There are lots of foods to improve gut health, and just as many that make you feel worse. Today we look at why your gut feels bad and what you can do to improve gut health naturally.
Hello and welcome to Fearlessly Holistic.
My name is Irma and I want to share my journey to improved health by eating whole foods, moving my body and eliminating stress as much as possible.
It is my hope to inspire you to make daily changes. Why? Because eating fresh, seasonal food and getting some sunshine is the best way to increase longevity. But you do not want just a long life. You want a quality long life.
My blog posts are my opinion and the results of things that I have tried that either worked for me or didn’t. My opinions are for informational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. Medical advice should always be obtained from a qualified medical professional for any health conditions or symptoms associated with them.
Why Is Gut Health Important?
The great Greek physician, Hippocrates, once famously said: “All disease begins in the gut”. This was a generalization, but not far from the truth.
Scientists now recognize that inflammation is the pre-cursor for many health problems, and much inflammation starts in your gut. But why?
It is thought that our dependence on pain killers, as well as over-use of antibiotics, are destroying the gut.
These drugs thin the lining of the gut, allowing microscopic food particles to travel to areas of our body they should not be in. Our body reacts by sending white blood cells to fight the foreign invaders.
However, if you have to keep taking these drugs, the health issues from this chronic inflammation will start to pile up.
Another issue is eating “non-food”, which is the mysterious ingredients in processed foods that are approved by the FDA, but are not approved by our bodies. See below “Foods To Avoid To Improve Gut Health”.
Damage to the gut can cause a long list of health issues like:
- Inability To Lose Weight
- Food sensitivities or allergies
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Diarrhea, constipation, or both
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (an auto-immune disease which is different from Osteoarthritis)
These health issues are one reason why the carnivore diet is becoming so popular. Eating a meat-only diet allows your body to heal while still providing good nutrition. Not complete nutrition, but adequate while you figure out what’s causing your health problems.
Strengthen Your Immune System By Improving Gut Health
Your gut health has a direct effect on your immune system. As a matter of fact, about 70% of your immune system lives in your gastrointestinal tract.
It’s amazing to consider that there are about 500 different species of bacteria living inside of you. Some are referred to as “good” while others don’t provide obvious benefit. At the moment, science is telling us that the ideal balance between them is 85% good and 15% “other”.
This ratio between good bacteria and other bacteria is critical for determining your optimal health.
And when we speak of optimal health, we’re talking about your entire mind and body.
Many diseases are exacerbated by or caused by gut problems. Diseases and disorders such as allergies, arthritis, autoimmune diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acne, chronic fatigues, mood disorders, autism, dementia, and cancer.
Not to say that all of these diseases are caused by bad gut health, but science shows us that good gut health aids in reducing the effects and sometimes in the prevention of these diseases.
How does good gut health help our immune system?
The gastrointestinal tract (gut) is where we digest and absorb nutrients. If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to view food as medicine.
Prebiotics + probiotics = healthy, happy gut.
Prebiotic foods: not to be confused with probiotic, the prebiotic is a specialized plant fiber that nourishes the good bacteria already in the large bowel or colon.
These foods include green banana powder/flour (resistant starch), asparagus, radishes, and indigestible plant fibers such as dandelion greens, chicory root, garlic, and onions.
Probiotics: These provide additional good bacteria if your gut does not have enough. Try fermented vegetables to get probiotics, or use supplements.
Read below for tips on how to purchase probiotic supplements.
Probiotics require prebiotics to function correctly.
While probiotics introduce good bacteria into the gut, prebiotics feed the good bacteria that’s already there.
Fermented foods like Sauerkraut, Kimchi, Miso, and Tempeh, as well as fermented beverages such as Kefir, apple cider vinegar (with the mother), and Kombucha, promote healthy gut bacteria.
Apple cider vinegar (the good stuff comes with “the Mother“. Check the label) or lemon juice – add a tablespoon of either to a glass of water 20 minutes before meals to stimulate digestion and assist the absorption of nutrients.
