Do you experience bloating, gas, constipation, or digestive discomfort? These are all signs your gut health may be compromised. A healthy gut is important because it impacts all major systems in your body.
Your digestive system impacts your mood, brain, heart, and immune system. A gut imbalance can cause depression, diabetes, and inflammatory diseases. It can contribute to heart disease, liver disease, and cancer.
The ancient physician Hippocrates was right when he said, “All disease begins in the gut.” A happy and healthy gut can make or break your well-being and the quality of your life experience.
Everyone’s Gut Biome is Unique
Your gut microbiome, or microbiota, includes between 300 to 500 different types of bacteria. Each person’s microbiota is unique. You get the basic makeup from your mother’s microbiota and your environment at birth. Then, it is influenced by diet and lifestyle.
Some people have a robust system and don’t consider gut health until they get older. Others, like me, deal with digestive issues early.
My experience with bloating and constipation started in childhood. Around age six, I remember noticing my stomach stretched out after drinking chocolate Ovaltine.
I used to be jealous of kids who seemed like they could eat anything because I never knew what would make me feel sick. Even so, my love of sugar, potatoes, and bread did not do my gut any favors.
I started investigating a healthier diet in my twenties. Unfortunately, my old habits transferred to my new choices. Many of the ‘healthy’ prepared snacks I bought included sugar or flavor enhancers. Additives like yeast extract and hydrolyzed soy protein feed the bad bacteria.
The Battle Between Good and Bad Bacteria in Modern Life
The total number of bacteria that lines the digestive system is about 100 trillion, both good and bad. Most live in the intestines and colon. Gut health is important, because everyday we are feeding trillions of tiny organisms.
In a healthy person, about 85% of this gut flora is beneficial or good bacteria. They help synthesize vitamins and break down food, so we get the energy from what we eat.
The other 15% are potentially harmful bacteria. They are fine in smaller numbers but can cause health problems if they get out of control.
Antibiotics Kill Off Gut Bacteria
Antibiotics are a powerful and essential modern medicine. Unfortunately, they eliminate bacteria indiscriminately. Taking antibiotics can throw off the balance in your digestive system.
Even healthy people with a strong digestive system lose good bacteria after taking antibiotics. Six months after antibiotics, researchers found that nine strains of good bacteria were missing while a few new bad ones had established residence.
Many doctors recommend replenishing your healthy gut bacteria after taking antibiotics. Probiotic supplements or foods help replenish good bacteria. Prebiotic foods feed good bacteria. I include a list of both types below.
Some Foods Feed Bad Bacteria
Understanding gut health is important because some of our most popular food choices damage the balance of good and bad gut bacteria.
We are blessed with plentiful foods of all types. We can have tasty meals delivered to our door day or night. However, there is a downside to modern abundance and convenience.
Some common food choices help the bad bacteria multiply, especially when we lack variety in our diet.
The foods to avoid in excess include:
- Sugar, including refined sugar, brown sugar, and corn syrup
- Processed foods including frozen, canned, dried, baked, or pasteurized (especially with added sugar and fats)
- Dairy, particularly those produced using antibiotics
- Red meat, especially where the animals received antibiotics
- Gluten, included in wheat products but also in barley, rye, malt, brewer’s yeast, spelt, farina, and faro
- Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)
- Corn, mainly because the majority of corn is GMO
- Farmed fish, due to the high use of antibiotics in fish farming
- Fried foods
- Nightshades, including tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers sSome people may be more sensitive to these than others)
- Tap water treated with chlorine and other chemicals (filtered water is better)
- Artificial sweeteners
- Flavor enhancers, including MSG, maltodextrin, yeast extract, torula yeast, and hydrolyzed soy protein
Popular favorites like hamburgers, French fries, pizza, pasta, and even sandwiches made with lunch meat can feed bad bacteria. Many snack foods are enhanced with MSG or maltodextrin so we cannot put them down. Even plain Planters peanuts include torula yeast, maltodextrin, and corn syrup to make them taste extra good! The foods we love don’t always love us back.
It can be disheartening at first. Life is busy and stressful enough without avoiding popular food choices and checking every label. The good news is when you consistently feed the good bacteria you feel better.
Clear the Brain Fog and Bloating, One Step at a Time
Small changes in diet can lift brain fog, bad moods, lethargy, and relieve digestive pain. Moments of pleasure and bursts of energy from sugar, bread, and processed foods don’t compare to steady energy and a clear head that lasts the whole day.
Considering the long-term health benefits including lowering your risk of heart disease, cancer, liver disease, and diabetes, it’s a reasonable lifestyle change.
Of course, it takes some time and consistent effort to reap the benefits. Be patient with yourself and your cravings as you make slow and consistent changes. Our bodies get used to what we feed them and take time to adapt to new habits.
