The Secrets to a Healthy Gut

Bacteria have a bad reputation, especially during the fall and winter seasons, when everyone around you seems to be coming down with the flu or a cold. Many athletes during this season might be increasing their training volume and are looking for a little extra immune support. 

While it’s true you’ll want to wash your hands more often to prevent the spread of bacteria that cause illness, this can also be a good time to focus your attention on increasing your relationship with good bacteria. It has been estimated that your body has fewer human cells than bacteria. With about 10^14, (that’s 100,000,000,000,000 bacterial cells!), your body acts as a host to many bacteria, including GOOD bacteria found in your gut, which can actually help you boost immunity and overall health.

The profile of your gut bacteria (gut microbiota) can promote health by: 

  • boosting the immune system
  • secreting antimicrobial substances that prevent bad bacteria from colonizing and making us sick
  • helping with digestion
  • producing vitamins (B-vitamins and Vitamin K)

Maybe you’ve heard that taking a probiotic supplement or eating certain yogurt brands can be healthy, but you might not know why. Probiotics are live micro-organisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host. These are the good bacteria that deserve your attention – you want a healthy population of good gut bacteria in your body. The profile of these bacteria is affected by age and antibiotic use, but is also affected by things you can control, like stress levels and the things you eat. For instance, eating more probiotics may increase the population of good bacteria. 

Most of the good bacteria or probiotics you’ll hear about come from the Lactobacillus species and/or the Bifidobacteria species, but there’s also different strains/types of the bacteria, and varying doses/amounts found in foods or a supplement. Many of the doses found in foods are pretty low compared to supplement forms, which can contain billions of Colony Forming Units (CFU’s). 

Although many research studies are inconclusive on the specific strain and dose of bacteria that is most beneficial, and whether or not food or supplement forms of probiotics are best for your gut health, there are many ways you can promote good gut health that are good for your overall health regardless of their probiotic content!

1. Focus on prebiotics. Yes, you read that right – probiotics feed on prebiotics in your diet (indigestible ingredients like fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin that the bacteria in your gut feed on). Prebiotics, are found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains like oatmeal or brown rice, so  eating a wide variety of these plant-based foods (especially onions, bananas, artichokes, asparagus, barley and garlic), will help keep your gut bacteria healthy.

2. Eat fermented foods. Food such as yogurt, kefir, fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and tempeh are good sources of probiotics. By eating these foods, which contain live/active cultures, you can promote a healthy population of your own gut bacteria.

3. Reduce your stress level. Go for a walk, take a yoga class, wash the dishes, write in a journal – there are many ways to reduce stress levels. When we’re stressed out, we may have GI issues such as an upset stomach or frequent bowel movements, or we may choose less healthy, comforting foods, both of which aren’t healthy to our gut bacteria. 

Focusing on these three strategies is not only good for overall health, it will help you promote a healthier population of gut bacteria, which can be immune-boosting and benefit your health. 

What about supplements?

You will find a lot of products or supplements in the supermarket that advertise their probiotic benefits, but taking a “foods first” approach to increase the probiotics in your diet is a great way to reap the benefits of those healthy foods (such as getting a healthy dose of protein from the yogurt or tempeh) without spending additional money on supplements. Again, most studies agree that eating probiotics is likely beneficial (even if research isn’t conclusive on the most beneficial dose or strains of bacteria of whether foods or supplement forms are better). 

Food sources of probiotics (like the fermented foods listed above) have been around for thousands of years and contain many other beneficial vitamins and minerals. That alone makes  these foods worthy of including in most diets, whether they’re advertising their probiotic benefits or not

A dietitian can help you navigate the options if you are thinking about including healthful probiotic-rich foods in your diet!

What foods should I be looking for?

The dietitians picks:

Greek yogurt (Choose plain yogurt and add your own honey or chopped fruit)

Kefir (Again, choose plain and blend it into smoothies. It is quite tart, so mixing it into smoothies is a great way to sweeten it up!)

Tempeh (If you’ve never tried it – check out this article from the Kitchn).

Kimchi and Sauerkraut  (Look for refrigerated varieties. Canned versions will have cooked and killed the live bacteria).

Do you eat any fermented foods?

More articles on this topic:

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Nutrition Stripped || Guide to Probiotics

EatRight.Org || Probiotics and Prebiotics: Creating a Healthier You

NCAA/SCAN || Foods to Promote Immune Function