My top five tips on how to improve gut health naturally! I’ll break down what we need to know about prebiotics, probiotics and fermented foods and how these can not only improve our gut health but overall health as well! This article was written for Aboriginal Healthy Living Activities run by ISPARC and SportMedBC and I have made special reference to Indigenous foods and healing methods.
Why do we need to make sure our guts are happy? Our gut is filled with about 100 trillion bacteria, in fact, we have more bacteria cells in our body than human cells! We are only starting to understand all the functions this community of bacteria has, and how we can support them. In this article, I have included my top five tips on how to improve gut health naturally and the basics and importance of prebiotics, probiotics and fermented foods.
What Are The Benefits Of A Healthy Gut
What Do Our Beneficial Bacteria Do?
Our community of beneficial bacteria in our gut offers us so many health benefits. They crack open indigestible food for us, supply our gut with energy, manufacture vitamins, break down toxins and medications, and train our immune system.
Healthy Gut and Disease Prevention
Research is showing that having a good supply of friendly bacteria can help prevent type 2 diabetes, obesity, anxiety and depression.
How To Improve Gut Health Naturally
What Are Prebiotics
Prebiotics are food for our probiotic bacteria, or the indigestible carbohydrates that fuel the fermentation of probiotic bacteria.
Having a good amount of prebiotics in our diets helps ensure our beneficial bacteria as well-fed and keep populating our gut (1). Foods that are high in prebiotic fibres include onion, garlic, chicory root, dandelion root, legumes, oats and walnuts.
What Are Probiotics
The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “A living micro-organism that, when ingested in sufficient quantities, provides beneficial effects on the health of its consumer”. Probiotics, meaning “for life”, are the good bacteria that are beneficial to our body and specifically beneficial for our digestive and immune systems.
What Are Fermented Foods
Many fermented foods contain live active cultures, which is similar to probiotic bacteria except they haven’t necessarily been proven to be effective by science. History does show us that those with regular consumption of fermented foods tend to have better health outcomes.
It is important to note that the number of organisms in fermented foods can vary significantly, depending on how the product was manufactured, processed and stored.
My 5 Tips On How To Improve Gut Health Naturally
1) Feed Your Friendly Bacteria The Right Food:
Eat More Prebiotics
We know that the good bacteria thrive off fibres, particularly fibres we call prebiotics. Remember that prebiotics are food for the good bacteria or probiotics. Some of the best prebiotics include oats, legumes (beans and lentils), flaxseed, onion, garlic, rye, barley, chicory root, and dandelion root.
Indigenous Prebiotic Sources
Two Indigenous foods that are potent prebiotics include wild onion and camas, and these provide some of the oldest evidence of prebiotic food consumption in North America dating back 9,000 years ago. Sunchokes (Jerusalem artichoke or sunroot) is also native to North America and high in prebiotic fibres.
Fibre vs Prebiotics
Not all fibre are prebiotics, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim for a wide variety of fibre-rich foods including berries and wild rice. Fibre has other benefits on the gut which includes helping to ‘sweep’ it out, prevent constipation and support good blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
2) Stop Feeding The Bad Bacteria:
Limit Refined Carbohydrates and High Fat Foods
Too much of the wrong type of bacteria in our gut can create an imbalance or dysbiosis and start to push the friendly bacteria out. We know that the bad bacteria thrive off of refined carbohydrates including sugar, cookies, cakes, crackers, white bread, as well as food high in fat including fatty meats, deep-fried foods, and an excess amount of cheese. Artificial sweeteners can also crowd out the good bacteria as found in diet soft drinks, sugar-free yogurts and sugar-free jello.
Eat Based On the 80/20 Approach
Try and follow the 80/20 approach to balancing your food intake. If 80% of the time you try and eat the best you can, then once in a while it is OK to have a few cookies or higher fat food. When your gut is full of friendly and beneficial bacteria, it is better equipped to manage small amounts of your favourite ‘treats’.
3) Sleep Well, Self-Care Around Stress and Be Active:
Stress and Lack Of Sleep Can Influence Our Gut
There are some things that we can’t control in our environment that can have an effect on our bacteria population. In our external environment pollution, medications and additives in our food supply can decrease our friendly bacteria. Internally, stress, a lack of self-care and lack of sleep can also decrease our friendly bacteria.
Understand the role that stress plays in our health, including digestive health. Try and take measures to reduce your stress and find ways to put self-care into your day. This may include taking time out for yourself, connecting to nature or a walk on the beach, calling a friend, or spending more time doing something you love.
Exercise for Gut Health
We all know how important exercise is for our bodies, but sometimes we forget that it is also important to help with mood and digestion. Aim to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days.
4) Water is Life:
Hydrate For Gut Health
Cleanse your body each day with the nourishment of water. Drink plenty of water and herbal teas, and limit juices, sodas, energy drinks and any other sweetened drink that feed the bad bacteria.
Moderate Your Caffeine
Too much caffeine, or over 2 cups of coffee per day, can be irritating for your gut and may decrease transit time which affects nutrient absorption from food. Water helps to keep us regular and prevents constipation.
Herbal teas can be used in place of water – try steeping some of your favourite garden herbs like mint, lemon balm or rosemary in hot water for a simple herbal tea. There is sine good evidence to show the peppermint tea can help with gut spasms and can be helpful for those that have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Making Infused Water
Make water more interesting by combining it with sliced cucumber, frozen berries, lemon slices or even a combination of strawberry and kiwi. One of my favourite combinations is rosemary or spruce tips with orange.
5) Eat Regular Fermented Foods:
Fermented Foods In Traditional Diets
Traditionally, all around the world, cultures enjoyed fermented foods as part of their daily diet. Fermented foods are rich in beneficial bacteria and work to increase the population in our digestive tracts. In Asia they use Kimchi or Miso, in Europe they use Sauerkraut and in North America we have yogurt. Traditional Indigenous diets used fermented grease or t´łi’na, or fermented red laver seaweed cakes with berries or fish.
Common Everyday Fermented Foods
If t´łi’na is not something you have access to you could try adding apple cider vinegar to your next salad (see my recipe for Baked Tofu Salad with Glory Bowl Dressing which uses apple cider vinegar). Just make sure it’s unpasteurized or unheated to ensure the bacteria are still alive. Aim for one fermented food per day, I also love using miso like in this Vegan Pesto with Hemp.
Good Health Starts With Your Guts:
Making sure your gut is in the best shape it can be is as easy as increasing your intake of fibre-rich vegetables at meals, adding some flaxseed to your oatmeal at breakfast, eating regular fermented foods, choosing herbal tea or water more often, limiting sitting time, going to bed an hour earlier, and spending more time on yourself.
Remember the 80/20 rule and allow yourself a treat once in a while and know that if you have stocked your gut full of beneficial bacteria, your gut will have no problem dealing with the occasional cookie.
Want Some More Gut Health Recipes?
Try some of these favourite recipes using everyday fermented foods:
- Japanese Salad Bowls with Miso Tahini Dressing
- Baked Tofu Kale Quinoa Salad with Glory Bowl Dressing
- The Ultimate Vegan Pesto Recipe with Hemp and Miso
- Japanese Noodle Soup with Miso
- Nori Stix Recipe
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Rachel Dickens, The Conscious Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on plant-based nutrition and share some of her favourite seasonal recipes and sustainable eating tips.