Several years ago, all of my hopes (and incidentally, my health) came crashing down when I was diagnosed with a parasite (named Entamoeba histolytica). I was exposed to it in Guatemala while I was traveling around the world and was bedridden for six months. Once I recovered, my only focus was to bring my devastated gut environment back to a healthy place.
Fortunately, all that time spent sick and in bed wasn’t for naught because after days, weeks, and months of research, I learned the keys to an optimal and vibrant gut: a balanced microbiome teeming with beneficial bacteria. I discovered that friendly flora—aka probiotics—are absolutely crucial to our digestion, nutrient absorption, metabolism, immune system, and even our emotional state. In fact, I started to understand that probiotics seem to play a role (either directly or indirectly) in nearly every bodily process.
Armed with and impassioned by my newfound knowledge and perspective, I was confident that I had the tools I needed to revamp my lifestyle, nurture my friendly flora, and truly live my healthiest days yet. Here's what I did to heal my gut:
First on the list? Remove anything from my life that could be working against the beneficial bacteria in my gut. I quickly learned that the probiotic-depleting checklist—given today’s modern lifestyles—was lengthy and that it would require dedication and patience. I started by cutting out everything in my diet that I knew would negatively affect my microbiome, including these top offenders:
- Processed foods
- Artificial sweeteners
- GMOs and pesticides
- Antibiotic- and hormone-laden fish, meats, and dairy
- Trans fats and unhealthy oils, like canola, soybean, and corn
- Grains, legumes, and unsprouted nuts
- Nonlocal fruits and vegetables (because produce picked before it’s ripe has high levels of lectin, an "antinutrient" that disrupts the balance of gut bacteria)
Overhauling my diet was one of the biggest challenges on my journey to gut health, but my lifestyle changes didn’t stop there. I made sure to clear my home and work environments of bacteria-depleting toxins, antibacterial cleaners, and chemical-loaded personal care products—all of which can have devastating effects on gut health. I also limited medications (like antibiotics, NSAIDs, hormone replacers, and steroids) that disrupt gut bacteria as much as possible.
In a healthy gut, around 85 percent of the bacteria are the good guys, and they stand guard against the bad guys (think viruses, harmful bacteria, and parasites) that we often encounter from the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Beneficial bacteria work to protect our gut barrier, which is the official "entrance" from the outside world into our internal environment. A gut barrier without probiotics is like a prison without guards, locks, or even doors; anything can get in or out. When probiotics are plentiful, on the other hand, they produce antimicrobial substances and acids that kill unfriendly microbes, increase antibody levels, strengthen and close gaps between gut barrier cells, and crowd out harmful invaders by competing for space.
First and foremost, I knew I needed to shift the balance of my microbiome in favor of the good guys. I took probiotic supplements (and eventually developed my own when I couldn’t find the quality probiotic I was looking for) and loaded up on fermented probiotic foods like sauerkraut, kimchee, kombucha, and kefir—all in an effort to replenish my gut with life-supporting bacteria. I also relied on homemade bone broth, high in glutamine, to help repair my gut lining, which—when gut health is compromised—can become "leaky," allowing all sorts of unnecessary and harmful particles to enter the bloodstream, ultimately leading to inflammation as the immune systems stages a response.
My research turned up some other critical information: For a thriving inner ecosystem it’s not enough to just remove probiotic detractors or even supplement with probiotics. To fully realize my gut and overall health potential, I needed to find a way to nourish my beneficial bacteria on a daily basis and restore my gut diversity to its optimal state. Enter the remarkable world of prebiotics. The beneficial bacteria in our gut feed on indigestible (at least to us) fibers in plant-based foods called prebiotics. Without enough of them in our diet, it's very difficult for the good guys to settle in and really thrive. In fact, the foods we eat cause major changes to our microbiome (both good and bad) in mere hours, so I committed to completely overhauling my diet so that it better served both me and my microbes.
In addition to continuing with the dietary changes mentioned previously, I drastically increased my daily intake of plant-based prebiotic foods and other yummy, nourishing gut-restoring staples, including:
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Leafy greens (the more bitter, the better)
- Berries of all sorts (for their polyphenols and antioxidants)
- Vegetable juices
- Healthy fats, like avocados and coconut oil
- Nutrient-dense foods like wild fish, shellfish, and organ meats
- Dark chocolate (Hint: Seek out the brands lowest in sugar.)
- Red wine (occasionally, of course!)
- Turmeric and other anti-inflammatory herbs
I’ve also come to realize that it’s nearly impossible to get as much fiber as we need in our diets for full microbial support. Case in point: Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who had incredibly diverse and healthy microbiomes, consumed nearly 100 grams of prebiotic-rich fiber per day, which is close to 10 times more than most "modern" humans are able to pack in! Now, in addition to making sure I eat plenty of plant-based prebiotics throughout my day, I also include a daily organic prebiotic powder that supports my microbiome by providing a consistent source of these specialized fibers. You see, the evidence for prebiotics is far from anecdotal—studies are showing that prebiotics are associated with some amazing health benefits, like improving mineral absorption, decreasing levels of cortisol (the "stress" hormone), helping with weight management, and boosting immune function.
To further support my microbial health, I also revived my favorite stress-reduction techniques like meditation and yoga and made it a point to prioritize spending more time in the microbe-rich outdoors and even seek out opportunities to play with animals and get my hands dirty (yes to gardening!). Though the changes were many and sometimes felt extreme, when I take a moment to step back from the pressures and norms of our modern world, they all feel incredibly intuitive. Even better, I am the healthiest I have ever been and now have the habits and tools to keep it that way.