For some of us the expression, “Go with your gut,” means that you should rely on your instincts. For Erica and Justin Sonnenburg, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, it has much deeper nutritional implications.
In their book, The Good Gut, released last year, the Sonnenburgs present groundbreaking scientific research that has underscored the strong connection between your health and the trillions of organisms that live within your body, the microbes known as the microbiota. These organisms help us fight infection, beat bloat, and reduce risks of preventable diseases, just to name a few ailments that trouble us, and research shows the microbes flourish best when fed certain types of foods and supplements.
Your gut microbiota is very responsive to the food choices you make. For example, dietary fiber provides a banquet for the bacteria in your gut. Without adequate fiber, your bacteria will feast on…you! Plant fiber can also increase bacterial populations for optimal gut health, to ultimately help boost your immune system and help fight inflammation. Vegetables like onions, garlic, and leeks are just a few sources of beneficial fibers. Foods rich in probiotics also help the microbiome by regulating the immune system, curtailing the severity of certain diseases, and perhaps even playing a role in preventing obesity. Lastly, it’s important to only ingest antibiotics when you absolutely need them, because they can kill some of the gut’s beneficial bacteria.
Read on for a more detailed look at how your diet can influence your health from the inside out, including the foods that should regularly find their ways to your belly.
1. Fermented Foods
Fermented foods have been consumed for thousands of years, spanning across all cultures. You may be familiar with these foods in the form of sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, fermented tofu, pickles, and pickled items, such as pickled beets, radish, garlic, and cucumbers. Fermented foods act as natural probiotics and thus help replenish the “good” bacteria in the gut. (Read more about the many benefits of fermented foods here.) Just be aware that some of these foods could be high in sodium content, so check food labels if you need to restrict your salt intake.
Dairy foods, such as buttermilk, cultured sour cream, kefir, lassi, and yogurt, are also naturally rich in probiotics. If you’re not a fan of the sour taste that some of these foods provide, you can add fresh or frozen fruit to naturally sweeten the product. For example, try warming some frozen raspberries and swirling them into plain Greek yogurt. To add some crunch and even more benefits, toss in some high-fiber cereal, which brings us to another gut-friendly food group.
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3. High-Fiber Foods
The Sonnenburgs concur that a high-fiber plant-focused diet is the best way to make sure the microbes that live in your gut are in a healthy state. These foods contain non-digestible compounds known as prebiotics, which pass through the gut, intestines, and bowel undigested, nourishing the good bacteria already present in the body. Fibrous foods such as Jerusalem artichoke, chicory root (inulin), leek, white onions, raspberries, cooked beans, and asparagus spears, help your colon thanks to a type of prebiotic called frucans. And don’t throw away your broccoli stalks or carrot peels—they provide cellulose, a beneficial insoluble fiber. The fiber in other fruits and veggies and whole grains can also help keep your weight in check by helping you feel fuller longer.
4. Probiotic Supplements
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that may restore digestive health, relieve constipation and bloating and may even boost your immune system function. But when it comes to supplements, not all probiotics are alike. Erica Sonnenburg tells us to look for a label that reads, “Live and active cultures,” since this term means there are at least 100 million bacteria per gram. She points out, “A U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) label is a good third-party verification for the contents of the supplement, however, there is no verification for efficacy claims made on the label.”
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So which probiotic is best? “Unfortunately, there is no way currently to look at a person’s microbiota and say, ‘This is the right probiotic for you’; you’ll need to pay attention to how you’re feeling and your digestive habits can be very informative in guiding you towards types of probiotics that are the most beneficial for you,” she says. “Because of this issue of lax regulation on the supplement market, it can be tricky to get quality probiotics in supplements,” she says, so it’s best to go with recognizable brand names from well-known companies that have reputations to protect and better quality control. Basically, if one type of probiotic doesn’t seem to provide a benefit it is worth trying other types, but if you find a probiotic that seems to be working, there is no reason to switch. “The best way to find a good match is to experiment with different types of probiotics and frequency and see what works with your microbiota and gut (i.e. regular bowel movements, easy to pass, less bloating),” she says.