Ways To Improve Gut Health
Designed by @freepic.diller
We can be struck by these digestive problems at any time of our lives. Fortunately, even if it is acute and debilitating, it can usually be remedied with the right lifestyle and a proper diet. These symptoms are most commonly caused by dysbiosis (an imbalance of good and bad bacteria), insufficient production of digestive enzymes, a leaky gut (cell linings lose their ability to stick together allowing toxins to enter our body), allergies and intolerances.
We know how crucial our microbiome is for digestive health and getting rid of toxins in our system but it is beyond that. The gut biome is a rich ecosystem that performs a variety of functions in our bodies. As new research comes to light, we learn that the microbes in our gut don’t just help us digest food, they also influence our weight, how much food is extracted from what we eat, control hunger signals, regulates our immune system, influence our cravings and even influence our mood (1).
Break down food the body cannot digest
Producing vitamins and nutrients such as vitamin K, folate and short-chain fatty acids
Regulate the immune system
Chemical messengers that affect emotional health
Determines body weight
There are around 100 trillion bacteria in your body, most of which are in your intestines (2). Your overall health is just as much determined by these bacteria as by your own body cells. So, what influences our gut health?
Many factors affect our microbiomes, including our environment, medications like antibiotics, and even whether we were delivered by C-section or not. Diet, as well as your lifestyle, are emerging as the leading influences on the health of our guts. While we cannot control all these factors, we can manipulate the balance of our microbes by paying attention to what we do and eat (3).
Below are 12 science-based facts to get your gut health back into balance without resorting to any medications.
1. Stop drinking
Alcohol is all around us and it can be a challenge to quit. However, there are several reasons why you should quit. In the pancreas, alcohol decreases the secretion of digestive enzymes important for digesting food and hence, stops you from properly absorbing vital nutrients (4). Diarrhoea is also frequently seen in alcoholics as it may impair the muscle movement in the intestines. The muscles contract more frequently, pushing stool out faster than normal which does not allow it to absorb the extra water. In addition, alcohol also has the potential to perturb the intestinal microbiota and increase intestinal permeability leading to a leaky gut (5, 6).
2. Eat before you drink
Well, if you really insist on that drink, remember to eat before you drink. Drinking on an empty stomach irritates the stomach lining and induces inflammation (7). Overindulgence of alcohol can also lead to the development of gastritis or other stomach problems (8).
Instead, you should eat something fatty so that it lines your stomach acting as a physical barrier. It keeps the pyloric sphincter, the valve connecting to the small intestine, closed in order for the food to remain in the stomach for digestion. A fatty meal can result in the pyloric sphincter to remain closed for up to six hours. Protein and carbohydrates will pass through more quickly, with the latter passing the quickest amongst all (9).
In order to have a healthy gut, you need to have a diverse microbiota to help you fight off infections. Unfortunately, most of the diversity in our diet has been lost with the Western diet. Our gut species are declining as we live on such a narrow range of foods. 75% of the world's food comes from just 12 plants and 5 animal species (10). The more variety of plants (eat more colours!) you eat, the more diverse your microbiome.
3. Eat a diverse diet
4. Avoid antibiotics and medications
Antibiotics and other medicines which are now overprescribed by doctors can actually injure the gut lining and interfere with digestion and absorption (11). While antibiotics do kill the bad bacteria, it also destroys the beneficial ones protecting you from harmful substances. This disrupts your ecosystem resulting in dysbiosis and leading you to become susceptible to an overgrowth of other organisms (12). Hence, you should avoid antibiotics where possible and avoid eating animals that are raised with antibiotics. Instead, go for certified organic, antibiotic free produce. Even after just a course of antibiotics, it can take months or even years for your gut microbiota to regenerate (13, 14). However, where antibiotics are necessary during infections, remember to supplement with some beneficial bacteria, probiotics.
