Our body contains over 40 trillion bacteria, most of which reside in the gut (16). The balance of these bacteria is so important that without it, you could suffer from one or more diseases. It should be good to know that science has discovered some of the factors that affect this balance. One of them is diet. The food you eat can either damage or repair your gut microbiome. Today let’s dive into what we could eat and how we could improve your gut health, as well as which foods we should steer clear of to improve our health.
Benefits Of Healthy Gut Flora
There are several reasons why you should care about your gut health. Balancing your gut microbiome guarantees:
Some digestive issues can be attributed to an unbalanced gut microbiome. Consuming food that is fermented might help you get rid of bloating, gas, and other digestive problems (6).
If you often deal with inflammation or inflammatory conditions like arthritis and heartburn, then a healthy microbiome is crucial. Bad bacteria produce toxins that cause chronic inflammation while good bacteria produce anti-inflammatory substances (10).
A Stronger Immune System
Healthy bacteria are crucial in protecting your body from germs, viruses and other pathogens. By improving nutrient absorption a healthy gut microbiome could help you fight off infections and ensure that the food you eat provides its full complement of nutrients to nourish your body (15).
A healthy gut microbiome may help you prevent a lot of conditions. A lack of diversity in the microbiome has been seen in people with inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, arterial stiffness, type 2 diabetes, and a number of autoimmune diseases including type 1 diabetes and celiac disease (15).
Some people say that they feel better after going on a fermented food diet. This is because gut bacteria may affect your brain and mood. A healthy gut may help reduce stress, fight depression, and improve your memory (11).
Best Foods To Improve Gut Health
You can enhance your microbiome simply by adjusting your diet. These are some of the best foods that improve your gut health:
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that cannot be digested. It’s categorized into soluble and insoluble fiber.
Soluble fiber absorbs water to form a gel-like substance. Soluble fiber can be fermented by gut bacteria into short-chain fatty acids that have anti-inflammatory properties. This means that it provides food for good bacteria and keeps your gut healthy (19).
Insoluble fiber is a type of carbohydrate that cannot be digested or absorbed in the intestines. Unlike soluble fibers, however, they speed up the passage of materials in the digestive tract. They can improve gut health by increasing stool size and frequency (19).
Some examples of high-fiber foods are:
- Whole wheat
- Bran cereals
- Brown rice
- Green beans
Probiotic foods contain living microorganisms that promote the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut. Common bacteria found in these foods include Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus plantarum.
Probiotics may improve gut health by increasing the number of good bacteria in your intestines (13).
Some examples of probiotic foods are:
- Fermented soy foods such as tempeh, miso and natto
- Kefir (fermented milk)
- Kimchi (fermented cabbage)
- Kombucha tea (fermented black or green tea)
- Yogurt with Live cultures
When choosing probiotic foods at the grocery store, look for products that are clearly labeled with “live cultures” or “active cultures.”
Probiotic supplements may also provide benefits. But the effectiveness varies depending on the strain of bacteria present in the probiotic supplement, manufacturing and storage conditions, and age of the product. Some researchers recommend opting for supplements that contain 3 to 6 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) of Lactobacillus acidophilus (14).
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While probiotic-rich foods introduce beneficial bacteria into your gut, prebiotic foods help to keep them alive.
Prebiotics are certain types of soluble fiber. They include inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), galactooligosaccharides (GOS), and oligofructose. They act as food for probiotics and encourage the growth of good bacteria (13).
Some examples of prebiotic foods are:
- Flax seeds and nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews) oat bran
Prebiotic supplements are available to purchase online. However, the effectiveness of prebiotics for human health is still under debate in scientific circles.
Synbiotic Foods (Combining Prebiotics And Probiotics)
Synbiotic foods contain both prebiotics and probiotics. Think of these as a one-stop shop for healthy gut flora.
