Have you heard of the microbiome? This refers to the millions of bacteria and fungi that reside in our bodies.
Many bacteria live in the digestive tract – particularly in the large intestine – and this community of bacteria is known as the gut microbiota. These microbes help us break down food and absorb nutrients. Each person has their own individual microbiota and these organisms also help stimulate the immune system and protect us against any harmful organisms we might consume. Current evidence also suggests that our gut bacteria may strongly influence our health as well as appetite, weight and mood.
Research indicates the richer and more diverse the bacteria, the lower the risk of allergies and disease. Ideally we need about 85% “good” bacteria and 15% “bad” bacteria for a healthy gut. This balance is easily influenced by medications such as antibiotics, any harmful bacteria we may consume, lack of fiber and too much stress.
We can increase the good bacteria by consuming live organisms known as probiotics. There are many classes and types and three common strains include: Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Saccharomyces boulardii. Many people take probiotic supplements but they are also found in certain foods. Food manufacturers call these live or active cultures. Here are some simple ways to improve your gut health with food:
- Eat more fiber – fiber is the undigested part of plants and is found in fresh fruits and vegetables ,whole grains beans, peas, nuts and seeds.
- Eat a wide variety of plant foods to promote different strains in the gut. An easy way to do this is to eat foods in season. For example, eat apples and pumpkin in the fall, sweet potatoes in the winter, greens in the spring and melons, berries, and tomatoes in the summer.
- Stay hydrated. Getting adequate fluid is vital for proper digestion and absorption.
- Eat fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi,, miso, kombucha, tempeh, sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables (see DIY recipe)
- Consume more prebiotics or foods that feed the probiotics. One type of prebiotic foods are polyphenols found in nuts, seeds, and green tea.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, sucralose and aspartame which disrupt good bacteria and decrease diversity
- Limit alcohol – drinking too much (more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 for men) can also disrupt gut bacteria
- Limit refined sweets and processed carbs – regular consumption of these foods tend to feed the “bad” bacteria that promote more problems with digestion and absorption of nutrients.
Fresh air and sunshine, gardening or digging in the dirt, petting animals and managing stress effectively are nonfood methods to also promote healthy gut bacteria.