NSAIDs – Aspirin, Ibuprofen
Steroids - Contraceptive Pill
5. Avoid processed foods
Emulsifiers, commonly added to processed foods such as ice cream, ready meals, and sauces to extend shelf-life reduces microbial richness and increase gut inflammation. Two common types of emulsifiers, carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC) and polysorbate-80, were also shown to promote the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in mice. In fact, the mucous cells lining the intestinal cells become infested with inflammation-promoting bacteria resulting in a thinner mucosal barrier (15).
Processed foods high in sugar, trans-fats, hydrogenated fats, artificial sweeteners, chemicals and low in fibre is a major cause of dysbiosis (unbalanced microbiome) (16). In one experiment, a college student consumed 10 consecutive days of McDonald’s and astonishingly, reduced 40% of his bacteria species (amounting to 1400 different types) in such a short period (17).
Do your gut a favour and replace these processed foods with whole foods to support a healthy microbiome. At the end of the article, there will be a list of foods that you should eat.
6. Drink in moderation
Generally speaking, you should abstain from alcohol consumption but some studies have shown where people who have at least one alcoholic drink a week have a more diverse microbiome – that is red wine specifically. It has been suggested that the polyphenol present in red wine support the growth of gut microbiota (18). In another study, chronic red wine consumption actually increases Bifidobacterium which is known to reduce gut permeability (19). This does not mean you should binge on red wine and instead moderate consumption of red wine could be beneficial for your gut health.
Alcohol guide here
7. Open a window and get dirty
Nowadays we spend more time indoors than we used to. The air quality indoors matters too! In a study, researchers have found that by opening windows, it can improve the diversity and benefit our microbes (20). In addition, getting your hands dirty with gardening can introduce your immune system to trillions of microorganisms in the ground leading to a healthy gut.
8. Don't be a clean freak
Interestingly enough, an obsession with cleanliness can actually ruin our gut health. Antimicrobial products such as soaps, detergents, toothpaste, mouthwashes are used on a daily basis indiscriminately kills bacteria disrupting our bacterial community. The FDA reports that antibacterial soaps are no better than plain soap and water in terms of cleanliness or illness prevention. Instead, the antibacterial soap contains ingredients that carry risks (21). Nowadays, we are overly concerned with germs and sanitation. Instead of using antibacterial chemicals, we could make our own products or stick to using plain soap.
9. Natural birth over C-section
Our microbiota originates primarily in the maternal birth canal and rectum. Natural birth allows the child to be in contact with the mother’s faeces and fluids. These are then swallowed by the newborn allowing desired bacteria to colonise the gut. Children conceived by C-section does not encounter the bacteria from the mother and instead, bacteria from the skin and hospital quickly populate the gut. Hence, the bacteria inhabiting the gut can differ from each delivery method (22, 23).
Studies have shown caesarean section was associated with an increased risk of asthma and eczema and were more likely to become obese later in life (24. 25).
Breastfeeding also helps a newborn develop a healthy and diverse microbiome. Breastmilk is packed with essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, hormones and of course, our friendly bacteria. Babies get around 75% of their gut bacteria from breast milk during the first month of life. With breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact also transfers bacteria from the mother to the baby. A further of 10% of the bacteria comes from the skin around the nipple (26).
10. Breastfeeding is important
Therefore, babies born C-section and are not breastfed begins at a huge disadvantage when it comes to establishing their microflora (27).
11. Tackle microbial overgrowths (dysbiosis) with microbial agents
Gut dysbiosis occurs when the eco-balance between the types of gut microbes becomes disrupted (28). Antimicrobial agents that have been used for medicinal purposes such as cloves, oregano (oregano oil), liquorice, turmeric, olive oil and coconut oil after each meal can provide powerful anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties to eradicate certain troublesome parasites (28).
Here’s a detailed list of herbs and spices.
