10 Ways To Naturally Increase Good Bacteria In Your Gut, According To Experts
Your gut is home to hundreds of trillions (yes, trillions) of different bacteria, and feeling your best relies on a delicate balance of good to bad. If you don't have enough good bacteria, the bad microbes are left to their own devices and can begin to shift the balance or, worse yet, dominate. When this happens, one of the best ways to restore balance is increasing the good bacteria in your gut. Here are 10 ways you can do that naturally:
Eat a variety of foods.
Diet diversity, or the variety of foods you eat, plays a huge role in the number of good bacteria in your gut. One of the best things you can do for your gut is get out of your dietary comfort zone and eat a wider variety of foods, from all different food groups.
The TL;DR? The more diverse your diet is, the more diverse your gut microbiome will be. Try to switch up the types of foods you eat weekly.
Make plants a priority.
When thinking about diet diversity, you also want to consider the amount of plant foods you're eating. Plants contain fibers (including prebiotic fibers), phytochemicals, and an array of macro- and micronutrients. All of these support a healthy balance in your gut by feeding good bacteria, starving out bad bacteria, and delivering antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits to the gut and beyond1.
Cruciferous vegetables2 like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, specifically, have unique compounds called glucosinolates that are metabolized by bacteria and promote the growth and balance of good bacteria in your gut.
Pay attention to volume (eating more plants in general), as well as the variety (again, eating different types of plants regularly). Don't get into a rut where you only eat broccoli and sweet potatoes.
Add fermented foods.
Fermented foods are made with the help of bacteria and yeasts. The bacteria and yeast break the food down, creating more good bacteria, boosting the bioavailability of nutrients3, and reducing anti-nutrients, or compounds that can interfere with adequate absorption of vitamins and minerals.
"These probiotic-rich foods help crowd out unfavorable bacteria or yeast," says board-certified internist Vincent M. Pedre, M.D., and including them in your diet can help support gut balance. Just 2 tablespoons of sauerkraut contain 1 million colony-forming units (or CFUs) of good bacteria, and not only that: A study published in PLOS One4 found that fermented foods like sauerkraut are resistant to lower pH, like stomach acid, so they are able to successfully make the journey from your mouth, through your stomach, and into your small intestine where they colonize and grow.
Here are some fermented foods you can try:
Take a science-backed probiotic.
In addition to eating fermented foods, supplementing with a science-backed probiotic can also elevate your gut microbiome.* Probiotic supplements contain live bacteria that get deposited in your small intestine where they can colonize and grow, boosting your overall number of good bacteria and a host of GI functions.*
There are a lot of probiotic supplements out there, but you need to find one that actually works. Pedre recommends selecting a probiotic that has multiple strains and 5 to 100 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) per dose. To be clear, more isn't more necessarily. The dose of each strain should be informed by clinical science.
It doesn't matter if the probiotic is refrigerated or not (unless the product specifies that it requires refrigeration), but the probiotic you choose should have undergone quality testing to make sure the claims match what's actually in the bottle.
Psst: mindbodygreen's probiotic+ checks all of these boxes.
Have plenty of fiber-rich foods.
When you bump up your plant intake, you'll naturally increase the amount of fiber you're eating, but make it a point to include plenty of high-fiber foods, like beans, chia seeds, flaxseeds, lentils, berries, and psyllium, into your day.
Fiber, especially prebiotic fiber, feeds your gut bacteria, and when it's metabolized, short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are produced in the process. According to gastroenterologist and gut health expert Will Bulsiewicz, M.D., MSCI, SCFAs balance your gut (increase good bacteria while pushing out bad), support your immune system, lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar, and improve brain function. "They are the currency of gut health," he says. "And we get them exclusively from prebiotic fiber."
Heads up: If your diet is low in fiber now, it's a good idea to slowly introduce high-fiber foods over a period of a couple of weeks. This gives your gut time to adjust to the change. If you eat too much fiber too quickly, it can cause gas buildup that leads to uncomfortable issues like bloating, stomach discomfort, and flatulence.
Eat foods with polyphenols.
Polyphenols are naturally occurring plant compounds that are loaded with antioxidants and have huge implications for your gut health. Research1 shows that polyphenols, like those that come from fruits, vegetables, tea, dark chocolate and wine (don't overdo it on these two in the name of gut health, though) increase the amount of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus bacteria in your gut. These specific bacteria lay down their "roots" in your gut and have a number of other health benefits from better digestion to more radiant skin.*
Some polyphenol-rich foods (and drinks) include:
- Vegetables (artichoke, chicory, and spinach)
- Black and green tea
Watch your sugar intake.
When it comes to maintaining gut balance, Vincent Pedre dubs sugar the worst offender. "Sugar wreaks havoc in your gut5, and research shows it feeds the bad bugs and creates unbalance," says Pedre. He advises avoiding all kinds of added sugar as much as possible. Pay extra close attention to packaged items that often have hidden sugars, and liquid forms.
Get enough quality sleep.
Sleep may seem like a passive activity, but it's really a restorative period that has huge implications for your gut health. Research shows that a lack of sleep contributes to stress, which can lead to an imbalance of good and bad bacteria. On the flip side, getting enough sleep (around seven to nine hours for adults6) can help you manage the physical effects of stress, promoting healthy gut balance.
A healthy gut is also associated with better sleep quality7. In other words, the more you do to increase the good bacteria in your gut, the better you may sleep.
If you have trouble sleeping, there are plenty of things you can do, like sticking to a sleep routine, avoiding blue light, and ditching the caffeine, to improve your sleep quality.
Try to manage stress.
Managing stress is one of the most important things you can do for your gut health (and your health, in general). In its acute stages, stress can cause digestive upset (bubble guts, anyone?), queasiness, and worse, but over time it can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, decreasing the good and giving the bad an opportunity to thrive.
While you'll never be able to get rid of stress completely, try to manage it through daily meditation, yoga, exercise, journaling, avoiding overworking, and engaging in activities that truly bring you joy.
Move your body.
Exercise is a no-brainer. You get physical benefits, like more strength and better flexibility—plus emotional benefits, like a boost in mood, better sleep, and greater self-esteem, thanks to the endorphins it produces.
But exercise also supports the number of good bacteria in your gut and contributes to bacterial diversity (or the number of strains).
Aim for 2.5 to five hours of exercise per week, and try to incorporate physical activity into your everyday routine, too. Take the stairs, walk the dog, dance while you cook. Fitness doesn't always have to be a structured workout.
The bottom line.
Your health is dependent on having plenty—we're talking trillions—of good bacteria in your gut. While today's lifestyle, filled with little sleep and lots of stress, can make it challenging to support a thriving gut microbiome, there are lots of ways to naturally increase the good bacteria in your gut. Focus on diet diversity, increase the amount of high-fiber plants you eat, manage your stress levels, and regularly move your body. And don't forget your daily probiotic.*
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.