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Gut Health

The Best Foods for a Healthy Gut

Everywhere you turn there is a new product or someone telling you what to eat; it is on TV, in magazine articles, and blogs.

You see “the Gut Makeover”, or the “Wheat Belly Diet”, or “Eat This, Not That.” All of these sources say different things.

The conflicting information can be very confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. There are basic foods to eat for a healthy gut and some to eat to re-balance an unhealthy gut.

What is a Healthy Gut?

Who cares if your gut is healthy and happy? You should! “When your gut is happy, you are happy”. A healthy gut contains millions of microbes, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria.

The ‘good’ bacteria have been found to contribute to your overall health and well-being.

In fact, in 2016 Guilia Enders, a German microbiologist, published the bestselling book called “Gut” in which Ms.

Enders links every symptom of poor health back to the gut and the gut’s microbes.

Science is showing that a healthy gut leads to optimal digestion and gastrointestinal health, improved immune system functioning, better mental & emotional well-being, and the prevention of certain diseases and illnesses.

How do You Get a Healthy Gut and Keep It?

With all the conflicting information being published, it is no doubt if you feel confused or overwhelmed.

Then add the latest research of needing to keep millions of gut bacteria happy and healthy, how do you do this? What do you eat?

With avoiding the fad diets and quick-fixes, the body needs basic elements to stay healthy.

Foods for a Healthy Gut

1- Probiotics

People have been talking about probiotics for a while now. Bottles of probiotics are at the counter when you check out at the pharmacy.

Posters of probiotic pills are seen in grocery stores and natural food stores. You may have even been prescribed to take probiotics by your physician. But what are they?

Probiotics are live ‘good’ bacteria and there are hundreds of probiotic bacteria species available.

However, everyone’s gut flora is unique and complex; the types of probiotics that are good for your gut are different than those of other people.

This further adds to the confusion of what to eat for a healthy gut. But, there are certain combinations and collections of bacteria that research has shown to be beneficial for obtaining and maintaining a healthy gut in most people.

Probiotics are found in fermented foods like:

  • yogurt
  • sauerkraut
  • kefir
  • kimchi
  • miso
  • tempeh
  • kombucha
  • cranberries

The process of fermentation is where the ‘good’ bacteria flourish. In addition, the process of fermentation also creates essential enzymes for digestion, B vitamins, and Omega-3 fatty acids; also very important for good gut health, helping digestion, and overall well-being.

Research, from July 2017, has shown that cranberries are also probiotics. Although they are not fermented on ingestion, like other probiotics, cranberries travel into the intestine where they are broken down.

As they are broken down, certain parts are fermented and provide the same benefit as other probiotics. This allows for options if you don’t like the taste of the other fermented foods.

2- Prebiotics

Prebiotics are specialized plant fibers that beneficially nourish the ‘good’ bacteria that are already in the gut. They help the ‘good’ bacteria grow and improve the ‘good’-to-‘bad’ bacteria ratio in the gut.

Prebiotics can be found in:

  • skin of apples
  • bananas
  • onion
  • garlic
  • Jerusalem artichoke

Prebiotics can also be found in:

  • Whole grains
  • Rye
  • Barley
  • Chicory root
  • Dandelion root

The amount of prebiotics needed is likely dependent on the types of species of bacteria you are trying to nourish and if there are any conditions that require improvement.

Taking prebiotics on a regular basis will provide a constant supply of “food” for the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut.

3- Fiber

There are two kinds of dietary fiber – a soluble fiber that dissolves in water and insoluble fiber that stays as roughage or parts of indigestible plant foods.

Soluble fiber is found in:

  • Oats
  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Apples
  • Citrus fruits
  • Carrots
  • Barley

Insoluble fiber is found in:

  • Whole wheat flour
  • Wheat Bran
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Beans
  • Potato with skin
  • Sweet potato
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Corn

A diet high in fiber has many benefits but if we look specifically for ways to maintain a healthy gut, it normalizes bowel movements by increasing the weight and size of the stool while softening it. A bulkier stool is easier to pass.

The fiber will also provide water to the stool or absorb water from the stool, decreasing the chance of constipation or diarrhea.

A bulkier stool moves slower in the gut allowing the time for nutrients to adequately be absorbed, for the body to expel toxins and for water to balance in the system.

Research shows that most people are only getting half of the fiber that they need every day.

