By Dr. Sonali Ruder
Did you know that about 80% of your immune system is located in your digestive tract? Many people would probably be surprised by this fact. This complex community of trillions of microorganisms is called your gut microbiome. Not only do these important bacteria and other microbes help you maintain good gut health, they're also vital in maintaining your overall health and wellness. There are both good and bad microbes and it's the balance of the two that affects your overall immunity, your risk of developing chronic diseases, your mood, and even your weight.
So what do all of these microorganisms do exactly? They live in your gut, supporting your GI tract and immune system, helping to protect you from disease, and detoxifying your body. More and more research is even finding that there are many connections between the gut and the brain and that your gut health may influence your cognition, memory and even your mood. These powerful organisms act as a barrier to help prevent the overgrowth of bad bacteria. They also produce several essential nutrients such as Vitamin B12 and Vitamin K. Unfortunately, there are also some bad guys hanging out in your gut, who make you more susceptible to inflammation, chronic diseases, and even obesity. That's why maintaining a healthy balance in your gut is so important for your overall health.
The good news is that we can affect this balance of good and bad in our gut microbiome. Although a person's individual microbe population stays pretty consistent over time, certain factors like your age, lifestyle, and what you eat can change things. Diet is actually one of the best tools that we have for altering the balance of our microbiome. Recent studies even show that we can change the balance of microorganisms in as little as a few weeks!
What can you eat to make the good bacteria in your gut happy? First and foremost is fiber. Fiber helps keep things running smoothly through your intestinal tract, prevent constipation, keeps you feeling full, and helps prevent diseases like diabetes, heart disease and colon cancer. What's also interesting is that fiber significantly affects the bacteria in your gut. The good bacteria love fiber- it's like fuel for them, to keep them healthy and running properly. These microbes break down the fiber, extracting all of its energy and nutrients, and produce something called short chain fatty acids. These short-chain fatty acids help keep our intestinal lining strong and healthy and have been linked to decreased inflammation, improved immunity and improved weight management.
What happens when you don't eat enough fiber? When the microbes are starved of fiber, they start to feed on other things like the protective lining of your gut. This lining is supposed to be a strong barrier between your intestines and the rest of your body and when it becomes leaky, it can trigger inflammation. This "leaky gut" may play a role in the development of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
What else can you eat to improve your gut biome and keep you healthy? Here are some tips:
- Limit the amount of processed foods and sugar in your diet: Refined foods get absorbed rapidly in the intestine and leave your gut microbes starved, setting you up for leaky gut and inflammation. Instead, focus on eating fresh, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables and other fiber-rich foods like whole grains and pulses (dry peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas). These foods will keep your gut bacteria happy because they're full of fiber and they also boast plenty of antioxidants and essential vitamins and minerals.
- Eat more fermented foods: Fermented foods are rich in lactic-acid producing bacteria that help acidify your intestinal tract. This creates an environment that healthy bacteria thrive in, which aids in digestion, tames inflammation and boosts your immune system. Sauerkraut, which is made from cabbage, is a fermented food that you're probably familiar with but here are a few more examples that you may not be as familiar with. Kimchi is a spicy Korean dish made with fermented cabbage and spices. Miso is a paste used in Japanese cuisine that's made from fermented soybeans. Kombucha is a fermented drink that's become very popular recently. It's a fizzy drink made by mixing probiotic-rich bacteria and yeast with tea and other flavorings.
- Enjoy Greek yogurt and kefir: Greek yogurt and kefir are packed with probiotics. These live active bacterial cultures help aid with digestion, boost your immunity and keep your gut happy by keeping the bad bacteria at bay. These nutritious foods are also rich in important nutrients like protein and calcium. The FDA requires at least two strains of bacteria in all yogurts. Kefir, which is a liquid yogurt with a tangy flavor, is cultured longer than yogurt and can contain as many as 12 strains of good bacteria. Look for the words "live active cultures" on the container and choose varieties without too much added sugar.
Sonali Ruder, DO is a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician, trained chef, mom, and cookbook author. She is a graduate of Brown University, Midwestern University- Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, and the Institute of Culinary Education. Dr. Ruder is a contributing writer, recipe developer, and health and wellness expert for several national magazines, cookbooks, and websites. She is the founder of The Foodie Physician website and the author of several cookbooks including the "Natural Pregnancy Cookbook" and "Natural Baby Food". http://www.thefoodiephysician.com/ Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com.