Our bodies are home to trillions of bacteria referred to as our microbiome, with the highest concentration of bacteria living in our gut. These microbes benefit us in many ways. They control our hormones, regulate our digestion, help boost our immune system and extract key nutrients and essential vitamins from the foods we eat.
It appears that our microbiome has more of an influence on our overall health and wellbeing than previously thought, and something we will hear lots more about over the next few years.
There are some really easy ways to improve your gut health, such as chewing your food properly (digestion starts in the mouth and chewing foods helps notify your body of whats going on), getting a good nights sleep, not getting too stressed and listening to your gut (have you got that gut feeling?). There are also certain foods you can eat and some that you can try to cut down on.
I’ve put together my top 7 tips on how to improve your gut health:
1. Eat prebiotic foods
Fibre in any form is good for our gut bacteria, but some types are better than others and these are known as prebiotics. Our bodies can’t digest these fibres, so they travel down through our gut and help boost the growth of good bacteria. One of the things these bacteria do is convert the fibre into a short chain fatty acid called butyrate, which has been shown to help reduce inflammation.
One very good source of prebiotics is inulin, which is found in lots of different plants but is only found in high concentrations in foods such as :
• Dandelion greens
• Jerusalem artichokes
Other good sources of fibre include resistant starch (which you can find in grains, seeds and legumes) oats, flaxseeds, apples and seaweed.
2. Eat probiotics foods
Probiotics are live bacteria which make it to your colon intact and populate it with good bacteria. There are many probiotic supplements you can buy but I would recommend eating probiotic rich foods instead.
Yogurt is made by using thousands of bacteria to ferment and thicken it, and is therefore a great source of probiotics. Fermenting actually helps break down the lactose, so it contains much less lactose than milk and can therefore sometimes be enjoyed by those that are lactose-intolerant. Learn more about the benefits of dairy in our dairy article .
Some cheeses also contain live bacteria such as:
• Cottage cheese
• Blue cheese
Cheese has a low acidity and high fat content which preserves and nurtures the bacteria whilst they move through your digestive tract.
3. Eat fermented foods
Fermented foods have been created by microbes (bacteria or yeast) and often the unique flavours and textures you get with different foods are due to the different species of bacteria. Although yogurt and cheese (above) are both fermented foods, I felt the foods mentioned below deserved a separate heading.
Fermented foods have been eaten around the world for centuries, such as sauerkraut in Germany, kimchi in Korea, kombucha in China and miso in Japan. Other fermented foods include pickles, kefir, and tempeh. Gram for gram, these foods contain a huge amount of different microbes. These microbes are extremely resistant to acid, having been reared in an acidic environment, and therefore much more likely to make it safely down to your colon.
You can now buy these foods in the UK, which is great as they are readily available for us to try and aren’t too expensive. Make sure you buy them fresh and keep them in the fridge or try making your own at home. To make sauerkraut all you need is white or red cabbage, pinch of salt, caraway seeds and a jar.
4. Eat a diverse range of foods
The more diverse we are in the foods we eat, the more diverse our gut microbes will be. Having a diverse group of microbes is what experts consider to be the key to a healthy gut. The diversity of microbes in our bodies are thought to be 30% lower than 50 years ago. Tribes such as the African Hadza have been found to have an entirely unique combination of bacteria from any western population, with many of the bacteria being species that the researchers had never seen before.
Try to eat lots more plant-based foods and aim for 30 different varieties a week, including:
• Vegetables (check out our latest blog on how to get more veg in your diet)
• Herbs and spices
• Legumes (beans and lentils)
5. Eat polyphenol rich foods
The microbes in our gut have been found to feed off foods containing polyphenols, which are naturally-occurring compounds found in high concentrations in:
• Extra virgin olive oil
• Dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
• Red wine
Extra virgin olive oil is also one of the healthiest fats around and is thought to be the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet.
Polyphenols are also known for their antioxidant properties, which means they help the body fight free radical damage, which can otherwise age and damage cells. Polyphenols are also found in lots of different fruit and vegetables.
6. Exercise regularly
We all know that exercise is good for our heart and for staying in good shape, but it appears that exercise also increases the biodiversity of our microbes, which is key to a healthy gut.
Researchers don’t yet know which type of exercise is best but it is likely that anything will help such as walking, running, cycling, swimming or simply just taking the stairs or standing up more often.
7. Cut down on processed foods, artificial sweeteners and antibiotics
The choices we make every day will in some way or another affect our microbiome. There are some foods that have actually been shown to suppress the good bacteria and increase the bad bacteria in our guts.
Processed foods, or the foods of the typical “western diet”, are often high in sugar and fat and contain emulsifiers. These foods have been shown to imbalance the microbes in our guts. Emulsifiers improve texture and extend a foods shelf life but they have been found to encourage the growth of bad bacteria that attack the mucous lining of the gut, which can lead to inflammation.
The jury is still out on whether sweeteners are any better for us than sugar. As well as affecting our brain, it appears that artificial sweeteners can change our gut bacteria. The microbes have been shown to lead to glucose intolerance, which is a step on the way to developing diabetes. It appears that some gut bacteria react to sweeteners by secreting chemicals that promote inflammation.
Antibiotics help slow down the growth of bad bacteria but by doing this they also destroy the good bacteria. I would recommend only taking antibiotics if you need to and when doing so make sure you also take a probiotic supplement.
By making small changes to your diet, step by step, you should hopefully start to see improvements in your health.
Speak again soon,
Gemma, The Food Doctor nutritionist
- Sekirov I., Russell S., Caetano L., Antunes M., Finlay B.B. Gut microbiota in health and disease. Am. Physiol. Soc. 2010;90:859–904.