Did you know that your gut health has a significant impact on the way you think and feel? Studies show that the activity that goes on inside your digestive tract changes emotions and cognition in the brain, and can even be linked to depression or anxiety. The health of your gut is also partially responsible for the effectiveness of your immune system, extracting energy from the foods you eat to allow you to perform your daily functions, and filters out the waste material that would otherwise make your body sick.
There are many factors that contribute to the overall health of your digestive system. Many people understand that ingesting certain foods high in sugar or saturated fats are generally unhealthy practices, but most people do not know the drastic impact some of these foods have on the healthy bacteria that live in your gut. To better comprehend the role food plays in overall digestive health, we should start by outlining what it means to have a healthy gut.
What is Gut Health?
Gut health is defined by your intestinal bacteria’s ability to function at their highest capacity at any given moment. These functions go beyond the ability to digest the foods you eat, but also encompass their ability to neutralize toxic and dangerous byproducts of digestion, kill off harmful bacteria you might have ingested along with your food, assist with the regulation and production of “healthy” bacteria, and create vitamin absorption channels to help you extract important nutrients from your food.
Imagine a scenario in which you are eating all the right foods to make up a healthy diet, but your gut is not able to absorb as many nutrients as it normally would due to poor health. This would cause nutrient imbalances within your body which could be the cause of all sorts of problems, from skin breakouts to bellyaches and bloating. This is the case for many people, and many don’t even know it! As we age, our body’s ability to produce the healthy bacteria that lives in the gut decreases, which makes it more important for us to actively regulate the factors that contribute to gut health.
What Is the Microbiome?
Think back to your early school years in which you were taught about the body’s circulatory system – a network of veins, arteries, vessels, and capillaries that allows blood to circulate throughout the body. In this example, the circulatory system uses oxygenated blood to help maintain homeostasis – a baseline “balance” at which our bodies perform their best. When arteries are blocked, this decreases the ability of our circulatory system to perform the best it can, and sometimes causes larger, more serious health conditions.
The human microbiome is like the circulatory system in that it helps the body to maintain a level of balance, or homeostasis. Rather than using blood as a means of achieving this goal, the microbiome uses small cells called microbes. Therefore, the microbiome refers to the entire entity of the community of microbes that reside in the body at any given moment. Like any ecosystem, this structure can be disrupted by diseases or other health conditions that create internal microbial imbalances.
Research suggests that the human microbiome contains between 10-100 trillion cells all working in symbiosis with each other. These bacterial microbes are primarily located in the gut, and are estimated to outnumber the number of human cells 10:1, according to the research community. While this might seem like an enormous number, there are simple human habits that can cause drastic shifts and imbalances within the microbiome to occur, oftentimes resulting in enduring health problems that could have otherwise been avoided.
What Role Does Intestinal Flora Play in Digestion and Gut Health?
Your intestinal flora, otherwise known as “gut flora,” are the bacterial microbes that specifically reside in your intestines. These are part of the larger microbiome ecosystem, and exist in a mutualistic relationship with the human body. This means that the existence of healthy gut bacteria in the human digestive tract is beneficial to both parties – the human and the gut flora. The intestinal flora benefits from having livable conditions in which to reside and a consistent supply of food to eat, while our bodies are given the means of breaking down and absorbing the food we ingest while simultaneously being protected from harmful toxins. Unfortunately, this community of bacteria is highly susceptible to some of the harmful substances contained in the food we eat that have the potential to kill off these cells. However, the good news is that probiotic foods can stimulate and encourage the production of healthy intestinal flora within the human gut, helping us to recover from microbial imbalances within the body.
What Role Does Food Play in Gut Health?
The foods we consume can both contribute to overall gut health, but can also be detrimental to the balance within your gut. For example, sugar is a substance that helps promote the growth of harmful bacteria within the gut, which results in decreased counts of healthy bacteria. Fried foods are also another culprit for helping the enemy, resulting in the higher production of harmful bacteria that kills of healthy intestinal flora. Other products like dairy are harmful for another reason – the antibiotics dairy products often contain are known to wipe out both healthy intestinal flora and bad bacteria, eliminating the gut diversity that keeps our bodies balanced.
Here is a brief list of other foods that are bad for gut health:
- Soy products – most are genetically modified and processed, causing them to do more harm than good for our intestinal flora
- Red meat – also known to increase the number of harmful bacteria in the intestinal tract
- Tap water – chemicals like chlorine are known to kill off “good” intestinal flora
- Red dye – this substance causes and inflammatory response in the body, and is known to kill good intestinal flora
With all these substances that contribute to poor gut health, it may seem like we cannot enjoy the occasional sugary treat or deep-fried dish without disrupting our microbiome. While consuming too much of anything is typically unhealthy, so long as we indulge occasionally and in small amounts, chances are that we won’t throw our systems too much out of whack. Plus, we can take probiotic foods and supplements to help promote the growth of good gut bacteria that we might harm when indulging in unhealthy foods.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live cultures (communities) of bacteria and yeasts that are known to provide health benefits by improving the conditions in which the body can naturally produce intestinal flora. The Mayo Clinic outlines that the bacteria contained in probiotic cultures functions very similar to those found naturally within the human microbiome, and in some cases these bacteria species are the same. By helping to promote optimal gut health functioning, probiotics are known to:
- Help promote a healthy immune system
- Prevent digestive issues like IBS or diarrhea
- Reduce bloating and inflammation
- Improve overall mood
- Assist with weight management
…and so much more.
