As a nutritionist, I always consider the health of the gut and microbiome when working with clients. Those friendly bugs living in our guts have a fundamental impact on health and disease—and they deserve our attention.
Healthy cohabitant microbes can be beneficial for a number of reasons:
- They can decrease the risk for diseases such as diabetes, allergies, asthma, and some autoimmune conditions.
- They help us maintain a healthy weight and a happy mood.
- They help digest our food to extract nutrients and produce a number of vitamins, including vitamin K and folate.
- They limit "bad bugs" that can make us sick, by literally crowding them out.
- They help maintain a healthy gut so that we only absorb what we’re meant to.
So how can you support your gut microbiome to reap these great benefits? The best way is to cultivate it a little every day, much like you would tend to a garden. Plant something new, fertilize a bit here, prune a little there ... you get the idea.
Follow these three concepts to build yourself a very happy gut microbiome:
1. Eat probiotic foods every day.
This is the "plant something new" part. Traditional cultures have long incorporated small amounts of probiotic foods into their daily diet, even in some cases with every meal.
Probiotic foods are those that have been fermented and allowed to grow these helpful bugs, such as yogurt; kefir; sauerkraut; kimchee; miso; natto; and pickled fish, meats, and eggs. Since probiotics are easily damaged by heat and processing, look for good-quality sources in the refrigerator section that contain live bacteria.
2. Eat prebiotic foods.
Now we're talking about "fertilizing" the garden. Prebiotics are essentially food for the probiotic bacteria—everything they need to eat and thrive.
These are generally carbohydrates that are especially rich in substances like inulin, arabinogalactans, and fructooligosaccharides. You don’t need to put those terms on your shopping list, though—just choose onions, garlic, asparagus, jicama, or Jerusalem artichokes to help keep those gut bugs well fed and happy.
3. Don’t eat late at night.
I call this "pruning a little." I recommend a daily mini-fast from 7 p.m. until your breakfast the next day to allow a little bit of your microbiome to "die off" each time. This is equivalent to trimming your microbiome so that it can continue to grow with the healthy probiotic bacteria that you'll be adding and nourishing.
You'll also want to include plenty of foods that have natural antimicrobial properties, especially herbs and spices such as garlic, ginger, and rosemary, and also coconut oil. And it’s really important to steer clear of (or minimize) foods that can harm your healthy gut bacteria and promote the growth of harmful microbes—including sugar, refined carbohydrates, food additives, pesticide-containing foods, and alcohol.
Finally, if you happen to notice that you feel worse after probiotic or prebiotic foods, you may have excessive levels of gut bacteria (a condition called small intestine bacterial overgrowth). In that case, it’s time to check in with your holistic practitioner for guidance.