Prebiotics feed the growth of probiotics, which in turn benefit your health. Some examples of synbiotic foods are:
- Yogurt topped with blueberries
- A banana smoothie made with yogurt
- A stir fry made with garlic, leeks, asparagus, and tempeh
- Smoothie made with kefir and fruit
All of these foods are rich in fiber, which is needed to feed the healthy bacteria. You can enjoy them as part of a balanced diet or include them as part of your regular meal plan.
Sometimes inflammation occurs to protect your body from a foreign substance, such as a food that is causing a reaction. This can be caused by food allergies or sensitivities, which is why it’s important to address your diet.
That said, it may also occur when no apparent cause is present. When this happens, it’s known as non-allergic or idiopathic inflammation.
Anti-inflammatory foods contain nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and polyphenols, which may help to reduce inflammation in your gut (8).
Some examples of anti-inflammatory foods are:
- Cold water oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring
- Leafy greens such as kale and spinach
- Nuts (such as almonds, walnuts and cashews)
- Fruits (such as blueberries, strawberries, oranges and cantaloupe)
- Teas (such as green tea, herbal tea and peppermint tea)
Foods To Avoid To Improve Gut Health
Just as there are foods that are good for gut health, there are foods that should be avoided. These include:
Refined carbs are stripped of fiber and nutrients. Unfortunately, they’re also very easily digested, which is why eating too many can lead to poor gut health (3).
Refined carbohydrates include:
- White rice
- White flour products such as pastas, breads and pastries that are made with bleached or enriched flour.
- Processed breakfast cereals, which are often made with refined carbs
Many processed meats contain additives such as sugars, salt and artificial flavorings. Additionally, they’re high in fat.
The problem isn’t just that these foods aren’t good for your health—they can also interfere with the healthy bacteria found in your gut.
The most common processed meats to avoid include:
- Hot dogs
- Luncheon meats (such as bologna)
Fast foods and fried foods are often high in fat. While some of the fats they contain may be healthy, most are not. These include saturated fats and trans fats, which can contribute to inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract (1).
Additionally, these foods tend to lack nutrients, which can contribute to poor gut health (1).
To improve your gut health, it’s best to eat fresh or home-cooked meals instead of fast foods and fried foods.
Sugar And Artificial Sweeteners
Sugar, like other refined carbohydrates, can contribute to inflammation and bacterial imbalance in the gut.
Additionally, some artificial sweeteners have been seen to alter the diversity and balance of gut bacteria (4).
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People often enjoy a drink after work at the end of the day. However, excess alcohol can disrupt gut health and interfere with healthy bacteria in your body (18).
Soda, Energy Drinks And Fruit Juice
Another reason to avoid sugary drinks is that they’re high in sugar. Too much sugar can result in poor gut health, as well as weight gain—both of which are associated with a weakened immune system. Additionally, excess fructose may lead to chronic inflammation, which can lead to a compromised immune system (21).
Canned Foods And Commercial Sauces
Many canned foods contain high levels of bisphenol A, or BPA. This is a toxic chemical that can interfere with the healthy function of your immune system and cause problems such as chronic inflammation. It’s also often found in the lining of tin cans (2).
Commercial sauces such as ketchup, mayonnaise and barbecue sauce also contain high levels of sugar and salt—not to mention preservatives that might be harmful to your gut health. The same can be said of many processed foods.
Foods You Could Be Sensitive To
Over time, you may develop sensitivities to certain foods. This occurs when your immune system starts to overreact to normally harmless substances. When it happens, you’ll have symptoms such as food allergies or sensitivities that can lead to poor gut health.
Sensitivities are often caused by leaky gut syndrome, which occurs when the intestinal lining is compromised. This allows unwanted particles into your bloodstream, which your immune system starts to attack (20).
Foods it is common to be sensitive to include:
- Dairy products such as milk and cheese
- Grains, such as wheat and corn
Identifying your sensitivities is often done by keeping a food diary. Write down what you eat and how you feel after eating it. Then, review your diary to see if a pattern emerges.
