If changes from this past pandemic year have wreaked havoc on your digestion, your eating habits, and your sleep, one unifying factor that you can take control of is your gut. Your gut plays a central role in many body functions so focusing your attention there is almost always a safe bet.
What Is Gut Health?
Scientists have learned that the microbes that colonize your gut biome can have a positive or negative impact on your digestive, immune and endocrine systems, your skin, your brain and even your mental health. People with a wide variety of good bacteria in their gut tend to be much healthier (and happier) people. And a healthy gut includes a variety of prebiotic and probiotic organisms.
Prebiotics & Probiotics
Prebiotics are largely non-digestible fibers that provide nourishment for beneficial bacteria. Think of prebiotics as the food that feeds the probiotics. Some examples of prebiotics include FOS and inulin. FOS refers to fructooligosaccharides; these are low-calorie, nondigestible carbohydrates, and they occur naturally in certain plants like onion, chicory, garlic, asparagus, banana, artichoke, and many others.
Inulins are a group of natural polysaccharides that are made by many kinds of plants and belong to a class of dietary fibers called fructans. Often, inulin is derived from chicory root. One of the most famous prebiotics comes from human milk oligosaccharides, a key component of human breast milk, as it has been shown to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in our gut microbiome such as Bifidobacterium.
Here is a list of some prebiotic foods that are easy to incorporate into your diet to help feed your beneficial good bugs:
- Raw asparagus
- Raw jicama
- Green bananas
- Raw Jerusalem artichoke (sunroot)
- Raw dandelion greens
- Raw garlic
- Raw/cooked onion
- Raw leek
- Raw chicory root
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can improve the microbial balance and can help to maintain good gut health. In other words, these are live organisms that, when administered in adequate amounts (like in a supplement capsule filled with tens of billions of live bacteria) can bring health benefits to the host. One of the most common straightforward ways to incorporate more of these good bugs is through a high-quality probiotic supplement.
Here is a list of my favorite probiotic foods, they are easy to find and full of beneficial bacteria:
- Apple cider vinegar
- Pickles (make sure they are really fermented pickles)
Many people use probiotics for general good health, like a supplement or vitamin for the gut microbiome but it’s important to remember that the right ingredients (prebiotics) must be present in your diet in order for the probiotics (good microbes) to be able to flourish and thrive.
If you’d like some help, here’s how to choose the right probiotic.
6 Top Tips For Better Gut Health
1. Eat a wide range of foods.
While many people are quick to eliminate gluten or grains from the diet, fiber-rich foods are actually great for the gut. Unless there’s a diagnosed allergy, eliminating these food groups can be quite harmful.
When you narrow the diversity in your diet, you narrow the diversity in the gut microbiome. And adversly, when you broaden the diversity in your diet, you broaden the diversity in your microbiome.
Whole grains and more “average” plant-based fiber sources (think onions or tomatoes vs. kale or spinach) help feed the microbes in the gut. These microbes are picky eaters. They only like the fiber from specific foods. Meaning, no matter how healthy the food, sticking to a limited diet lowers your chance of having a nourished, healthy microbiome.
2. Start taking a daily probiotic.
Incorporating a daily supplement regimen may be a good place to start. For gut health, in particular, a daily probiotic helps good bacteria flourish in the microbiome, which can manage gas and bloating and enhance overall digestion.
Probiotics create an environment favoring a healthy-functioning gut with minimal inflammation. These changes have been shown to improve headaches, lessen depression and anxiety, and clear up skin inflammation.
3. Start spending more time outdoors.
Spending time outside can support gut health in a couple of ways. For one, nature has been shown to improve mental health by lowering anxiety, improving mood, and boosting self-esteem. Because of the gut-brain axis, improving mental health will have positive impacts on gut health as well.
Fostering a connection with nature is critical for a healthy gut microbiome. Right now, “the nutritional density of plant foods is 50% less than it was 50 years ago,” say functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, M.D. Modern agricultural practices and a disconnection from the land on which our food is grown have led to a depletion of soil health, which thus reduces diversity in the gut microbiome.
The takeaway? The more time we spend in nature, the greater an appreciation we’ll have for it. This, in turn, can influence the way we grow, shop for, and eat our food.
4. Try to manage your stress.
Stress can disrupt gut health, leading to an upset stomach, all via the gut-brain axis. Incorporating stress-management practices throughout the day (or first thing in the morning) can help lower these risks, experts suggest.
Getting a handle on stress hormones can help keep them from wreaking havoc on the mind and body, including the gastrointestinal system. Meditation, journaling, going for a walk, and practicing gratitude are just a few ways to keep stress under control.
5. Prioritize daily movement.
Incorporating micro-movements throughout the day, whether it be through dance, a walk, or a quick 30-minute workout, can benefit physical, mental, and gut health. Regular exercise can actually help strengthen your digestive tract. The amount of blood diverted from your digestive system decreases because your muscles are more efficient when you exercise.
Focusing on intuitive exercise, or exercise that actually brings you joy and makes you feel good, is much more sustainable.
6. Focus on good-quality sleep.
Sleepless nights throw off your gut rhythm by adversely affecting the balance of favorable and unfavorable bacteria and compromising the gut wall. Even people who are sleeping an average of eight hours per night but experiencing sleep fragmentation (aka waking up in the middle of the night), may notice adverse effects to the gut.
Creating a sleep routine is just one way to promote a better night’s rest. Regular sleep patterns mean a happier gut, which translates into a better mood and, well, pretty much better life. While you may not go to bed at the exact same time every night, at least try to stop eating, wind down, and get into bed around the same time to regulate the body’s circadian rhythm.
Do you have a favorite probiotic? A favorite recipe fermented foods? Share your top tips on gut health in the comments below.
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