Men need 38 grams of fiber per day while women need 25 grams of fiber per day. Some simple ideas to increase the amount of daily fiber are to:

  • Pick items with whole grains instead of white or refined
  • Add legumes (beans, peas, lentils) to your soup or casseroles
  • Try to have five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day
  • Add uncooked oats or crushed bran cereal to your baking

Increasing your fiber too quickly can lead to intestinal gas and bloat. Increase your intake gradually over a period of a few weeks to allow for the ‘good’ bacteria to adjust to the change.

Good Gut Bacteria

What are the ‘good’ bacteria that are in your gut? The small intestine contains very few bacteria, given the proximity to the stomach and all the acid that it secretes.

At the furthest end of the small intestine, you can find Enterobacteriaceae which are lactose and non-lactose fermenters; they help with the breakdown of sugars and long-chain carbohydrates.

This fermentation process produces by-products that help maintain the health and strength of the intestinal wall as well as being an integral part of the digestion process.

The large intestine is mostly composed of Bacteroides and Bifidobacterium; these are two large categories of bacteria.

Bacteroides play an important role in the breakdown of carbohydrates and the isolation of fatty-acids, allowing them to be re-absorbed for energy sources.

Bifidobacterium exerts health-promoting actions, such as protective activities against ‘bad’ bacteria by producing agents that can kill the ‘bad’ bacteria and /or by blocking the ‘bad’ bacteria from sticking to the intestinal wall and thus causing problems.

Types of Enterobacteriaceae:

  • Escherichia
  • Shigella
  • Salmonella
  • Enterobacter
  • Proteus
  • Yersinia

Types of Bacteroides:

  • Bacteroides fragilis
  • Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron
  • Bacilllus subtitilis
  • Bacteroides intestinalis
  • Bacteroides pyogenes
  • Bacteroides acidifaciens

Types of Bifidobacterium:

  • Bifidobacterium pseudocatenulatum
  • Bifidobacterium catenulatum
  • Bifidobacterium adolescentis
  • Bifidobacterium longum
  • Bifidobacterium breve
  • Bifidobacterium angulatum
  • Bifidobacterium dentium

How to Get a Healthy Gut When You Are Unwell?

When you are unwell, your first thought is not likely to be about the bacteria in your gut. But it can definitely be a large contributing factor to your illness or being sick.

Science is now indicating that certain conditions are derived from an imbalance of ‘good’ bacteria to ‘bad’ bacteria.

Without balance, the intestinal wall becomes highly susceptible to damage, the protective mechanisms don’t function optimally, and the food is not broken down efficiently to provide for energy and essential nutrients.

imbalance of gut bacteria

Some of the conditions thought to be caused by an imbalance of gut bacteria are:

  • Constipation
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Excess intestinal gas
  • Chronic bad breath
  • Hormonal problems
  • Menstrual complaints
  • Candida infections (Candidiasis)
  • Chronic anemia
  • Food allergies and intolerances
  • Nutritional and vitamin deficiencies
  • Osteoporosis
  • Neurological problems
  • Mental and emotional difficulties

Bad Gut Bacteria

There are some bacteria that are truly ‘bad’ bacteria as their mere presence causes an illness. An example is stomach ulcers.

People who develop stomach ulcers likely have the presence of Helicobacter pylori in the lining of the stomach.

Just having these ‘bad’ bacteria present causes erosion in the stomach lining which is an ulcer. Therefore the treatment is antibiotics or antibacterials to remove and eradicate these ‘bad’ bacteria.

Other conditions and illness are a result of the imbalance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria. An example is irritable bowel syndrome.

It has been found that people with irritable bowel syndrome most likely have low levels of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria and that there is an increased ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroides.

All four of these bacteria are found in the normal flora of the gut; they are all found in a healthy gut. But, the amount and the ratios of these bacteria are off-balance causing problems.

This improper functioning of the ‘good’ bacteria leads to poor digestion and breakdown of foods as well as lack of protection of the intestinal wall contributing to its damage and erosion.

How to Get Rid of Bad Bacteria

As stated previously, obtaining a healthy gut is not as simple as killing the ‘bad’ bacteria while keeping the ‘good’ bacteria.

Sometimes, bacteria can be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ depending on the quantity and in comparison to the amount and presence of other strains of bacteria.

So swallowing large doses of potent antibiotics or antimicrobials will not help your situation.

This would likely contribute to more problems as antibiotics and antimicrobials are not specific in killing just one or two strains of bacteria.

They usually kill full species leaving space for other species to take over that space in the intestine; this could be by ‘good’ bacteria or other ‘bad’ bacteria.