Fiber: Psyllium husks, Chia seeds, and flax seeds aid the bowel functions.
Fiber not only feeds good gut bacteria, but it also ensures that your digestive tract is functioning optimally.
Related Post: Build Up Your Immune System
5 Tips To Improve Your Gut Health
A healthy human body is swarming with microorganisms inhabiting every nook and cranny on and in the body.
It is in your gut, the gastrointestinal tract, that you’ll find the largest collection of microorganisms. This is where the good and bad bacteria, and some enzymes, reside.
Combine the microorganisms with the product they make and the entire environment is called the microbiome.
Your gut microbiome is unique to you. When the microbiome is out of balance and there are more ‘bad’ bacteria than good, you experience the poor gut health symptoms.
Poor gut health has very distinct symptoms. What is important is your ability to pay attention to them as symptoms and to take action to rid yourself of these symptoms.
The most common symptoms of poor gut health are:
- Gas or bloating
- Indigestion or heartburn after meals
- Irregular bowel movements (diarrhea, constipation, or both)
- Food allergies or sensitivities
- Frequent colds
The good news is that you can change your gut health. The 5 tips you can use today to improve your gut health are:
1. Remove the sugar and processed foods from your diet.
Refined carbohydrates, sugar, and processed foods get absorbed quickly into your small intestine without any help from your microbes.
Get your carbohydrates from vegetables and low-sugar fruits.
Eating a lot of leafy green vegetables will help plant (no pun intended!) your gut with healthy and diverse bacteria. Be sure to get a balance of healthy fats and protein with each meal as well.
2. Include fermented foods in your diet.
Fermented foods seed your gut with healthy bacteria. Eat sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, kefir, yogurt (not processed), and kombucha.
Note that regular store bought sauerkraut and pickles have all of their good bacteria destroyed during the canning process.
3. Take a Probiotic supplement.
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your health, especially your digestive system. They’re often called often called “good” or “helpful” bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy.
What they do is line your digestive tract and support your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection.
Be sure to purchase supplements that contain BILLIONS of active live cultures, like Lactobacillus. The important words to look for on the bottle are “active live“.
4. Nourish Your Healing Gut With Bone Broth
Bone broth is another traditional food, that is nourishing for a healing gut.
Related Post: Nourish Your Body with Bone Broth
You can make your own bone broth easily at home. Make your broth in spring and fall, when weather is cooler during the days. This avoids having to heat your kitchen in summer.
Keep the bones from whole chickens, a turkey carcass, and bones from steaks and pork chops (unless coated in sugary sauces). I put my bones into zipper bags; when their are enough bones for a good sized pot of broth, I cook them up.
I cook my broth for as long as I can on day one.
Then I put the pot (with the lid on) on my patio overnight. In early spring it cools the broth quicker when outside overnight.
On day two I bring it in and cook it until the bones are soft. This ensures that the vital minerals, as well as collagen, have been removed from the carcass.
Then I strain off the chunks, let it cool, and put it in containers in the freezer. Easy-peasy.
Mix the concentrated broth with boxed organic broth, and have a cup of it daily while healing your gut.
5. Reduce Stress.
One of the most important factors of improving your gut health is your own ability to relax and to get into a relaxed state.
If your gut health is poor, your gut microbiome is unbalanced; you may feel depressed, anxious, or tired.
In addition to eating the right foods, begin to practice meditation and get into a relaxed state. Go to YouTube to find some relaxing music and/or guided meditations.
They need not be very long, but the key here is persistence. Seek relaxation often.
Related Post: Improve Your Gut Microbiome
Why Fermented Foods Improve Gut Health
Fermentation is a traditional way to preserve foods and dates back thousands of years, with most countries of the world having traditional foods that they ferment.
