For Better Health, Go with Your Gut

As a society, we spend a lot of time stressing out over our stomachs. We inspect them in the mirror, crunch them into oblivion, wrap them in constrictive undergarments and gauge their size with measuring tape—all with the goal of whittling away our waistlines and achieving that elusive, coveted six-pack. But how often do we consider what’s actually happening inside our abdomens?
Over the past couple of decades, there’s been a significant amount of research into the major role your gut plays in not only your physical wellness, but also how you feel, sleep, think and recollect memories.
Meet Your 100 Trillion Companions
Did you know that your body is home to more than 100 trillion microbes? Known collectively as the "human microbiome," this network of bacteria is critical to your health and well-being. The microbiome regulates all types of bodily functions. Specifically, the gut microbiome—the bacteria that live in the intestines—plays a major role in digestion, vitamin production, hormone regulation and immunity function. Gut bacteria even have a hand in determining your metabolism and weight.
When your gut is healthy, your immune system is constantly stimulated by bacteria, keeping it active and primed to fight off disease. Registered dietitian Lisa Andrews explains that gut health is directly linked to our ability to ward off sickness and infection, as 60 percent of the body’s immune system is integrated with the intestinal tract. Also, a majority of our lymph nodes, those mighty producers of illness-fighting white blood cells, live in the small intestine. "Preventing illness through a nutritious diet starts in the gut," Andrews says.
When the delicate balance of these organisms is thrown out of whack, all of these processes are impacted. An unhealthy gut can result in a laundry list of symptoms, ranging from fatigue, depression and obesity to diabetes, arthritis and autoimmune diseases.

What Causes an Unhealthy Gut?

According to functional medicine practitioner Chris Kresser, a range of factors can lead to unhealthy gut flora, including:
  • Antibiotics and certain medications, which have been shown to cause a change in composition of the gut flora
  • Diets that are high in sugar, refined carbs and processed foods
  • Diets lacking in fermentable fiber
  • Dietary toxins, such as wheat and industrial seed oils
  • Chronic stress
  • Chronic infections
  • Heredity (a baby born to a mother with unhealthy gut flora is more likely to also develop that condition)

Eating for a Healthy Gut

We've all heard the term "you are what you eat," and it's not entirely false—although the more accurate phrasing may be "your gut microbes are what you eat." Each of us has a unique bacterial community in our intestine, which is determined largely by our diet.
There are plenty of reasons to eat clean, unprocessed foods, and gut health is one of the biggest. Andrews recommends incorporating foods high in fiber, such as whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables. When the fiber is fermented in the gut, it produces short-chain fatty acids, which are known to reduce inflammation and protect tissues from damage.
"Shoot for 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day, and drink plenty of water to move waste products through the gut," Andrews advises. "Fiber attracts water—without it, constipation can occur. Most adults require about two to three liters of fluid per day."
Fermented foods—such as yogurt, miso, kefir, sauerkraut, fermented tofu and pickled foods—are also good for the gut. These contain probiotics, which introduce the good kind of bacteria and keep the bad kind at bay, striking the optimal balance for healthy digestion. Some research even suggests that probiotics can help boost weight loss.
Andrews also mentions the benefits of prebiotics, which are plant-based fibers that protect and cultivate the healthy bacteria once it’s already in your system. Some examples of prebiotic-containing foods include artichokes, asparagus, bananas, beans and onions.
"Probiotics and prebiotics work in synergy with each other to help maintain a healthy digestive system," says Alissa Rumsey, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Your Gut-Friendly Grocery List

Rumsey recommends keeping the following foods on hand for a happy, healthy digestive system:
  • Yogurt: Full of live and active cultures, yogurt is a powerful probiotic that adds healthy bacteria to your gut. Rumsey recommends going with full fat or low-fat plain yogurt instead of the flavored varieties, which are often full of sugar. "Some companies market 'Greek-style' yogurt products that are nothing more than regular yogurt [that contains] additives like gelatin and milk solids to thicken the consistency," she says. "For true Greek yogurt, check the ingredients list. It should only include milk and live/active cultures."
  • Kefir: This fermented milk drink contains oligosaccharides, a complex carbohydrate that feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut. Similar to yogurt, kefir contains live and active cultures, and is also chock full of vitamins, minerals and proteins. Rumsey says it's best to avoid kefir with high sugar content, as too much sugar can damage the intestinal flora.
  • Tempeh and Miso: Both of these foods are made from fermented soybeans, which contain beneficial bacteria and isoflavones. "Tempeh comes in patty form and has a nutty flavor and chewy texture, great for adding to stir fries or on top of salads," Rumsey says. "Miso often comes in a thick paste that can be stirred into soup."
  • Sauerkraut: This fermented cabbage also packs a bunch of probiotics. "Avoid canned sauerkraut as it is pasteurized, meaning most of the healthy bacteria is killed," Rumsey says.
  • Artichokes and Asparagus: These veggies are prebiotics, containing indigestible nutrients that feed the beneficial bacteria already in your digestive tract. 

Gut-Friendly Meals and Snacks

Registered dietitian Laura Cipullo recommends the following meals and snacks for those looking to optimize their gut health:
  • Whole-wheat pasta with artichokes, asparagus and olives
  • Sourdough pizza crust topped with Muenster cheese, onions, garlic and tomato sauce
  • Salmon in a Greek yogurt sauce served with grilled asparagus
  • Maia yogurt with wheat germ
  • Greek yogurt with bananas, figs and almonds
  • Sourdough bread with black bean spread 

What to Avoid for Gut Health

Just as certain foods promote gut health, others hinder it. According to Andrews, foods that impair gut health can increase the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. She recommends steering clear of the following:
  • Processed or convenience foods like chips and cookies
  • High-sugar foods and beverages
  • Foods high in trans fat, such as processed snacks and crackers
  • Processed meats like bologna, hot dogs, sausage and bacon
  • Refined grains, such as white bread, white rice, white pasta and pastries

Alternative Ways to Improve Gut Health

Diet is critical to intestinal health, but there are some non-food ways to help nourish your gut.
  • Take probiotic supplements: If you don't get enough fermented foods in your diet, a probiotic supplement can help fill the gap. (Check with your health care provider before using any probiotic supplement.)
  • Learn to manage stress. Your brain health and gut health are inextricably linked, which is why high levels of stress or anxiety have been linked to gut flora issues. By learning to use stress constructively, you could help to ensure the right balance and diversity of your gut microbiome.
  • Get moving. Research has shown that exercise helps to promote the diversity of gut microbes and alter obesity-causing microbes.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on the state of your stomach, so get plenty of shuteye for a happy, healthy gut.