12. Get better sleep and reduce stress
Sleep disturbances and irregular sleeping patterns can negatively impact our intestinal microbiota (29). Lack of sleep may have harmful effects on gut bacteria. In one study, by comparing those who slept around 8 hours and those only 4 hours on two consecutive nights, the microbiota had subtle changes. Bacteria associated with weight gain, obesity and type 2 diabetes had increased in those who were sleep deprived (30). Therefore, you should establish a healthy night time routine and get enough rest to ensure a healthy gut.
In addition, there is a strong link between high stress and poor gut health. Stress can affect gut motility, gastric secretion, blood flow and have negative effects on intestinal microbiota (31). Cortisol, the stress hormone may play a role in this by increasing gut permeability and cause leaky gut in the long term (32, 33). While stress is unavoidable in our daily hectic lives, we can manage it by incorporating several stress reduction techniques such as meditation and exercise.
Great foods for your gut
Probiotics and prebiotics
Eat foods like yoghurt, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, and kombucha that are cultured to contain healthy bacteria or probiotic supplements containing Lactobacillus acidophilus/casei, Bifidobacteria and Saccharomyces boulardii.
It is important to note that not all yoghurts are good for us though. Some contain too much sugar and not enough bacteria so check your labels!
Note that evidence shows that probiotics only works for some people whereas is seen ineffective in others. You can give it a go for 4 weeks and see if it helps you as probiotic supplements can be quite expensive.
More information on prebiotics.
Stocks and bone broths
Homemade stocks and bone broths made with the bones of chicken, turkey or red meat are excellent sources of gelatine, collagen, glucosamine, amino acids (proline, arginine, glycine) and minerals (calcium, magnesium and phosphorus). Gelatine and glucosamine are restorative nutrients for the gut lining (34, 35). Adding some vinegar during cooking helps leach some of the stored minerals.
bone marrow, meaty bones, celery stalks, carrots, onions, parsley
*Note that pre-packaged broths rely on artificial flavours and MSG and should be avoided.
Foods containing enzymes
Fresh pineapples contain bromelain and papaya contain papain which are both proteolytic enzymes that can help to break down food in the gut. Both pineapples and papayas known for its anti-inflammatory properties are believed to relieve a variety of gastrointestinal complaints (36).
Add some sourness to your food
Small amounts of emon and lime juice, vinegar, apple cider vinegar could help with indigestion. The acidity due to high levels of acetic acid can break down proteins and give your gut a helping hand.
Pectin found in lemons is a form of soluble fibre which also acts as a prebiotic that feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut (37). It is also commonly used to treat constipation and diarrhoea (38). Try drinking freshly squeezed lemon juice with pulp - remember to dilute it!
Apple cider vinegar can be good for the stomach as well as for regulating blood sugar and cholesterol levels (39, 40). You can take a teaspoon of diluted apple cider vinegar with water before meals to increase your absorption of essential nutrients.
Polyphenols are found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, cereals, tea, coffee and wine (41). These are antioxidants that can change the gut microbial composition, helping some bacterial groups thrive (42).
Zinc found in oysters, beef, liver, lamb and amaranth is vital for producing stomach acid and digestive enzymes (43). This ensures your meal is fully broken down and absorbed. Zinc also plays a role in tightening up the epithelial junctions in your gut and thereby, preventing a leaky gut (44, 45).
Eat your bitters
Bitter foods not only can curb your appetite and moderate blood sugar but also stimulate the liver to produce bile. This improves digestion of food and proper absorption of nutrients (46).
This includes chicory (endive), dandelion greens, kale, spinach, radicchio, swiss chards, watercress, dandelion and rocket (arugula).
And, of course, fibre
Dietary fibre from foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains enabling your good bacteria to flourish inside your intestines. Boosting fibre intake is not only good for the guts but for the heart and your waistline as well. Eating fibre boosts butyrate levels which help in lowering inflammation, maintaining gut lining and preventing a leaky gut (47).
Additional List: olive oil, oily fish, seaweed, cocoa, turmeric, garlic, shallots, leeks, white onions, eggplant, Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus, barley, flax seeds.