The purpose of eating fermented foods is to restore your gut bacteria to a good balance so that your digestion improves, which means you are absorbing more nutrients from the foods you eat and you are improving your overall mental and physical health.
Another benefit to these traditional foods is being able to eat healthy vegetables and fruits in winter.
Fermented foods are usually prepared when the veggies are at the peak of freshness. Instead of buying “forced” grown produce in winter, at high prices and with dubious quality, you can eat your own fermented products.
Fermented foods are foods that have been through a process of lacto-fermentation in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid.
This process preserves the food and creates beneficial enzymes, B-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics.
Allowing bacteria to form in a sealed jar of vegetables over a few months might not seem like the most appealing way to create health, but fermentation plays an important role in balancing the bacteria in your gut.
There are two ways to ferment foods:
- Fermenting sugar with yeast to produce sugar alcohols; OR
- Using lactic acid-based bacteria (e.g. Lactobacillus) to act on dairy products or vegetables, which aids in their preservation and increases their good probiotic content. (In the case of Candida, this second method is particularly useful).
When talking about eating fermented foods for a healthy gut, the lactic acid-based bacterium is the process to look for.
Thanks to the surging popularity of good gut health, fermented foods are widely available. Kefir and Kombucha are now in most grocery stores. Many cities have multiple Korean cafes that sell Kimchi for takeout.
Or you can make your own. Amazon sells home fermentation kits, if you want to get fancy.
Try this recipe from The Kitchn, for an easy homemade sauerkraut in a mason jar, which tastes superior to any store product.
This is the recipe that I use; you will be so surprised at what sauerkraut is actually supposed to taste like. It’s a salty pickle that is crunchy and tasty.
Buy cabbage when in season locally and whip up a few jars. It will keep in your refrigerator.
FYI: Not all fermented foods are good for restoring balance to your gut bacteria.
Many mass-produced fermented foods, unfortunately, have little actual fermentation left in them (i.e. lacto-acidic beneficial bacteria). This is because of the added sugars, preservatives, food coloring, or cheap vinegar used. These additives are used in place of a real fermentation process.
Typical examples are the sauerkraut, pickles, and olives that you find in your local supermarket.
But, there is no need to panic.
Educate yourself by reading the labels of these products and you will find that there are, indeed, options at the grocery market that fit your need for fermented foods.
Consider the following tips as guidelines for helping you choose and consume healthy, fermented foods:
Look for foods with no sugar added.
Fermented foods will typically have some residual sweetness from the natural sugars that remain in the food, so there should be no need to sweeten them further.
Look for organic ingredients.
Great fermented food options that can be certified organic include:
Processes like pasteurization and sterilization kill the beneficial bacteria. Even if bacteria are added back in and cultured after pasteurization, remember the enzymes in the food are still destroyed by pasteurizing. Those enzymes help you to digest foods more easily
Consume your fermented foods with fatty and protein-rich foods.
Fatty and protein-rich foods tend to inhibit the natural production of beneficial lactobacillus bacteria in the gut. To offset this, it makes sense to eat a small portion of fermented foods at the same time.
Traditionally, fermented foods are small servings on the side of the plate, not an actual side dish.
They were used to maintain good health through the winter, when fruits and vegetables are scarce.
Improve Gut Health Naturally With Quality Probiotics
It’s important to have a healthy gut that is teeming with good bacteria, and this can be done through a diet that includes a lot of plants and healthy fiber. A healthy gut is balanced and has a big impact on your physical and mental health.
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your health, especially your digestive system. They’re often called often called “good” or “helpful” bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy. What they do is line your digestive tract and support your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection.
The good news is that probiotics can be increased through diet and supplements.
Some foods are probiotic-rich, while others help to feed the probiotics in your gut.
Yogurt and Kefir. Find the plant-based versions like, coconut yogurt and coconut kefir to get the benefits without the problems often associated with dairy.
If you have no issues with dairy, buy yogurt with the least amount of ingredients and “active live cultures”. Many Greek-style yogurts are acceptable.
