Nurture your gut for good health

By Shauna Schultz, RD

You’re most likely familiar with the phrase “trust your gut.” Trusting your gut is great advice, but what if we gave equal importance to nurturing your gut? A healthy gut influences overall health, and we are learning more and more about how gut bacteria regulate and maintain health every day.
“Trust your gut” is often good advice, but“nurture your gut” may be even better. Why? Because every day we’re learning more and more about how gut bacteria regulate and maintain our health. A healthy gut is home to trillions of good bacteria, collectively called microbiota. These bacteria strongly influence our immunity and inflammation, help regulate body weight and metabolism, help prevent chronic disease and digestive disorders, and even play a role in auto-immune conditions, mood, and behavior. Just think: an estimated 70% of our immunity lives in our gut!
Microbiota have been referred to as “the forgotten organ,” and nutrition is key in determining their health. Gut bacteria are hungry for healthy foods that enable them to propagate and diversify to promote good health and prevent disease. These good bacteria rely on us to avoid foods that allow for dysbiosis (an imbalance) that allows bad bacteria to take over. If they don’t receive the proper nutrition, these bacteria can turn to your digestive tract for fuel, resulting in poor digestion and health problems.
Feed them with Fiber
Microbes thrive on fiber-rich carbohydrates. Prebiotics are those foods that fuel the probiotics residing in our gut. Fiber-rich foods provide bacteria with substrates we can’t digest, providing them with fuel and enhancing their activity, which results in fermentation. Some bacteria help us absorb nutrients, others modulate our health, protect us from other pathogens, and prevent bad bacteria from thriving. A variety of prebiotic foods daily such as legumes, whole grains (especially sprouted), onions, garlic, leeks, berries, bananas, nuts and seeds, keeps us on the sunny side of gut health.
Get Cultured with Probiotics
Cultured and fermented foods contain live, active cultures that populate our gut with good bacteria. These foods are unique, since they provide nutrients that allow bacteria to thrive and multiply. Regularly eating foods like kefir and yogurt (even plant-based options), kimchi, sauerkraut, kvass, kombucha, miso, natto and tempeh nourish your gut with friendly bacteria. Adopting the right diet is key here; you don’t really need probiotic supplements to establish a healthy gut. Such supplements do have a time and place, but they don’t fix the problem. They build up beneficial microbial populations, but when you stop taking the supplement, these populations decline since they do not re-colonize. The moral of the story: think food first!
Immune Boosting/Anti-Inflammatory Foods
The health of our gut, inflammation, and immunity all strongly influence each other. Unfavorable changes in microbiota caused by diet, stress, and health conditions can create inflammation that can lead to suppressed immunity. Since chronic inflammation is at the root of chronic disease, it’s vital to eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Fortunately, many of the foods that subdue inflammation also nourish the gut. These foods include fruits, vegetables, omega-3 rich foods, legumes, and nuts and seeds. Equally important are herbs and spices.
Foods to Avoid
High-fat (especially animal fats) and high-sugar diets negatively impact gut microbiota by creating an imbalance, as do refined carbohydrates and diets high in omega-6 oils. Casein proteins (dairy) and wheat gluten may cause inflammation in some people, but only if there is a sensitivity. The key to a healthy gut, then, lies in your diet. If you focus on fiber-rich plant foods along with probiotic-rich foods, you’re well on your way to lowering inflammation and staving off disease. Keep an eye out, too, for my Nutrition and Healthy Gut class, in which we explore how to combine prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods to make delicious meals.
Sources – CE International: Immunity, Inflammation and the Gut Microbiota; Erica Sonnenburg, Ph.D and Justin Sonnenburg, Ph.D, Stanford School of Medicine, authors of the “The Good Gut”.

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