Gut health is far from a straightforward topic. Most people have little to no idea of the impact an unhealthy GI tract can have on overall well-being. The good news is that we're learning more and more about the steps we can take to improve gut health.
We each have a unique bacterial population that lives within us and on the skin's surface — as a whole, this is referred to as our “microbiome.”
The microbiome is composed of trillions of bacteria, and plays a major role in many aspects of our health. Recent research is finding that our microbial population affects a wide range of health conditions, including: obesity, Crohn's, colitis, depression, anxiety, asthma and allergies.
The state of our microbiome also contributes to the ability to properly digest and absorb the nutrients from the food we eat. Since gut health can affect such a broad range of conditions, it has rightfully gained the attention of the scientific community and the public as of late.
The symptoms of poor gut health are difficult to pinpoint, since nearly every health condition has been linked to it at one point or another. We all have unique bacterial populations in our GI tract, and for that reason, it can be difficult to predict which foods will improve gut health for us individually. Below is a list of foods found to contribute to a healthy GI, but as always, be sure to find the foods that work best for you.
Fermented foods are full of healthy, living bacteria that contribute to our microbiome. Kefir, a fermented and slightly carbonated dairy beverage, can contribute to improved gut health by delivering good bacteria and also helping the synthesis of vitamins B12 and K. Even if you have difficulty digesting the lactose in milk, you may be able to tolerate kefir.
Another fermented food, sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) acts as a vehicle to deliver health-promoting probiotic bacteria to the GI tract. Be sure to look for freshly made sauerkraut (it will be in the refrigerated section) and not canned — the pasteurization process that canned sauerkraut endures kills off much of its beneficial bacteria.
This traditional Korean condiment of spicy fermented cabbage and various add-ins can also contribute to improved gut health. It contains healthy bacteria and current research is showing a promising connection between the bacteria found in Kimchee and improved immunity.
Black tea fermented by a symbiotic mixture of bacteria, fizzy kombucha is becoming one of the most popular fermented foods in the American diet. In addition to beneficial probiotics, kombucha drinkers also benefit from the antioxidants found within the drink's tea base.
5. Whole oranges
The soluble fiber found in oranges is fermented by our gut bacteria and one of the byproducts is a fatty acid called butyrate. Butyrate is the preferred fuel source for the cells that line our GI tract and thus helps fuel a healthy gut. Remember, you must eat the whole fruit to reap this benefit since the soluble fiber is found mostly in the membranes that divide the segments of the orange.
6. Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes)
Jerusalem artichokes are especially high in inulin, an indigestible fiber that feeds our gut bacteria. Like the fiber in oranges, inulin is also fermented in the colon and a butyrate is formed as a byproduct of this fermentation. Butyrate has been shown to improve the health of the intestinal barrier and also have anti-inflammatory effects.
Butter is a source of naturally occurring butyrate in our diets (versus that which forms as a byproduct of fermentation in our large intestine). Food sources of butyrate may also enhance intestinal barrier function and improve overall gut health. Remember to look for butter from grass-fed cows.
Garlic can act as a prebiotic, or a food source for our healthy gut bacteria. However, those with IBS might want to avoid garlic, as it is also high in fructans, a type of carbohydrate that some have difficulty digesting.
Lentils can contribute to our gut health in a few different ways. Lentils contain soluble fiber, which is fermented in our colon. Lentils are also a source of prebiotics that feed our existing beneficial gut bacteria.
10. Dark chocolate
Great news! The bacteria within our GI tract can efficiently ferment chocolate and even produce anti-inflammatory byproducts. These fermentation byproducts have been found to benefit both a health gut and also a healthy heart. Look for dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao content.