Gut health and the role that it plays in all aspects of our lives is becoming a major area of scientific research.
It appears that what’s going on in our tummies affects far more than just our digestive system and bowel movements. We are starting to learn that an imbalance in the good and bad bacteria in our guts can contribute to all kinds of health problems, from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and heartburn, to autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and even cancers and mental health issues.
We are all different and we all have our own unique microbiome. Our microbiome is all the microbes that live both within us, and on us. Some of these microbes are beneficial, whilst others can make us unwell in various ways. When all is going well in our bodies, the relationships between the numerous bacteria, fungi and other microbes are largely symbiotic with them all living in mutually beneficial harmony.
When that harmony is disrupted, problems begin to surface and our health may start to deteriorate in some way.
So is it possible to improve gut health once it is out of kilter? Are there any gut health foods that we should include on our diets? Is there anything we should be avoiding? And are there any gut health supplements that we can take to help boost our healthy gut flora?
Gut Health – Prebiotics and Probiotics
There are 2 things that can really help to promote a healthy, functioning gut – prebiotics and probiotics.
Let’s take a look at them in reverse, as many of us are more familiar with probiotics.
These are either foods which naturally contain live bacteria beneficial to gut health, or supplements which add this good bacteria to our bodies in a capsule or powder form.
Many of us are aware the probiotic claims of some brands of yoghurt and the current influx of the fermented drink, kombucha, onto supermarket shelves. Similarly, there are very few pharmacies who don’t stock a fridge with a shelf of probiotics in neatly packaged bottles.
These are the food that the good bacteria – the probiotics – need to thrive.
Prebiotics are a type of fibre that we are not able to digest directly, but which our good gut bacteria love.
You can get prebiotics into you diet by eating lots of veggies, legumes and fruits, or by taking a prebiotic supplement.
Improving Gut Health
To improve gut health you need a decent dose of both prebiotics and probiotics.
Here are just 12 ways of doing this.
- Legumes – This is the rich and varied world of beans, pulses and peas. Common examples are chickpeas, lentils, broad beans and peas. See here to read more about legumes in all their glory.
- Bananas – Best eaten unripe (the greener the better) as then they are high in resistant starch which is an effective prebiotic.
- Onions – Apart from boosting the flavour of countless dishes, onions promote the growth of good microbes in your gut.
- Garlic – Prized for its antibacterial and antifungal attributes, garlic is great for keeping bad bacteria in check.
- Leeks – Also in the allium family, leeks have similar gut health enhancing properties to onions and garlic.
- Oats – My nan swore by a bowl of porridge oats for breakfast to ‘keep everything working as it should’, and it turns out she was right. The insoluble fibre in oats is excellent for your gut.
- Chicory Root & Dandelion Leaves – Members of the same family, these 2 are rich in inulin, a prebiotic fibre. So get into your garden and start harvesting those dandelion weeds!
- Asparagus – Versatile and delicious, the fibre in asparagus also promotes gut-friendly bacteria.
- Jerusalem Artichoke – Apart from impressive amounts of dietary fibre, did you know that these addictively nutty tubers are also a valuable source of iron?
- Wheat Bran – If you like to sprinkle a spoonful of bran onto your morning cereal for the ‘added fibre’ you are doing your gut a huge favour.
- Linseeds – I’m a big fan of linseeds, also known as flaxseeds. These nutrient-packed wonders may be small, but boy are they full of good stuff – including a useful quantity of insoluble fibre. Try adding some LSA Mix to your diet for its all-round benefits.
- Berries – Famously high in Vitamin C and a great source of antioxidant polyphenols, eating blueberries, like many other berries, is an easy way to get more prebiotic fibre into your system.
Fermentation in its many forms is a common theme to many of these foods and drinks:
- Yoghurt – Some yoghurts have been developed and are marketed specifically for their wealth of probiotic bacteria. However, not all yoghurts are created equal, so do your research before you head to the supermarket. And a quick tip, a doctor friend advised including some fibre with your bacteria-rich yoghurt so that the good microbes have something to latch on to as they pass through the gut and don’t just get flushed straight out before you reap their benefits.
- Kombucha – This is a tea which is fermented using gut-friendly bacteria and yeast, giving us a boost of helpful microbes when we consume it.
- Kefir – Another drink, it has yet to have mainstream success here in Australia, but is beginning to gain notice. Tasting rather like yoghurt, it is made when kefir grain is mixed with cow or goat milk, causing the milk to ferment and in doing so, packing it full of all lots of microbes that our guts love.
- Kimchi – I love kimchi and the fact that it is good for my gut is purely a bonus as far as I’m concerned. Punchy, spicy, and deeply savoury, it’s a great addition to dozens of dishes whilst bumping up the good stuff in your gut.
- Sauerkraut – Arguably the European cousin of Asian kimchi, this is a salty, sour dish of fermented cabbage, chock-full of probiotic bacteria.
- Miso – A fermented soybean paste and an adored ingredient in Japan, miso is rich in good bacteria and digestion-aiding enzymes.
- Natto – Still in Japan, this is a pungent, fermented soybean dish which is popular as a breakfast food. Whilst the smell and taste can be challenging if you haven’t grown up eating it, the gut health pluses are worth trying it as it is full of Bacilius subtilis bacteria.
- Tempeh – Continuing on to Indonesia, tempeh is another take on fermented soybean which provides a decent hit of healthy gut encouraging probiotics. Tempeh is also worth a mention as it contains Vitamin 12 which is rare in plant-based foods and so useful for vegans and strict vegetarians. Tempeh also has a positive effect on the bodies ability to absorb nutrients, making it a valuable addition to any diet.
- Pickles (Unpasteurised) – Many pickles and pickled vegetables are home to probiotic microbes which will transfer happily to your gut when eaten. The only issue here is pasteurisation, as this process is specifically designed to kill bacteria. Perhaps this might inspire you to make your own.
- Some Cheeses – The blue veins in a slab of ripe roquefort are teeming with gut strengthening flora. Again, try and find unpasteurised cheeses if you can – though historically, this has been hard in Australia.
Our awareness of gut health and how it affects all aspects of our well-being is still in its infancy, but it is becoming increasingly clear that eating a varied plant-based diet and reducing the amount of red meat and processed foods that we consume can only do us good.
Why not try some of the foods on the lists above and see if you feel any better for doing so?