We talk a lot around here about the importance of a healthy gut—it affects everything from anxiety to bloat to energy levels to acne. We reached out to some of the best functional medicine doctors in the country to find exactly what foods to eat daily for optimal gut health. Here's what they said.
My favorite is ground flaxseed. Ground flaxseed is high in fiber, both soluble (dissolves in liquid to become "gooey") and insoluble (provides bulk), which helps bind and eliminate toxins through regular bowel movements. It's oils like omega-3 fatty acids further provide a coat to the GI tract that enables food to easily travel through. In addition to gut health, they contain constituents called lignans that help protect against certain types of cancers (e.g., breast, colon, prostate), heart disease, and hormone imbalances.
Cauliflower, collard greens, kale & broccoli
The chemical reactions that occur in these vegetables act like "glow sticks." These cruciferous vegetables have a chemicals and an enzymes in their cells that when chewed, chopped, or blasted in a personal blender leads to the creation of sulforaphane, an amazing natural chemical that induces powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the body. If you are cooking cruciferous foods, you should chop them and let them sit for 20 to 30 minutes (chop and wait) to let the chemical reaction complete. If you rush to cook them at very high temperatures, the enzyme is destroyed before the "glow" reactions occur and you will miss out on the cruciferous advantage.
Apple Cider Vinegar + Plantains
I'm going with apple cider vinegar and plantains. It's all about the combination of fermented foods plus starchy tubers—that's the one-two punch that effectively builds a healthy gut flora. Fermented foods provide the beneficial bacteria, and starchy tubers allow those bacteria to survive in your gut. Lately I'm getting a lot of my patients onto apple cider vinegar as a source of beneficial bacteria. For folks with SIBO, probiotics can sometimes exacerbate their symptoms, and for patients with candida overgrowth, fermented foods can sometimes aggravate their condition. Apple cider vinegar seems well-tolerated by both. For starchy tubers, I'm into plantains these days. When I talk to patients about switching their carbohydrate consumption over from refined grains to starchy tubers, I often hear "uggh." First, they often think I'm telling them to eat low-carb. Nope, not at all. Most people, especially women, do well with carbohydrates in their diet. I just want them to eat carbohydrates that feed their beneficial bacteria and don't spike their insulin. Go buy some plantains, allow them to ripen until they're a bit brown, cut off the peel, slice, pan fry in expeller-pressed coconut oil and ghee, and sprinkle with cinnamon. Once you've tried this, you'll realize that eating for gut health is delicious.
I believe the best food for gut health is bone broth. Bone broth is one of the best natural sources of collagen, a protein that's needed to form tissue that makes up the lining of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Collagen protects and soothes the lining of the digestive tract and can aid in healing leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel symptoms, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis. It has been shown1 that patients with IBD produce less collagen in their digestive systems.
Increased collagen consumption will help strengthen and normalize mucus membranes on the intestinal lining and close tight junctions (the space in between the cell that line the gut-enterocytes). This will also prevent undigested food particles and chemicals from leaking out of the gut into the bloodstream. When collagen breaks down, gelatin is formed. This is known to help people dealing with food allergies and sensitivities to foods, such as cow’s milk and gluten. Gelatin in bone broths contains amino acids such as arginine, glycine, glutamine, and proline, which have anti-aging effects.
—Evan Hirsch, M.D.
I would have to pick bone broth. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it's long been thought that the marrow and bones contain vital nutrients for healing, which now we've identified as collagen and iron. Even a few spoonfuls a day can help to heal the gut lining, restoring digestive health.
Garlic has so many benefits for the gut. The most important is that it can be used as a fungicidal food, or candida killer. Overgrowth of candida in the gut is a huge source of bloating, flatulence, constipation, and even skin breakouts. Garlic also acts as a prebiotic, or food that can potentiate more of the good gut bacteria. This prevents future candida growth and maintains a healthy balance of gut microbes.
There are so many foods we could talk about that create a healthy, happy gut. Cultured foods, fermented vegetables, bone broth, and microbiome-boosting plant fibers. The one I'm choosing is a little-known, but important prebiotic food—the Jerusalem artichoke. A prebiotic food contains nondigestible carbohydrates (we normally call these fibers), that go through your small intestine without getting digested, so they can reach your microbiome-rich colon and feed the good bacteria in your gut. Don't confuse Jerusalem artichoke with its unrelated plant name twin—the large, green, globe-like artichoke. The only thing they share in common is the flavor of the "heart" of the artichoke. In fact, it looks more like a ginger root. Also known as the sunchoke or sunroot, Jerusalem artichoke is about 31 percent fiber by weight, much of which is inulin, a key microbiome-balancing prebiotic. Most people are getting less than half the amount of daily fiber they should be eating, so adding fiber-rich foods to your meals is an important step in creating a healthy gut environment.
You can add sunchoke chopped raw in a salad or boil, roast, or sauté it into the consistency of a creamy potato, without the sugar impact a potato has. You can also use it to thicken soups. It is a versatile vegetable that is often overlooked as a gut-healing nutrient. Whenever increasing prebiotic foods, do so slowly, as too much too quickly can lead to uncomfortable gas as your happy gut flora ferment the plant fibers. For your health and comfort, you want to make your microbiome happy but not too happy. Enjoy!
Sauerkraut, kimchi & pickled vegetables
Fermented foods continue to be my favorite food for gut health. Fermentation has been used as a means of preserving foods since before refrigeration was available, and it is wonderful to see that these foods have been making quite a comeback over the past few years. Fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickled vegetables are loaded with the beneficial bacteria that support the health and balance of the microbiome, which is the epicenter of our health and essential to proper immune function.
The best food for gut health is unequivocally fiber. Both from the Ayurvedic perspective and the Western perspective, eating fibrous, whole foods keeps the gut healthy and vibrant. In current modern medicine, this is called prebiotics. Vegetables are especially rich in prebiotics, which is not surprising. Foods like asparagus, onions, garlic, artichoke, chicory root, dandelion greens, and cruciferous vegetables are great sources!
Note: If you are someone who suffers from very severe constipation, gas, or stomach pains, you may not be ready to add copious amounts of prebiotics, especially things like raw garlic and onions. Prebiotics are meant to feed the good bacteria already present in your lower gut; however, if your gut is very inflamed, it can flare up your GI symptoms.
Liz Moody is an author, blogger and recipe developer living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated with a creative writing and psychology degree from The University of California, Berkeley. Moody has written two cookbooks: Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships and Glow Pops: Super-Easy Superfood Recipes to Help You Look and Feel Your Best. She also hosts the Healthier Together Podcast, where she chats with notable chefs, nutritionists, and best-selling authors about their paths to success. Her work has been featured in Vogue, Glamour, Food & Wine & Women’s Health.