What Role Do Probiotic Foods Play in Gut Health?
Just as substances like sugar and chemicals have negative effects on our gut health, there are certain foods that promote gut and digestive functioning by supplying the body with probiotics. Incorporating these foods into a daily diet can increase metabolic functioning, decrease inflammation and bloating, increase awareness and cognition, improve mood, and could even help reduce digestive issues like IBS. You might already be eating these foods regularly without even knowing that they contain probiotics!
Here are 7 probiotic foods to help improve your gut health.
A lesser-known probiotic food also derived from fermented soybeans is Tempeh, which also helps to treat candida overgrowth in the gut and improve overall digestion. Many studies point to fermented soy foods like Tempeh as aiding in the reduction of cholesterol, thus decreasing the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Like kefir and yogurt, tempeh also contains considerable amounts of protein that helps support muscle growth.
This popular Korean dish contains several fermented vegetables, including cabbage and radish. It is often prepared using chili powder and other spicy seasonings to give it the zesty taste so commonly associated with it. Like sauerkraut, kimchi also contains healthy bacteria such as lactobacilli, in addition to essential vitamins A, B, and C.
Sauerkraut is unique in that it often contains many different strains of probiotics, all of which offer unique health benefits. This food is made from fermented cabbage, and has been popular for hundreds of years. Back in the days before refrigeration, fermentation was used as a method of preserving food so that it could stay edible and safe to eat for prolonged periods of time without requiring cold. Oddly enough, through this fermentation process, foods like sauerkraut emerged that offered more health benefits compared to their non-fermented counterparts, and are especially known for helping to improve digestion.
For most people familiar with the health benefits of yogurt, it does not come as a surprise that this common household food contains live cultures of bacteria that help with digestion. In addition to providing a balanced serving of healthy fats, protein, and vitamins, yogurt is also fermented and therefore contains probiotics. It is by far one of the most consumed dairy products in the United States, and is known to help support a healthy immune system, reduce high blood pressure, help to prevent osteoporosis, and so much more.
The fermented soybeans contained in miso soup also offer probiotic benefits, mostly from the fungal microorganism called Aspergillus Oryzae. Like other probiotic foods mentioned on this list, miso offers health benefits such as improved digestion, higher natural production of intestinal flora, and is even known to reduce the symptoms caused by Crohn’s disease.
Did you know that dark chocolate is a fermented food? By consuming the occasional bar that contains a cacao content of 70% or more, the body can obtain probiotic properties that assist with the healthy production of digestive microbes.
Like several items on this list, Kefir is a beverage that is both fermented and cultured, containing billions of active, live bacteria. According to Healthline, Kefir is most commonly made with dairy milk, but can also be produced using coconut water, goat’s milk, rice, and several types of grains. Most people who are normally lactose intolerant have no problem consuming dairy-based kefir due to the fermentation it undergoes. Kefir often gets confused with yogurt, and for good reason. They share many common properties, such as a probiotic count, proteins, and B vitamins. However, yogurt is known to have a thicker consistency compared to Kefir, along with less protein and lower probiotic units. Health benefits include relieving symptoms of IBS, helping to treat urinary tract infections (UTI), prevent and treat diarrhea, and improve healthy intestinal flora ratio in the gut.
Your microbiome can be surprisingly sensitive to gut-harming foods and unhealthy habits, but it fortunately can thrive under the right circumstances. We are constantly told to exercise and allow 7-8 hours each night for sleep to stay fit and alert, but by working out and resting we are also helping to regulate our microbiome. Our bodies function on a time clock that produces healthy intestinal flora at different amounts throughout the day. Adequate sleep is necessary to help regulate this time clock, allowing our bodies to produce the optimal environment for microbial production at the right times.
Exercise also helps our bodies to produce optimal levels of healthy bacteria that aid in digestion. Studies show that healthy bacterial strains such as Lactobacillus were measured in to be higher in mammals who regularly exercised compared to their non-fit counterparts. This effect can be magnified with the right probiotic-rich diet, sleep, and hydration levels.
Use Probiotic Supplements to Promote Healthy Gut Flora” _builder_version=”3.0.85″] Will probiotics alone help you achieve a healthy gut? Probably not. Staying on top of your gut health requires more than just a pill, but a change of lifestyle. Your number one priority should be consuming a well-rounded diet that includes the smallest amount of sugar, dairy, and other gut-harming food products as possible. You will also benefit by working some of the probiotic foods mentioned above into your diet. Finally, drinking water, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep will all work in conjunction to help you achieve a healthy digestive system, and allow you to get the most benefit out of taking a probiotic supplement.
What is the Best Probiotic for Gut Health?
If you are already committed to eating a healthy diet, reducing your intake of gut-harming foods like sugar, and exercising regularly, you will see the most out of taking a probiotic supplement. These come in all shapes and sizes, and most of these products boast about containing billions of active units that provide the health benefits mentioned above. When purchasing a probiotic supplement, the most important thing to note is the quality and stability of the active cultures (often referred to as CFUs), not necessarily the culture count. Strains such as the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium probiotic types tend to have the highest and most effective impact on gut health.
For most adults taking a probiotic supplement, an active culture count between 30 and 50 billion is plenty to reap the benefits. The Renew Life 50 Billion ultimate flora probiotic is one of these high-quality supplements that contain the beneficial strains mentioned above, while the Renew Life 30 Billion also offers the same benefits at a slightly lower culture count.