Charcoal is also not the best choice as it too eradicates all bacteria of a species or several species. This will not leave you with enough ‘good’ bacteria to promote a good healthy gut.

Some physicians and naturopaths do use this technique of providing daily doses of charcoal, orally and /or by enema, to eradicate the bacteria in the intestine.

Then, large doses of prebiotics and probiotics are ingested to replenish the ‘good’ bacteria supply.

The risks involved with this technique are that it is not known which specific strains of ‘good’ bacteria are needed for your unique gut flora.

It is a very intense treatment causing large amounts of the stool as the bacteria is expelled.

The intestinal wall is left unprotected and unsupported during this time. Any food or liquid ingested will contain bacteria that are not controlled.

Some physicians and naturopaths recommend fasting or only certain foods during this time, but anything ingested is risking the colonization of unknown bacteria.

Despite the drastic methods listed, there are several methods that have been used to promote getting rid of ‘bad’ bacteria. They are:

– Increase the intake of antioxidants. Research has shown that antioxidants help boost your immune system.

A well-functioning immune system can get rid of the ‘bad’ bacteria, leaving the ‘good’ bacteria behind. An easy way to increase the intake of antioxidants is to eat more berries and drink green tea.

– Stay away from sugar. All bacteria eat sugar to survive. ‘Good’ bacteria are hearty and more resilient than ‘bad’ bacteria.

So in reducing the available sugar, the ‘good’ bacteria will be nourished and there will be less sugar for the ‘bad’ bacteria, leading to their demise.

This strategy cannot be a one-day restriction of sugar. It must be an ongoing attempt to reduce or eliminate added-sugar to your diet. The balancing of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria takes time.

– Try oregano oil. Oregano oil has natural antibacterial properties. They are not as potent as taking antibacterial agents so ingesting doses of oregano oil, for up to 10 days, can be beneficial in reducing ‘bad’ bacteria and yeasts.

In Summary

With all the science and research highlighting the importance of a healthy gut, it is important for us to maintain the ‘good’ bacteria in our gut for our overall health and wellness. In order to do this, you need to eat a diverse range of foods every day.

The variety of foods ingested will bring in a variety of strains of bacteria which can help to replenish your unique gut flora.

In eating a lot of vegetables, legumes, beans, fruit, and fermented foods, you will be ingesting prebiotics, probiotics, and fiber.

You should choose whole grains and avoid sugar to further benefit the balance of bacteria in your gut.

In keeping this balance will be a lifelong journey, but one that has been proven to be very important and beneficial.

References:

http://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/health/article/2016/02/26/do-you-have-healthy-gut

https://www.eatrightontario.ca/en/Articles/Digestion/Prebiotics.aspx

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983

https://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Fibre/Food-Sources-of-Fibre.aspx

http://www.sfam.org.uk/download.cfm?docid=67430136-51AF-4129-9DD6FDEEA39552A6

http://microbeonline.com/seven-common-characteristics-family-enterobacteriaceae/

http://advances.nutrition.org/content/7/4/759S.full

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2176045/

About the author

Tracy Heramchuk RN, BScN

I have been a nurse for 20+ years both in Texas, USA and in Quebec, Canada. I spent 10 years of my career working as an ICU nurse – trauma, neurosurgical, and cardiac. For the past 10 years, I have been a nurse educator, actively teaching young nursing students how to be the best. I enjoy writing, reading, and spending time with my family.

4 Comments

  • It’s just good to eat healthily at all times, I can’t believe that I eat most of the listed foods that are necessary for a healthy gut without knowing much about gut diseases. I can see that these foods have been working great in maintaining my gut health. It’d be great if others begin to consume these foods to keep up their gut health. Personally, I can’t even go a day without bananas and yogurt.

  • Yes, it’s so confusing! I am glad you highlighted the “good” bacteria, as that kind is good for your gut health. An awesome gut-healthy and easy breakfast is plain Greek yogurt with chopped apples and homemade granola–yum yum!

  • What a helpful list of the healthy foods that we can eat to support a healthy gut! It was a real wake up call reading about the sugar consumption and how bacteria live off sugar. I have a bad habit of always satisfying my sweet tooth by candy instead of naturally sweet foods such as fruits. I will have to keep this article handy when I go on my next shopping trip.

  • I eat almost all clean foods. I have noticed a change in my body and mind since I’ve been eating healthy. It is great that you distinguished good and bad bacteria. Everything is about balance. Exercising can also help cleanse the body. Thanks for this! I’m going to be adding some of the listed foods to my diet.

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