If your gut is not happy, your brain is not happy—and, in all likelihood, neither is any other part of your body. Researchers keep finding more evidence between gut health and overall well-being, from brain and mental health to immune response. And, in extreme cases, an unhealthy digestive environment is associated with more severe consequences such as a leaky gut, which leads to now-common conditions like autoimmune diseases (such as chronic fatigue syndrome), food sensitivities, and much more.
So what determines gut health, anyway? In essence, the human gut contains billions of microorganisms, both beneficial and harmful (think toxins and pathogens). For optimal gut health, we want to ensure we’re keeping the levels of “bad” bacteria at 15% or below while increasing and feeding those good bacteria that keep us healthy. This can be achieved with appropriate dietary choices. Read on for a few of my favorite gut-healing foods to get you started—and why they’re so important for your total well-being.For optimal gut health, we want to ensure we’re keeping the levels of “bad” bacteria at 15% or below while increasing and feeding those good bacteria that keep us healthy. Click To Tweet
What’s the Difference Between Prebiotic and Probiotic Foods?
When we’re talking about foods for gut health, we can break them up into two categories: prebiotic and probiotic. The word “probiotic” combines two Latin words: pro, meaning “support,” and biotic, meaning “life.” Probiotic can refer to fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut. On the other hand, prebiotic foods are those that support probiotics. These can be foods with high levels of inulin or other fiber—green bananas and artichokes are some great examples because they offer greater amounts of resistant starch, which feeds those “good” gut organisms.
We’ll look at more examples of probiotic and prebiotic foods below, but in the meantime, remember that our ultimate goal is to increase the number of good bacteria in the gut. That’s where probiotics are helpful because they raise those levels. Then, with the proliferation of good bacteria, they drive off the bad bacteria in the intestinal lining by taking away from the latter’s food supply. The bad bacteria can no longer thrive so easily among all of those good bugs, which reduces the bad bugs’ presence and vitality.
Ultimately, probiotics help balance your digestive system, and therefore your entire body. You can also take probiotic supplements to help balance your gut flora. This can be especially beneficial if your bad gut bacteria have increased through certain lifestyle factors, such as taking antibiotics, consuming artificial sweeteners, experiencing leaky gut, maintaining a highly acidic or poor diet, dealing with high-stress levels, or even just the normal changes that occur in the digestive system due to aging. Probiotics are important because they create an immune response, sending protection throughout your body to fight off illness.
When you want to increase the levels of those good bacteria in the gut, reach for some probiotic foods. For example, though I don’t usually advise anyone to eat dairy, many people know yogurt as a probiotic food—but you should first make sure you don’t have any sensitivities to ingredients in milk, such as whey or casein. If you don’t, you might try small amounts of Greek yogurt or goat’s milk yogurt in your diet. Alternatively, I love fermented vegetables because they contain active, live probiotic cultures. Try incorporating things like sauerkraut and kimchi into your diet for a probiotic boost.
It’s also a great idea to take supplements to increase the number of healthy microorganisms in the gut. Some common strains of microorganisms used in supplements are bifidobacterium, S. thermophilus, L. bulgaricus, L. acidophilus, and L. casei, but these can vary. Because probiotic supplements can contain different strains, and because everyone has a unique gut flora composition, you might want to experiment a bit to find your best fit. Also keep in mind that supplements may give you bloating, gas, or diarrhea in the first week of taking them, so give your body some time to adjust before giving up or trying a different type.
Looking to feed the good microorganisms in your gut? When it comes to prebiotics, some of my favorites are apples, raw cacao, lentils, MCT oil, and ghee. (Some people are surprised by this last one, but ghee gives you instant energy, provides food for your brain, allows your gut a little break, and is easy on the liver.) I also love apple cider vinegar—it contains acetic acid and has antifungal and antibacterial effects (even helping to kill yeast infections), so it’s really healing.
In general, for prebiotics, think high fiber! In addition to slowing the digestion process, which creates a sense of satiety and fullness while preventing blood sugar spikes, fiber helps food move along through the digestive system. Soluble fiber, which is present in foods such as apples, berries, and flax seeds, feeds those healthy bacteria in your gut. Those bacteria then go on to make certain vitamins, such as vitamin K and some B vitamins and boost immunity. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, functions like a broom, helping sweep the intestines clean and ensuring those fermented products from the soluble fiber get distributed throughout the colon.