What is the gut microbiome?
If you have stomach problems like bloating, diarrhea, or constipation, you’ve probably caught onto the attractive idea of “healing your gut” to banish your troubles once and for all. This phrase is loved by laypeople and doctors alike, but many people don’t understand just how deep the connection is between your body’s overall functioning and your intestinal health.
Is it possible to heal your gut, and if so, how do you do it? Learn more about gut health, probiotic foods, and increasing the wellness of your microbiome.
The gut microbiome includes all the microorganisms in your intestines. These trillions of tiny organisms include the “good bacteria” in fermented foods as well as “bad bacteria,” yeast, parasites, and more. Like in any ecosystem, it’s important that there is a certain balance — and that it stays this way over time. Having a healthy, balanced microbiome where the health-promoting microorganisms outnumber the disease-promoting ones leads to better overall physical and mental health.
How do you determine whether your gut is healthy or unhealthy? If you’re having obvious stomach symptoms like constipation or diarrhea, or if you’ve been diagnosed with a condition like irritable bowel syndrome, you’ve probably already tried tinkering with your diet to improve these issues. What you might not understand is that your gut health goes far beyond symptoms located in your stomach: Your microbiome is closely tied to your immune system and your mental health as well, so your mood may also show signs of gut health or dysfunction.
What are signs that your gut needs repair?
It’s not always clear that your microbiome is not functioning as well as it should, as not all signs are stomach-related. You might check the following symptoms to see how well your gut is working:
- You have digestive symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea, feeling too full, or cramping after you eat.
- You have mental health issues like depression that don’t respond well to conventional treatments.
- You eat many processed foods, smoke cigarettes, or consume a lot of sugar.
What are foods that help repair the gut and improve overall health?
It’s not the end of the world if your gut is unhealthy — but depending on how long you’ve been dealing with symptoms, it may take a while to get your intestinal microorganisms back into the right balance. Fortunately, there are many affordable, readily available foods that can help you do just that. Read through the following options and learn the difference between probiotics and prebiotics to maximize your chances of a quick recovery.
Probiotics are foods that contain the “good bacteria” your intestines need to balance themselves out and get rid of any invaders that might be causing you harm. To heal your gut, consider adding the following foods to your everyday diet:
- Yogurt: In addition to containing lots of calcium and being a great source of protein, yogurt contains millions of probiotics that your gut, immune system, and brain use to stay healthy. Be sure to check the sugar content, as many yogurts are sweetened with more than a day’s serving of sugar.
- Miso soup: This traditional soup made from fermented soybeans is a great source of probiotics.
- Pickled vegetables: You can try kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles that have been fermented with live cultures (this means that the good bacteria are still living and able to help heal your gut).
- Kombucha: Though it’s somewhat of an acquired taste, this fermented drink has become popular in health circles for its health-boosting benefits. Once again, make sure the variety you purchase doesn’t contain sugar. Avoid home-brewed kombucha unless you’re sure it’s been concocted in a sterile environment as contamination is highly likely when it’s made at home.
It's important to do your research about a probiotic before eating or drinking it. There are many types of probiotics, and there are many supplement strengths on the market. Learn more by asking your nutritionist or look up research about using probiotics to treat specific health conditions before you grab the first one you see at the health food store.
You should also be careful when ordering probiotic supplements online, as many must be refrigerated in order to keep the good bacteria inside alive. If they need to stay cold, they often won’t work if they’ve been overheated.
Prebiotics include fibers that come from plants we eat. There are a lot of foods that contain natural prebiotic material — like potatoes, brown rice, and beans — and there are also many supplements you can add to your diet to boost your intake of prebiotics.
Prebiotics play a specific role in your gut health: Feeding your good bacteria. This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to eat a diet that’s full of plant foods to maintain good overall health.
Consider the following list of prebiotics and think of ways you can incorporate more of them into your daily diet:
- Starches: Some starches are easily absorbed, but “resistant” starches can’t be digested by the human body. Because of this, these resistant starches are a perfect food for your microbiome.