If you experience symptoms such as headaches, migraines, skin problems or allergies to certain medications, you may be sensitive to foods that are causing inflammation in your gut.
One way to find out the source of a symptom is by eliminating foods you suspect are causing symptoms, then reintroducing them one at a time. By doing this, you can identify your personal triggers for poor gut health. It’s best to do this while working with a registered dietitian.
What Else Can You Do To Improve Your Gut Health?
While diet is a major factor in gut health, you should also consider other factors that may improve your well-being and by extension, your gut microbiome. They include:
Exercise is key to preventing obesity, which potentially would reduce your chance of developing metabolic syndrome and may reduce inflammation in your body. It also increases insulin sensitivity, which in turn reduces the risk for diabetes (12).
Exercise releases endorphins, which boost mood, energy levels and mental acuity (12).
In addition it can help reduce stress, which is a major contributor to metabolic syndrome and other health problems (12).
And lastly, regular exercise leads to healthy sleep patterns—which means you can worry less about your digestive health throughout the day because you’re getting a good night’s rest at night.
Believe it or not, getting more high-quality sleep each night can do wonders for your gut health. When you don’t get enough rest your cortisol levels likely will increase—and cortisol is a stress hormone that’s been associated with leaky gut and other digestive issues (17).
Some great methods for improving sleep include:
- Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day
- Reducing your exposure to light at night by wearing blue light blocking glasses or avoiding electronics one to two hours before bed
- Creating a relaxing bedtime routine with massages, candles and baths
One of the best ways to improve your gut health is by reducing stress. It’s tied to just about every modern ailment, including chronic fatigue, depression and other mental health problems (17).
It also induces cortisol levels that are linked to inflammation in the gut—which can intensify autoimmune conditions or cause food allergies that lead to leaky gut syndrome (17).
If you’re looking for ways to reduce stress, try:
- Meditation and deep breathing exercises
- Yoga and tai chi
- Daily exercise such as walking or jogging
- Journaling or prayer/spiritual practices
The Bottom Line
Changing your diet is one of the easiest ways to improve gut health and reduce inflammation. This involves eating more prebiotic, probiotic, and anti-inflammatory foods. But if you suffer from chronic stress or sleep poorly, it may be time to make positive changes in those areas. Therefore, an entire lifestyle overhaul might be necessary.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Association of fried food consumption with all cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality: prospective cohort study (2019, nih.gov)
- Concentration of bisphenol A in highly consumed canned foods on the U.S. market (2011, pubmed.gov)
- Dietary Carbohydrate Constituents Related to Gut Dysbiosis and Health (2020, nih.gov)
- Effects of Sweeteners on the Gut Microbiota: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials (2019, nih.gov)
- Extensive use of monosodium glutamate: A threat to public health? (2018, nih.gov)
- Fermented-food diet increases microbiome diversity, decreases inflammatory proteins, study finds (2021, stanford.edu)
- Food safety and Products from aquaculture (1997, fao.org)
- Foods that fight inflammation (2021, harvard.edu)
- Glutamate as a Neurotoxin (2014, springer.com)
- Gut Microbiota and Inflammation (2011, nih.gov)
- Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis (2017, nih.gov)
- Health Benefits of Exercise (2018, nih.gov)
- Probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics (2015, nih.gov)
- Probiotics (2021, nih.gov)
- Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health (2018, bmj.com)
- Scientists bust myth that our bodies have more bacteria than human cells (2016, nature.com)
- Stress, depression, diet and the gut microbiota: human-bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition (2020, nih.gov)
- The Gastrointestinal Microbiome: Alcohol Effects on the Composition of intestinal Microbiota (2015, pubmed.gov)
- The Health Benefits of Dietary Fibre (2020, nih.gov)
- The Leaky Gut: Mechanisms, Measurement and Clinical Implications in Humans (2019, nih.gov)
- The sweet danger of sugar (2022, harvard.edu)
- Understanding acute and chronic inflammation (2020, harvard.edu)