It’s also important not to take every recommendation at face value. Some foods, like red meat, dairy, or tomatoes, may increase inflammation for some people, but be healthy and nourishing for you. Some individuals may be more tolerant of meat, nightshades, or dairy products than others.
Similarly, there could be foods not on the list that causes you to bloat and have gas. Be mindful of your experience and adapt your diet based on your physical results, not on studies or theories.
Foods That Nourish Gut Health: Prebiotics
Personally, I have a hard time letting go of spicy salsa, potato chips, corn chips, cheese, and bread. While I get these out of my diet for a while, they invariably creep back into it.
When I stick to an anti-inflammatory and good gut diet, I have more energy, and my weight stays down easily. My skin looks better.
When I start indulging in snack foods, bread, and cheese, I get gassy, feel more tired, and my weight creeps back up again. By consciously adding more prebiotic foods I regain balance.
The key to long-term diet change is to fill your meals with nourishing and delicious foods that feed good bacteria in your gut.
Prebiotic foods have fiber that feeds the good bacteria in your intestines and colon. When you include these foods in your daily diet, you are nourishing the trillions of good bacteria that line your gut.
Prebiotic foods that feed and support good gut bacteria include:
- Wild blueberries
- Avocados (avoid if you have IBS)
- Garlic (crush or chop it ten minutes before cooking for best results, or use raw)
- Lentils, chickpeas, and beans (better for some blood types than for others)
- Oats (get gluten-free oats)
- Jerusalem artichokes (looks like a brown root, tastes kind of like potato once cooked)
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, raw is best)
- Chia seeds
- Savoy cabbage
- Chicory root
- Dandelion greens
- Unpasteurized apple cider vinegar
- Cocoa (Dark chocolate)
- Raw local honey or maple syrup (if you are not diabetic or dealing with a candida outbreak)
Probiotics Introduce New Good Bacteria
Prebiotics feed the good bacteria already in your gut. Probiotics are foods that introduce new good bacteria to your gut. Experts recommend including both kinds of foods in your diet for optimal health.
If you eat only probiotics, they may help with digestion but not establish new friendly colonies in the digestive tract.
If you eat lots of prebiotics but don’t use probiotics, you will help the good bacteria already in your intestines but won’t be re-introducing any of the strains you may have lost taking antibiotics or eating processed foods.
Ironically, there are dairy foods on the probiotic list, even though they are on the ‘avoid’ list. This is because yogurt, kefir, and acidophilus milk are lightly fermented and include beneficial probiotics. If you are sensitive to dairy, like me, avoid these probiotic foods or select a non-dairy alternative. If you digest dairy easily, enjoy!
Frequently recommended probiotic foods include:
- Yogurt (NOT all yogurts include probiotics)
- Sauerkraut (raw, unpasteurized)
- Kimchi (even Costco has Kimchi these days)
- Pickles (fermented in salted water, like Bubbies, NOT made in vinegar like Claussen)
- Green olives (cured in brine, not vinegar)
- Natto (fermented soybeans popular in Japan)
- Beet Kvass (a sour, fermented drink from Eastern Europe)
- Green peas
- Spirulina and microalgae
Alternatively, you can take a high-potency probiotic supplement. They tend to be expensive, at between $30 to $50 for a month’s supply.
If you are dealing with a chronic gut imbalance, it’s worth it.
If you choose to purchase a supplement, look for one with a high concentration of both lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. Experts recommend it, and in my personal experience, I don’t get nearly the benefits when the product only has lactobacillus strains without the bifidobacteria strains.
Gut Health is Important for Happy Digestion and Good Health
We may take health for granted when we are young, but feeling energetic and optimistic becomes more of a gift as time passes.
A healthy gut prevents and reduces inflammation. Imbalances in the gut microbiome are associated with diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, depression, and heart disease.
Health enables us to enjoy life, travel, and care for our family. It helps maintain our well-being. Adding prebiotic and probiotic foods to our diet helps prevent disease.
A healthy diet doesn’t have to be stringent or complicated. Does it make you bloat, give you gas, make you groggy and tired? Then it’s bad for your digestion and bad for your health. Is it easy to digest, does it reduce cravings, and lift your mood? Then it’s food you can digest that is nourishing your cells.
There is no universally healthy diet. Each person has a unique gut microbiome. Blood type and other factors can influence which foods are nourishing and are not healthy.
Some things, like the importance of gut health, are universal. Too many processed foods, sugar, and alcohol will wear down the body’s systems.
Fortunately, there is also a lot of variation and wiggle room. The best diet is the one you digest easily and that nourishes your cells. As you limit foods that feed the bad bacteria and introduce tasty probiotic and prebiotic foods, pay attention to your body’s feedback. After all, it knows best.