Our bodies are a small ecosystem that host over 100 trillion bacteria, most of which are in the gut. In fact, there are more bacterial cells in our bodies than human cells, so it makes sense to create a balanced, healthy environment for them to live in. Healthy gut bacteria have many functions in the body. They contribute to healthy digestion and elimination, proper absorption of nutrients, synthesis of essential vitamins, an improved and better functioning immune system, and even improved mental health.
Unfortunately, all the stress of modern life, as well as a poor diet, has diminished the ability of common gut bacteria to carry out these functions. Fortunately, there are many ways that you can support your naturally occurring gut microflora through simple lifestyle changes, diet, and supplementation for digestive support.
Our bodies function optimally when our gut bacteria are plenty and diverse. Many factors can affect the amount and variety of bacteria in our body’s microbiome; for example, exposure to antibiotics, or diets high in sugar and animal products. This imbalance can lead to a multitude of health problems, such as inflammation and chronic disease. Simple changes to your diet can have a positive and lasting impact on the health and variety of bacteria in your body.
Eat Prebiotic Foods
Bacteria are living organisms that require food to survive, and their food source comes from fiber, short-chain fatty acids, and some complex carbohydrates, which our bodies can’t digest. When we eat a diet high in prebiotic foods, we are providing the nutrients required for our gut microflora to flourish and protect us from disease. Some great examples of prebiotic foods are:
- Legumes and pulses such as garbanzo beans, dry peas, beans, and lentils
- Jerusalem artichokes, which contain inulin, a form of insoluble fiber
- Avocado, which contains a variety of fatty acids
- Vegetables such as garlic, onion, leeks, and scallions, which also contain inulin, and are best eaten raw for the greatest nutritional benefits
- Whole grains and seeds, which contain resistant starch
Eat Foods Rich in Polyphenols
Polyphenols are compounds found in certain foods that our digestive system has trouble absorbing; therefore, they often make their way to the lower intestine where they are readily digested by our gut bacteria. Polyphenols have been associated with increased levels of healthy bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, and with reduced levels of damaging bacteria. Some foods rich in polyphenols are:
- Dark chocolate and raw cocoa powder
- Red wine, in moderation, as the alcohol in the wine can have the opposite effect on our gut health
- Green tea
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli
Reduce your Intake of Animal Protein
Meat and animal products contain different varieties of gut bacteria. While variety is important for optimal health, the bacteria associated with ingesting animal products often produce unwanted side effects, such as increased inflammation.
Another issue to consider when eating animal products is that most factory-farmed animals are given antibiotics and hormones to promote growth, which then find their way into the meat, eggs, and dairy we consume.
Unfortunately, antibiotics are indiscriminate when it comes to destroying bacteria in our bodies, and even exposure to small amounts of antibiotics can upset the balance of good and bad bacteria.
Eat Fermented Foods
Though bacteria thrive on fresh, raw fruits and vegetables, which contain prebiotics to nourish healthy bacteria, fermented foods contain probiotics, which are an equally important nutritional element, and increase the amount and variety of bacteria in the body. The fermentation process encourages good bacteria to flourish in the food that is being preserved. Some great sources of probiotics from fermented foods are:
- Yogurt, unsweetened and preferably homemade, as the pasteurization process used by most companies reduces the number of bacteria
- Kefir, a yoghurt-like drink, made by fermenting kefir grains in milk
- Water kefir, another fermented drink, but non-dairy, which is more like a soft drink with effervescence
- Sauerkraut and kimchi, lacto-fermented cabbage from Germany and Korea, respectively
- Tempeh, which is made from fermented soybeans and is often substituted for meat in recipes
While dietary changes have proved the most effective method for improving gut health, there are many reasons why we should consider taking supplements to boost our overall gut health. Many foods available today are overly processed, full of hormones and antibiotics, or genetically modified, all of which can damage the balance of our gut microbiota. Supplements are a great way to gain additional nutrition lacking in our diets.
Fermented foods are a great natural source of probiotics to improve the number and diversity of bacteria in your gut. However, if you are unable to process dairy or simply do not like the taste of fermented foods, you may want to consider taking a probiotic supplement.
Probiotic supplements are an excellent way to boost our gut bacteria by providing high doses of carefully cultivated bacteria, without having to eat huge amounts of fermented foods. Look for formulas that contain a minimum of 20–50 billion live bacteria per dose, and that contain the bacteria species Lactobacillus Plantarum, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus Brevis, Bifidobacterium lactis (B. animalis), and Bifidobacterium longum.
Fiber is essential to proper digestive function and provides nutrients for our gut bacteria. Most Western diets are severely lacking in both soluble and insoluble fiber. Fiber supplements can quickly and effectively provide your daily recommended dose of fiber.
Green Vegetable Supplements
Green vegetables are the cornerstone of optimal gut health; however, many people find it difficult to incorporate enough leafy green vegetables into their diet, and some of the better sources of green nutrition are found in vegetables, such as seaweed and dandelion leaves that aren’t readily available in many places.
Green vegetable supplements found in either capsule, tablet, or powder form are an easy and convenient way to include a good variety of green vegetables in your diet.
Though diet and supplements play an important part in boosting and maintaining healthy gut bacteria, lifestyle changes are also integral to overall health. There are many ways that you can improve your digestive health:
- Get adequate exercise, such as gentle aerobic exercise, which promotes digestive regularity; or yoga, which lowers stress levels. However, avoid swimming in pools, as the chlorine can disrupt the balance of bacteria in your skin and gut.
- Get outside and get dirty, as studies have shown that moderate outdoor activities, such as gardening, increase our exposure to a wider variety of healthy bacteria.
- Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep is associated with sleep disruptions and poor digestion.
A healthy microbiome is essential to wellbeing, and most of the bacteria that live on our bodies reside in the digestive tract. Keep your gut bacteria healthy and balanced through adequate intake of fruits, vegetables, and prebiotic foods. Supplement any nutritional deficits in your diet with probiotic formulas and maintain an active lifestyle.