespoon to some hot water makes an excellent, quick, probiotic-rich soup.
Supplements For Gut Health
While the probiotics in food form are best for your gut health, they are available in supplement form.
Quality supplements can be pricey, but if you want to take them, they are available.
There are five things you need to consider when buying a probiotic supplement:
- High CFU count — Purchase a probiotic brand that has a higher number of probiotics, from 15 billion to 100 billion.
- Strain diversity — Search for a probiotic supplement that has 10–30 different strains.
- Survivability — Look for strains like bacillus coagulans, Saccharomyces boulardii, Bacillus subtilis, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and other cultures or formulas that ensure probiotics make it to the gut and are able to colonize.
- Research — Do your homework and look for brands that have strains that support your specific needs.
Important things to know probiotic supplements
Probiotics need to be kept cold in order to preserve their potency. This applies to their production, transport, storage, and sales.
The fresher the better – remember, we’re talking about living organisms.
Living vs. dead
Not a Halloween movie, choose supplements with “Live and active cultures” rather than “made with active cultures.”
Most probiotic products don’t list the amount of bacteria their products contain. Health benefits can occur with 50 million CFUs for certain conditions and may take as many as 1 trillion CFU for others. A good rule is “The higher the number the better.”
The Worst Foods For Gut Health
The good, the bad, the ugly of the Western diet includes fruit and vegetables (good), refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup (bad), and processed foods and artificial sweeteners (ugly).
Poor diet can result in a rumbling, uncomfortable tummy – check your diet and read on for changes to make.
If you don’t have bloating and gas but are experiencing fuzzy-brain, restless sleep and a lot of stress, look at the food you are eating and remove the bad and ugly to improve your gut health.
Otherwise, it may not be necessary for you to completely remove the bad and ugly foods from your diet. A treat of candy or soda every once in a while may well be just fine for you.
To improve your gut health, to help restore balance to the bacteria in your gut that play such an important role in digestion and overall health, you can avoid or limit the amount you eat of the following foods:
Often packed with sugars, preservatives, additives, colouring, chemicals, and a lot of empty calories that can lead to an unbalanced gut microbiome.
Many municipals add chlorine to their tap water in order to help kill bacteria or harmful substances that are in the water. However, too much chlorine can kill the good bacteria in your gut.
High levels of meat intake can cause increases in bad gut bacteria
A food source for bacteria, eating too much of it can cause an imbalance in the normal bacterial levels in the gut.
High fructose corn syrup
Most junk food and beverages we consume today contain high fructose corn syrup. Scientists have linked it to diabetes, fatty liver disease, and other inflammatory conditions. And these begin in the gut microbiome.
Known for causing blood sugar and insulin levels to spike, increasing your risk of insulin resistance and weight gain.
A protein found in wheat, gluten can trigger the production of zonulin, a biochemical that opens up the tight junctions of your intestinal wall. This can lead to leaky gut syndrome.
A common cause of bloating and abdominal discomfort, dairy can be responsible for an imbalance of gut flora.
Often considered a milk and/or meat substitute, soy can be bad for the human gut as it can be extremely difficult to digest. However, if properly prepared and fermented as they do in Asian cultures, soy may be a tolerable option.