Gut Health: The Key Aspect of Nutrition We Need to Talk About
As we continue to become more aware about the impact that food has on our bodies and the role it plays in disease, there’s been a renewed focus on eating healthfully. And while nourishing your body with things like fresh fruits and vegetables is important, there’s a whole other component that most of us don’t consider: our microbiome.
The Role of the Microbiome
The microbiome is essentially the body’s ecosystem, composed of trillions of microorganisms like fungi, bacteria, and viruses, which help it maintain homeostasis (equilibrium) and overall well being. The greatest concentration and diversity of these microbes is in the large intestine, which is why most of the attention is placed on the gut.
Everyone has a unique microbiome, determined by factors including age, sex, diet, hygiene, climate, and even your job. And it affects just about everything: sleep, stress, pain, mood, skin condition, how the body uses food, and how it fights infection. The importance of the gut is hard to overstate — and how we take care of it is essential to our health. Thankfully, keeping your gut healthy and happy is pretty simple.
Easy Ways to Improve Your Gut Health
Include more probiotics. Probiotics are the good bacteria and live cultures similar to those found in the gut, and you’ll find them in dairy, fermented foods, and some grains. Foods to consider incorporating into your diet more often include aged cheeses, Greek yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut, olives, and sourdough bread.
Choose foods rich in prebiotics. Prebiotics are ‘food’ for the probiotics — the non-digestible fiber compounds in our food that provide nourishment for bacteria in the gut. Fruits, grains, and legumes are all good sources of prebiotics. Specific foods to consider eating more of include berries, bananas, tomatoes, raw dandelion greens, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, flaxseed, oats, beans, chickpeas, and lentils.
Avoid processed foods. Packaged and processed foods are generally high in additives and preservatives that wreak havoc on the healthy bacteria in the gut. These products boost intestinal inflammation and may even promote the development of certain chronic diseases and metabolic syndrome. In general, it’s best to eat whole foods as close to their natural form as possible. Be sure to always read ingredient labels and avoid added sugars, emulsifiers, and things you can’t pronounce.
Include more plant-based foods. Plant-based foods are high in nutrients and offer a good dose of fiber, which is critical for gut health. While consuming meat, poultry, and seafood isn’t bad, it’s important to maintain a good balance. Studies show that people who eat a diet high in (conventional/factory-farmed) red meat have a higher risk of heart disease due to changes that take place in the gut. Try to limit red meat to once a week and include a variety of other protein sources in your meals.
Avoid unnecessary antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria indiscriminately — they can’t differentiate between healthy and unhealthy ones. A team of researchers led by the University of Copenhagen found that just four days of three antibiotics was all it took to wipe out gut bacteria. And while it gradually recovered over the course of the next six months, the study participants were still missing nine common beneficial bacteria and some new, undesirable bacteria had colonized the gut. Antibiotics should therefore be used only when there is clear evidence showing a bacterial infection.