Purchase yogurt with no sweeteners. Sugar feeds bad bacteria.
Kefir is a cultured, fermented milk drink, and is similar to yogurt but it is a drink, with a tart, sour taste, and slight fizz. It can be found in the yogurt section of many grocery stores.
Sauerkraut and Vegetable Ferments. Kimchi is a staple in Korean cuisine and is their version of a sauerkraut product. It’s a side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables using napa cabbage and Korean radishes.
It can be hot and spicy, even when served cold. It is also very easy to make at home.
Water Kefir and Kombucha. Both can be purchased in bottles.
You can purchase water kefir grains online, which allows you to whip up a batch whenever you need one. Here is a quick walkthrough from Feasting At Home.
Kombucha requires a SCOBY, which is a odd looking disk that is yeast and bacteria combined. Then you make a tea mixture, add the SCOBY, and wait for it to do its thing.
Kombucha is widely available in most stores if you want to try it before you make it at home. Do not drink the whole bottle or you may have digestive troubles. Most bottled Kombucha’s recommend a smaller serving size.
Miso. It’s the fermented beans and rice that make miso magic as a healthy and delicious condiment and adding a tablespoon to some hot water makes an excellent, quick, probiotic-rich soup.
While the probiotics in food form are best for your gut health, they are available in supplement form.
Quality supplements can be pricey, but if you want to take them, they are available.
“High CFU Count” stands for Colony-forming Unit, and indicates how many bacteria/fungal cells are in a unit of measure. Different brands of supplements contain different CFU’s.
Things you need to consider when buying a probiotic supplement:
- High CFU count — Purchase a probiotic brand that has a higher number of probiotics, from 15 billion to 100 billion.
- Strain diversity — Search for a probiotic supplement that has 10–30 different strains.
- Survivability — Look for strains like bacillus coagulans, Saccharomyces boulardii, Bacillus subtilis, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and other cultures or formulas that ensure probiotics make it to the gut and are able to colonize.
- Research — Do your homework and look for brands that have strains that support your specific needs. It’s important that you know the following about probiotic supplements:
- Stability: Probiotics need to be kept cold in order to preserve their potency. This applies to their production, transport, storage, and sales.
- Date: The fresher the better – remember, we’re talking about living organisms.
- Living vs. dead: “Live and active cultures” is a better bet than “made with active cultures.”
- Potency: Most probiotic products don’t list the amount of bacteria their products contain. Health benefits can occur with 50 million CFUs for certain conditions and may take as many as 1 trillion CFU for others. A good rule is “The higher the number the better.”
Now you know what probiotics are, that they are beneficial and support good gut health and that you can increase them in your gut through diet and supplements.
*Note*: It is important to start slowly with probiotics, whether in pill form or eating foods with probiotics. Probiotics have the effect of encouraging proper elimination of the bowel.
Start small with supplements until you know how quickly they may act for you, to avoid any “accidents”.
Using Prebiotics To Feed Your Probiotics
As mentioned earlier, prebiotics are specialized plant fibers that nourish the good bacteria already in the large bowel or colon.
One way to feed your good bacteria is with resistant starch.
It is called resistant starch because it is resistant to digestion.
Your body cannot break it down, so it passes through your digestive tract, allowing good bacteria to feed on it on the way by.
The best sources are cooked and cooled white rice, raw potato starch, and green banana or plantain ‘flour’.
Start with a smaller amount, like a spoonful, to see if you can tolerate it.
Test it out every other day or twice a week for a few weeks, watching for improvements to gut health.
I started with purchasing green bananas.
They don’t taste like much, and there is a distinct ‘starchiness’ to them. It can be hard to find green bananas sometimes, so I just buy them when I find them. I get a bunch of ripe ones for the family and a couple of green ones for me.
Be sure to take your probiotics at the same time as your prebiotics, to get them working together. If your gut health is poor, it can take a few weeks to restore the balance.
