Have you given much thought to your digestive system lately? You may be surprised to find your gut plays an important role in your immune function and even your ability to lose weight. Intrigued? The foods you eat can either have a beneficial effect on your digestive system and promote better health, or they can have a devastating impact that leads to a number of illnesses and issues.
Let’s take a look at how important a healthy gut is to your overall health and wellbeing, and find out what foods will benefit you from the inside out.
Gut Bacteria: The Good, The Bad, And the Hungry
Did you know that microscopic bacterial organisms on and in your body outnumber your cells ten to one? That’s right — you are more bacteria than you are human. These microbes work hard for you; they help with digestion, nutrient absorption, create vitamins, and protect you from harmful bacteria that can make you sick.
The bacteria that live in your gut are a dynamic part of your innate and adaptive immune system. A disruption of your gut bacteria can lead to autoimmune and autoinflammatory diseases, as well as acne, food allergies, chronic fatigue, Irritable Bowel syndrome, and even mood disorders such as depression.
The “good” bacteria in your gut compete for resources with “bad” bacteria, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Streptococcus microbes. In a healthy gut, you have an 80:20 ratio of good to bad bacteria, with the good guys keeping the bad guys at bay, and stimulating your immune system to help fight them off.
Interesting new research on our gut bacteria is suggesting that the microbes in our digestive system can also influence our food cravings and impact our ability to lose weight. Rather than living passively on whatever nutrients we choose to consume, it appears that gut bacteria will release signaling molecules that alter our neural signals to trigger cravings for the specific nutrients they prefer, such as fat, or sugar.
Researchers have found a difference in the gut bacteria of overweight people and lean people; overweight individuals do not have the wide variety of bacterial species that lean people do. Experiments on mice suggest it is possible to prevent obesity when 54 strains of bacteria from lean mice are transferred to their obese counterparts.
Our natural balance of good to bad bacteria can be disrupted by a number of factors. Taking a round of antibiotics not only kills off harmful pathogens, it wipes out the friendly microbes in your body, as well. Without these good bacteria to stand guard, it becomes even easier for bad bacteria to take over in the future. An overgrowth of yeast of fungus in the body called Candidiasis can also disrupt your natural balance of microbes. Your diet can also disrupt your natural bacterial levels, particularly one high in fat and low in fiber.
The good news is that changing your diet to include foods that your friendly bacteria like can have a positive impact on the microbes living in your gut, and on your overall digestive system. While yogurt is probably the most well known of foods that contain “good” bacteria, or probiotics, there are many more options that are more potent and will provide even better results.
Here are ten foods that can help keep you, your gut microbes, and your digestive system happy and healthy.
Kefir is a fermented dairy product that is similar to yogurt. The name literally translates to “feeling good,” which is how you will feel after drinking it! Kefir contains beneficial yeasts as well as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains of probiotics. Kefir is very well tolerated, even by people with lactose intolerance, and there are also coconut varieties of kefir available as well.
Raw Milk Cheese
Cheeses that have been aged and made from raw milk may include cheddar, feta, Gouda provolone, Edam, brick, caciocavallo, Emmental and Gruyere. Raw milk cheese will not offer the same potent probiotic benefits as kefir or fermented (pickled) vegetables, but it is a tasty way to eat more cultured foods! Look for the words raw or cultured on the label.
Pickles, and pickled vegetables, are a delicious way to get more beneficial probiotics to support your healthy digestive system. Not all pickles offer the same benefits to your gut bacteria, however. The jars lining the shelves of your supermarkets have been most likely pickled with vinegar, instead of a salt brine. To get the full benefits of a cultured vegetable like pickles, search brine pickled veggies (which are most-likely in the refrigerator section of your local market), or brine your own at home.
A fermented food that originated in Germany, Sauerkraut, or “sour cabbage”, has more survivable probiotic cultures than an entire bottle of probiotic supplements, and twenty times more vitamin C than fresh cabbage.
Real sourdough bread, the kind that needs to be tended to and comes from a starter, is a delicious way to get more Lactobacillus strains of beneficial probiotics into your diet. Like pickles and pickled vegetables, you may have a hard time finding the genuine article on the shelves of your local store, but you can easily make sourdough bread at home with a little patience and with the help of a sourdough starter culture. Many people who can’t digest regular breads find that sourdough is easy to digest and improves digestive health.
Referred to as “Korean Ketchup,” Kimchi is a condiment made from fermented vegetables such as cabbage, radishes, and sometimes even sea vegetables. Kimchi carries a bit of heat from chili peppers, and is a great source of beneficial probiotics as well as nutrients such as iron, calcium, and vitamin A.
Tempeh is fermented soybeans and an excellent substitute for meat. Vegetarians and vegans often rely on tempeh as a protein source as it contains all essential amino acids. Anyone eating a plant-based diet and avoiding fermented dairy products, like yogurt or kefir, can get the same digestive system benefits from tempeh.
Garlic and leeks are considered prebiotics, food for the good bacteria in your gut. Garlic and leeks are high in a certain type of fiber called inulin. Diets high in inulin lead to increases in health-promoting bifidobacteria, which break down carbohydrates to short-chain fatty acids, and decrease the risk of digestive disorders.
Kombucha is become more and more popular, and can be found on the shelves of your local supermarket. A sweetened tea fermented with beneficial bacteria and yeast, kombucha tea is a sweet, tangy, and fizzy beverage to help digestive health.
Yacon is a tuber vegetable from South America that is related to jicama. Yacon is a potent source of a prebiotic fiber known as fructooligosaccharides, or FOS. FOS feeds and nourishes the friendly bacteria that are present in your digestive system. A study of overweight women who consumed Yacon syrup for four months resulted in a significant decrease in body weight, waist circumference and body mass index. Yacon syrup has a flavor like molasses, and it is a good substitute for sugar if you are trying to improve digestive health.