- Inulin: This fiber is part of plants you probably eat regularly — like onions — and ones you may have never consumed — like burdock root. Inulin is usually sold as a supplement and is available in many forms to help supplement your diet with this important fiber. It can help reduce harmful types of cholesterol in your body, feed your good bacteria, and help soothe stomach problems.
- Apples: Apples contain high levels of pectin, which is another prebiotic starch that can help your good bacteria thrive. Other foods that contain pectin are stone fruits like apricots, raspberries, and tomatoes.
If you feel fine after eating stone fruits and other vegetables that contain prebiotic fiber, there’s probably no risk in adding these foods to your diet. If you have a condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or you’re sensitive to FODMAPS, you might feel bloated and miserable after taking inulin powder or pectin. Be careful when starting new supplements and always ask your doctor or nutritionist for advice in introducing these substances if you have questions.
What is the gut-brain axis?
Your gut health influences your mood more often than you realize. The gut-brain axis refers to the phenomenon that the microorganisms in your gut can control your mood, change your stress levels, or influence your hormonal status. While your brain is your body’s control center, your gut communicates with your brain — and vice versa — to regulate your mood, your immune system, and your hormones.
You may experiment with healing your gut as a part of a treatment plan for depression or anxiety. Studies have shown that when the gut is unhealthy, or in a state of “dysbiosis,” you might have more symptoms of these conditions, a higher level of cortisol (a stress hormone), and eating habits that are different from your usual ones.
The more researchers investigate the gut-brain axis, the more evidence they find for two-way communication between your gut and your brain. This may lead to promising new treatments for people who can’t seem to find the right strategy for their mental health issues.
What is a “leaky gut”?
If your gut was leaking in a way that you could easily see, it would be alarming — but this isn’t what “leaky gut” means in the medical sense. Leaky gut refers to a breakdown in your intestine’s barrier. Many functional medicine practitioners believe that, over time, a leaky gut can be a problem for the rest of your body as well as your intestines because small food particles can escape and trigger immune system reactions against the rest of your body.
You may be skeptical of a diagnosis of leaky gut from an alternative health practitioner, and sometimes, your concern is warranted. This condition is a little bit controversial because while leaky gut certainly exists (in the sense that your intestinal barrier can become more permeable if it’s damaged), there’s not much evidence that leaky gut can cause all the conditions that some health practitioners claim it causes. For example, many functional medicine practitioners will claim that leaky gut is the root cause of diseases like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, while others may include a leaky gut healing protocol in an autism or ADHD treatment plan.
There also aren’t many good ways to determine whether your gut is leaky or not, and knowing whether or not you have compromised intestinal barrier isn’t clear-cut either. If you wish to use the aforementioned methods to heal your gut issues, start with a healthy diet and use discretion, only adding in prebiotic and probiotic foods that have been endorsed by research.
Now that you know how closely your gut health is linked to your overall wellbeing, you might be tempted to go out and purchase several of these foods and supplements to boost your health. Keep in mind that when you’re dealing with digestion and gut health, it’s often best to start slowly. Work with your doctor if you take other medications (as fiber supplements can interfere with the absorption of many medications and supplements) and keep a journal to track your progress if you wish.
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Cleveland Clinic: "Is Yogurt Good for You?", "What Are Prebiotics and What Do They Do?"
Frontiers in Nutrition: "A Microbiome-Driven Approach to Combating Depression During the COVID-19 Pandemic."
Frontiers in Endocrinology: "Unhealthy Lifestyle and Gut Dysbiosis: A Better Understanding of the Effects of Poor Diet and Nicotine on the Intestinal Microbiome."
Gut: "The Leaky Gut: Mechanisms, Measurement and Clinical Implications in Humans."
Mayo Clinic: "Building a Healthy Gut Microbiome," "What is kombucha tea? Does it have any health benefits?", "Prebiotics, probiotics and your health."
Harvard Health Publishing: "Fermented foods can add depth to your diet."