So eat your green banana and try one probiotic capsule at first. Unless you got your probiotics at Costco, in which case one of those is like 3 of another brand. Yes, I made that mistake…good thing I was home that day.
If you are new to improving gut health, be gentle when experimenting as you may need to take baby steps. It could take two months or more to see improvements.
Foods To Avoid To Improve Gut Health
The gastrointestinal tract is the body’s first line of defense against any attack on the immune system. Keeping it healthy, keeping your gut healthy, with proper diet, sleep, and stress management will keep your body and mind healthy for years to come.
Good food for your gut includes fruit and vegetables.
Foods to avoid are refined sugars, high fructose corn syrup, processed foods and artificial sweeteners.
If your gut is rumbling and roaring and causing you discomfort, the first place to look for a cure is your food.
If you don’t have bloating and gas but are experiencing brain fog, restless sleep and a lot of stress, look at the food you are eating and remove the ‘avoid’ foods to improve your gut health. See ‘avoid’ foods below.
Your gut health has a direct impact on your physical and mental health.
The healthy human body has microorganisms inhabiting every spot available on the body. It is in our gut, the gastrointestinal tract, that we can find the largest collection of microorganisms.
These microorganisms make up our gut microbiota.
Combine the microbiota, the products it makes, and the entire environment it lives within and we have a microbiome.
The human microbiome (all of our microbes’ genes) can be considered a counterpart to the human genome (all of our genes).
Every human being has a gut microbiota (community of bacteria) that is unique.
People who are sick may have too little or too much of a certain type of gut bacteria, or they may lack a variety of bacteria. This means you can affect the balance of your gut bacteria and it can be done through diet.
If you want to help your gut recover from a time of imbalance, it would be good to remove the ‘avoid’ foods from your diet, focus on the good and healthy foods and restore your gut bacteria to a healthy balance.
It may be necessary for you to completely remove everything and do an elimination diet.
An elimination diet is not a ‘forever’ diet, just a ‘for right now’ diet. Do this when you are done trying to figure out your gut issues, because you will get results quickly.
An easy elimination diet that you can start immediately is Ketovore.
Ketovore is meat and vegetables, so if you are already grilling meat for dinner and serving it with salad, you are halfway there already. Just ditch any starchy sides (like garlic bread or potatoes) and by-pass dessert, unless it’s fresh berries.
For today, your best option is to eliminate bakery products, processed foods, soft drinks, and fast food.
I know some fast food ‘appears healthy, like salad with grilled chicken. But these foods come from places that use a lot of unhealthy products to make food ‘fast’.
- ‘Vegetable’ oils/soybean oil (deep fried and grilled foods; dips and salad dressings).
- Fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrups, artificial sweeteners (dips, salad dressings, soda)
- Low or non-fat dairy products. You can safely eliminate all dairy while healing your gut.
- Imitation meat like Beyond Burgers, which contain over 20 ingredients and are grown in tanks. #yuk
- Low quality white/wheat products. Gluten intolerance is a real problem if you have gut issues.
- Chlorinated water. A little bleach mixed with your soda?
- Other soy products. Often considered a milk and/or meat substitute, soy can be bad for the human gut as it can be extremely difficult to digest. The only acceptable soy product is authentic tofu, which is next to impossible to get in North America, as the market has been taken over by fake tofu products (they are not fermented).
These foods feed the bad bacteria in the gut which causes damage to the small intestine and interferes with food digestion.
This leads to food sensitivities, allergies, inflammation and a compromised immune system.
While there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to your gut health, remember, it is unique to you. The above tips should work well for you as long as you keep supporting your microbiome with foods and activities that are healthy for you.
Holistic approaches never just address symptoms of specific health problems, but instead aim to return or keep the patient in a state of balanced health between mind, body, and spirit. Holism targets overall wellness, and when we are well, we only get better with age.
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Until next time, here’s to our health!