By Cami Glosz
Gut health is something you may not think about until you have some digestive discomfort, but it can actually affect many other aspects of your health. Your gut, also known as your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), is what is involved in the digestion, absorption, and elimination of all the foods that you eat.
A healthy gut will do all of those digestive processes in a way that doesn’t cause any inflammation, bloating, or discomfort. A healthy gut has normal growth of intestinal bacteria. The bacteria in your gut are also called your microflora or microbiome, and are a huge part of your health.
Our bodies are actually 90% bacterial cells and only 10% human cells! The gut can become imbalanced by having an undergrowth of good bacteria, or an overgrowth of bad bacteria. A healthy gut has a diverse and thriving microbiome.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
You may have heard the term “probiotics” recently, which means “for-life”. Probiotics are living microorganisms that can benefit your health when consumed in adequate amounts – from food, beverages, or supplements. Prebiotics are essentially food for probiotics to eat when they are in your gut so that the good bacteria can thrive and repopulate.
Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers that are in many fruits and vegetables, including artichokes, garlics, onions, and bananas. It’s less likely that the probiotics that you consume will be able to live in your gut if you aren’t also eating prebiotics.
Gut Health & Digestion
Most people think about digestive issues when they think about their gut health. A common digestive issue includes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which can include constipation and/or diarrhea. Many studies have shown that taking probiotic supplements can help with the symptoms of IBS. Dietary changes related to food intolerances are also likely to help with IBS.
Another digestive disorder is called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. IBD causes similar symptoms to IBS, but also includes inflammation and ulcers in the intestinal tract. Usually, IBD is not helped by dietary changes because it is an autoimmune disorder; however, ulcerative colitis symptoms may be helped by probiotic supplements.
Gut Health & Weight
The health of your gut can have an impact on how much you weigh. People who are obese tend to have completely different microbiomes than individuals with normal BMI’s. There are specific bacteria that are related to obesity and certain bacteria that are more commonly found in those of normal weight.
Scientists now are able to predict the weight of someone just by looking at the makeup of their gut bacteria. Your gut bacteria are also able to quickly adapt to the environment and types of foods you eat.
Gut Health & Immunity
The majority (60-80%) of our immune cells live in our gut, which is constantly exposed to foreign substances in the food you eat. Good bacteria help you build up immunity to bad bacteria. Probiotics can help to promote healthy immune function and help boost the immune cells you need to fight bad bacteria. Some studies have found that people who take probiotic supplements are less likely to take sick days from work and have shorter duration of colds.
Happy Gut, Happy Mind
The mind-gut connection is a big topic recently; some researchers even called the gut the “second brain”. It makes sense- our stomachs tend to feel it when we have an emotional event. For example, getting butterflies in your stomach, getting a stomachache when you feel anxious, or having no appetite when you are upset.
This is because neurotransmitters (brain chemical messengers) are also made in your gut and influence your mood. A lot of research is currently looking at the relationship between gut bacteria and mood or behavioral disorders, such as autism, ADD/ADHD, anxiety, and depression.
How to have a healthy gut
Our microbiome starts to develop when we are born, depending on how you are born and how you are first fed. Infants born Caesarean section tend to have different microbial makeups than infants born vaginally.
Breastfed babies also have different and more diverse microbiomes than infants who are formula-fed. Another factor is the amount of antibiotics that you take, in childhood and adulthood, which will wipe out both the bad bacteria and the good bacteria.
Probiotics are found in fermented foods and beverages. These include:
- Kombucha (fermented black tea)*
- Kefir (can be cultured and fermented into dairy, tea or water)*
- Yogurt (cultured and fermented dairy)*
- Unpasteurized sauerkraut (fermented cabbage)
- Kimchi (Korean style fermented veggies and spices)
- Unpasteurized pickles (fermented cucumbers; not pasteurized)
- Miso and tempeh (fermented soybeans)
When buying kombucha, kefir, or yogurt, look for sugar content as it can be high in some of these products.
Some ideas to add more probiotic-rich foods into your diet include having kombucha instead of iced tea; add sauerkraut or kimchi to stir-fries, salads, sandwiches, or eggs; try tempeh instead of meat; have yogurt for breakfast or add kefir to smoothies. It’s also important to have prebiotics in your diet and lots of fiber, which both come with consuming a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Try these tips for a happy, healthy gut!