Our bodies are filled with bacteria, and in a healthy body we can have around 40 million of those little critters floating around, mostly in our intestines.
However, we also may have a fair share of bad bacteria at any given moment and they can contribute to sickness and disease, so it is important to take steps in keeping a healthy balance by keeping the bad guys in check, and that primarily comes down to what you put into your body.
Diversify Your Diet
The bacterium in your gut includes hundreds of species, each with a different purpose.
That means they need different minerals and other nutrients to thrive and that comes down to a diverse diet, so eating a diverse range of foods is crucial. The more diverse your diet is the more diverse your microbiota will be, and that is a very good thing.
It is interesting to note that the people in rural regions of South America and Africa actually have more diversity in their gut microbiota that people in the US and Europe.
The western diet is far too dependent on fat and sugar, and it is estimated that around 75% of the food in the world is produced from only 5 animal species and 12 plants, so getting more adventurous and trying new whole foods will help expand your gut health.
Fruits, Veggies and Beans
Like mom and dad always told us–”Eat your vegetables!”
But don’t forget the legumes and beans–if you tolerate them.
The best sources of nutrients for a healthy microbiota are fruits and vegetables because they are high in a type of fiber that cannot be digested by your body. However, certain bacteria in your gut can digest fiber, so their growth is stimulated. And of course, legumes and beans are also high in fiber.
Some of those high-fiber foods that are good for your gut bacteria include:
Broccoli, whole grains, certain beans (white, kidney, pinto), lentils, green peas, raspberries, artichokes, and chickpeas.
There have also been studies done that indicate a diet high in fruits and vegetables can help prevent the growth of bad bacteria that cause diseases.
Bifidobacteria are considered beneficial to the human body because they can enhance gut health and help prevent intestinal inflammation.
Bifidobacteria can be increased through the consumption of foods like almonds, pistachios, apples, artichokes, and blueberries.
Eat Fermented Foods
Fermentation is a metabolic process that produces chemical changes in organic substrates through the action of enzymes. In biochemistry, it is narrowly defined as the extraction of energy from carbohydrates in the absence of oxygen. (Wikipedia definition)
Those carbohydrates that are converted are usually sugars, which are turned into organic acids or alcohol by yeasts, microbes, or bacteria.
Examples of fermented foods include sauerkraut, yogurt and kefir, tempeh, kimchi and kombucha.
While some of these dairy products may not be tolerated well for some, but they all add good bacteria and kefir may possibly improve tolerance to lactose. The casein however, remains in tact.
Yogurt is among the most common foods on the list and like many of them is rich in lactobacilli, a type of bacteria that can benefit gut health. While people who eat yogurt regularly appear to have more of this beneficial bacteria in their intestines, they similarly have a lower level of Enterobacteriaceae, a harmful bacteria associated with a number of chronic diseases and inflammation.
Not surprisingly, a lot of people avoid eating yogurt because they are lactose intolerant, yet a number of studies have shown that eating yogurt can actually improve lactose intolerance in both adults and infants.
Greek yogurt seems particularly helpful and kefir is similar in form and substance. However, many of the flavored, fruit yogurts also contain high levels of sugar, so the healthiest yogurts are generally the natural variety made with only milk and bacteria mixtures, referred to as “starter cultures”.
And again casein, a common protein found in dairy, is still an issue even after undergoing fermentation.
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
One way to look at this topic is to begin with understanding that Mother Nature probably does it better than man, and artificial sweeteners are really just man-made replacements for sugar. Numerous studies have found that they can negatively affect the gut microbiota.
One study of aspartame, a controversial sweetener in diet sodas and the like, found that in rats it reduced weight gain (not lost weight, just reduced the gain), but it also impaired insulin response and increased blood sugar!
Those rats that were fed aspartame also had higher clostridium and enterobacteriaceae in their intestines. Those harmful bacteria, when present in high numbers, are associated with disease, and another study had similar findings for both mice and humans, showing negative effects on blood sugar levels.
Eat Prebiotic Foods
Prebiotics are essentially “food” that feed the probiotics.
They promote the growth of beneficial microbes in the gut.
They are generally fiber or complex carbs that can’t be digested by human cells, but certain bacterial species can break them down and use them for fuel.
While many fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain prebiotics, they can also be found on their own.
And then there is resistant starch.
Resistant starch is one source of prebiotics and is not absorbed in the small intestine (it resists digestion), so it passes into the large intestine where it is broken down by the microbiota.
Good examples of resistant starch include oatmeal, potatoes, rice and green bananas. It has been shown that cooked and cooled rice and potatoes have even more resistant starch.
These prebiotics have been found to promote healthy gut bacteria, including bifidobacteria, and have also been beneficial for people with certain diseases.
As an example, certain prebiotics can reduce insulin, triglycerides and cholesterol levels in people who are obese, so these results suggest that prebiotics may reduce the risk factors for many diseases associated with obesity, including diabetes and heart disease.
If you’re good with eating natural whole grains, beans and legumes, they’re wonder sources of a lot of fiber, however it is best to soak them well and fully cook them to remove lectins and anti-nutrients.
Raw potato starch and potatoes that are cooked and then cooled are other good sources, so load up on that potato salad instead of a hot baked potato to get the most resistant starch out of your taters.
Green bananas are better for resistant starch than ripened bananas because as they ripen they convert the starches into simple sugars like fructose, glucose, and sucrose, so eat them within a few days of purchase to maximize your intake.
Eat More Plants
No, you don’t need to become a vegetarian, but by reducing your meat intake and eating more fresh plant foods you can improve your gut bacteria and likely lose weight in the process.
Different types of intestinal bacteria are promoted by each food group and those who have a lot of veggies in their diet tend to have healthier gut flora, likely due to more fiber content.
Eat Foods Rich in Polyphenols
Polyphenols act as antioxidants and may protect against some common health problems and possibly certain effects of aging. They tend to protect cells and body chemicals against damage caused by free radicals, which are reactive atoms that contribute to tissue damage in the body.
Free radicals are like rust on a bike left out in the rain–they cause damage to your body.
Reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, inflammation, and oxidative stress are just some of the benefits from polyphenols. Like resistant starches, they resist digestion in the upper intestine and are therefore digested later by gut bacteria in the colon.
Some good sources of polyphenols are: Red wine (Yay!), dark chocolate and cocoa (double Yay!), broccoli, blueberries, onions, almonds, green tea, and grape skins (or red wine!).
The next time you are drinking your favorite red wine, think about all those beneficial changes in your microbiota that are associated with lower levels of triglycerides, heart disease, and inflammation.
Take a Probiotic Supplement
Probiotics are live microorganisms, usually bacteria, which exert a specific health benefit when consumed, and may aid in fighting off inflammation and heart disease while aiding in the production of good gut bacteria.
Keep this in mind especially if you are on medications like anti-biotics that intentionally destroy all bacteria in general, so restoring your healthy gut as soon as possible is really important when it has been compromised like that.