Health is first and foremost the most important aspect of our lives — and 2020 has definitely shown us that.
Many of us are looking for ways to improve our overall health. An area we should be paying attention to is our gut health, especially because it is believed that most diseases begin within the gut.
What are the benefits of a healthy gut?
Believe it or not, your gut plays a major role in every physiological function of your body. Think about it. Almost everything we do relies on eating and the energy we get from food. You eat food, organs in your digestive tract break it down, you absorb the nutrients, and the waste goes out the back end. That’s a lot of work getting done inside of the gut!
However, the gut is far more intricate (and beneficial) than that. There’s more in our gut than just organs crushing solid food into particles. There are also trillions of living organisms, known as microbes, that reside inside of your body. In fact, the cosy spaces they take up and the microbial ecosystem as a whole is known as your gut microbiome.
There are many types of microbes, including fungi, viruses, and yeast. However, the most researched and prevalent are gut bacteria. Scientists have named thousands of bacterial species present in a healthy body. Healthy bacteria do their part to keep the whole body running smoothly. They help keep pathogens from attacking healthy cells, break down food particles, and fight inflammation.
The health benefits of good bacteria:
- Immune system support
- Healthier skin
- Insulin resistance management
- Relief from stomach aches
- Decreased production of stress hormone
- Prevention of intestinal permeability
- Healthy body weight maintenance
- Mental health regulation
- Sleep hormone production
Different strains of bacteria play different roles that help benefit the whole in their own unique way. Even bacteria we deem unhealthy bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (E.coli), has its benefits in the human gut. You just need to have an adequate amount of healthy gut bacteria to keep the opportunistic kind of bacteria in check.
So, to actively try to improve your gut health, you’ll want to keep the right balance of microorganisms. Here are five tips to help make that happen.
Five good gut health practices to improve the balance of bacteria
When it comes to the vital aspects of health, all roads seem to point to bacterial cells holding all the clout. We just need to make sure that we’re setting our microbiome up for better gut health by promoting the growth of healthy gut flora. With these following tips, you’ll be on the right track to a diverse microbiome.
1. Improve your mental well-being
There’s a well-known adage that the gut is our second brain. In fact, these two entities are in constant communication with one another. This never-ending Zoom session is known as the gut-brain-axis.
The gut-brain connection is regulated by a series of nerves known as the singular entity, the vagus nerve. Our vagus nerve hangs from our brainstem, testing the waters that are our gut microbiome. It repeats back the central nervous system what the current state of our microbiome is through impulses. When we experience poor gut health, it manifests in bouts of depression, mood swings, and food dependency. Many studies show a prevalent connection between a lack of bacteria diversity and mental health issues.
Just as our gut health impacts our mental health, it works both ways. Have you ever had a bad feeling in your gut when you knew something wasn’t right? That’s your gut and brain connecting again!
2. Cut down on potential allergens
There’s no denying that diet plays a vital role in the development of unhealthy gut microbes. When you follow a poor diet, you are more susceptible to illnesses. That’s because all disease begins in the gut. So, the most significant item you can implement to improve your gut health is to be proactive with dietary lifestyle changes.
First things first, cut down on the potential allergens. So many foods that are highlighted in the western diet are laden with fillers (like gluten), artificial ingredients (like food colouring), and unhealthy or artificial sweeteners (like processed sugar). All of these options may taste good, but they don’t feel good for our gut lining.
The innate immune function of our immune system cells is to create inflammation. Our body uses inflammation to rid the system of potential viral, fungal, or bacterial infections. Once the potential threat is out of the GI tract, everything goes back to normal. Inflammation stops.
Unfortunately, we eat three square meals a day and a litany of snacks that are chock-full of ingredients that cause inflammatory responses. So, our body never gets a break from the inflammation. Chronic inflammation can destroy your gut lining, suppress the growth of good bacteria, and inhibit immune system cells.
Left unresolved, you can develop long-term digestive health issues, such as Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Depending on the damage caused by the inflammation, these issues may spiral into several autoimmune diseases.
Try making small lifestyle changes that can improve the health of your gut, such as:
- Lettuce wraps instead of bread
- ‘Zoodles’ or zucchini noodles instead of pasta
- Gluten-free grains such as quinoa or wild rice instead of barley or rye
- Oats instead of shredded whole wheat
- Cashew milk instead of dairy
- Honey instead of refined sugar
- Cook whole foods instead of eating fast food
Start with the largest potential allergens, such as sugary foods, gluten, soy, and dairy products. If you’re still experiencing digestive issues, then you might have a problem with anti-nutrients — which cause a detrimental effect to your digestion. That’s when healthy dietary options, such as legumes or nightshades (which contain lectins), cause a nutrient deficiency that leads to digestive problems. If you cut out the common inflammatory foods and still experience discomfort, this might be the issue.
3. Eat more dietary fibre
Unfortunately, carbs get a bad rap, especially with low carb diets being all the rage. Sure, the ketogenic diet can improve your overall health. However, carbohydrates get vilified wrongfully.
Our good gut bacteria rely on carbohydrates found in plant foods for energy. Many dietary fibres found in fruits and vegetables are too hard for our bodies to break down. To help your gut digest better, live bacteria consume these food sources. These are known as prebiotics.
Good sources of prebiotics include:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Raw dandelion greens/chicory root (Inulin)
- Dark greens
- Sweet potatoes
With that said, don’t go overboard on all carbs. You want to eat as many complex carbohydrates as possible. Consuming different foods rich in complex carbs will provide your body with additional nutrients. Plus, these calories are less likely to promote additional weight gain.
Probiotic bacteria (more about this below) enjoy prebiotic fibre so much that they reward us with short-chain fatty acids. Short-chain fatty acids are essential nutrients for our gut cells. It helps them grow stronger so they can stop unhealthy bacteria from leaving the small intestine and causing health problems.
4. Consume probiotic-rich foods and drinks
Sometimes you just need to import the probiotics into your body yourself. Eating a diet rich in fermented foods and probiotics can help foster a healthy microbiome.
When active cultures get preserved with whole foods, the bacteria will feast on sugars from the dietary fibre. In turn, the brine that’s preserving the food gets enriched with metabolites, such as short-chain fatty acids, essential vitamins, and digestive enzymes.
Some of the best probiotic-rich foods and beverages include:
- Apple cider vinegar tonics
Consuming probiotic foods can help you reinoculate your body with healthy gut bacteria. These probiotics will help shift the balance of stomach acid, having a huge impact on digestive system functions and physical health.
In a nutshell…
There are a number of ways to improve your friendly gut bugs, which will result in you living a happier and healthier life. Most of them start with dietary choices. Make sure that you follow a diet of whole foods, rich with lean protein. Cut down your dependency on trigger foods. Make cleaning eating swaps that help dieters transition into a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.
Also, add more probiotics to your diet. Feed those probiotics with prebiotic-rich foods. Get your gut tested with a microbiome testing company to get a bigger picture of your unique gut microbial ecosystem. From there, you might be able to help with symptoms of depression, chronic stress, and abdominal pain. Remember, if your gut is saying something is wrong, it is. Be proactive with your health.
(Main image credit: Ella Olsson on Unsplash)
This story first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Hong Kong.