Newsflash: you’re only half human! Turns out your body has roughly the same amount of bacteria as human cells. So half of you is bacteria.
Don’t freak out! They come in peace. In fact, they’re responsible for keeping you alive. Virtually every organ and system in your body is able to function properly because of bacteria that call your gut home.
The flipside? If that bacteria is out of whack, you will be quite unhealthy.
That’s a pretty massive impact. Knowing this, it seems we’d all want to understand how to keep our bacterial balance at an optimal level, right?
That’s what we’ve set out to do. What follows is a comprehensive guide to the gut, the microbiome, the effects of having a gut that’s healthy versus unhealthy, and the simplest ways to fix your gut health.
Spoiler: the best thing you can do is lay off the pills and feed your microbiome with polyphenol-rich foods.
We think it’s important to understand some of the science behind how your gut works, but if you’re ready to just get on with the healing, you can jump ahead to our recommended plan here.
Everyone’s talking about it, but does the health of your gut really affect your life much? Is it worth the effort?
There’s some pretty compelling science about the effects of a balanced gut versus one that’s unbalanced. We’re talking about the difference between one of those stubbornly healthy people who never get sick or fat, versus the rapidly rising portion of the population who suffer from acid reflux, IBS, chronic pain, fatigue, constipation and obesity.
But first, it’s helpful to understand what exactly the gut is. (It’s not just a beer belly.)
To be super simple about it, think of your gut as the entire pipeline that connects your mouth to your anus. Food goes in, waste comes out, and your “gut” is the factory that handles the conversion of food to waste.
As with any factory, there’s a whole lot of stuff that happens along the way. Important stuff: breaking down of food, absorption of nutrients, feeding your cells, processing waste.
You’ve probably seen this inspo-friendly quote:
“Food can either be the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison” -Ann Wigmore
Well, it’s your gut that’s responsible for turning celery into medicine and cheetos into poison.
Friendly reminder that what you’re putting in your mouth isn’t intended to make your belly feel full. It’s meant to nourish your cells and keep YOU alive.
Which brings us back to the critical importance of gut health. There are a lot of reasons why your gut can be imbalanced. And when that happens, all the kale smoothies, fish oil and nutritious meals in the world will not make a difference. Yes, you read that right:
Even if you eat clean, if your gut is unhealthy, your body will not experience health benefits.
Doesn’t seem fair? Well, the opposite is also true. If you have cultivated a healthy gut, it will actually allow you to get away with consuming some toxins and indulgences and will protect your from their negative effects.
Motivated to start cultivating a healthy pipeline? It all starts with the microbiome…
We just think of our gut as the place where food goes to be digested, but there is so much more going on down there than you ever even fathomed. It’s alive!
Over 3 POUNDS of bacteria, 500 species of critters and 100 trillion micoroganisms call your gut home. (1)
It’s like a whole planet with a thousand times more inhabitants than there are people on Earth! A planet called the microbiome.
They’re not just shacking up either. They’re responsible for things like regulating hormones, building your immune system, balancing your mood, preventing the growth of pathogens, producing vitamins, and cleaning out toxins. (2)
When I hear “microbiome,” I think of it like a bacteria Thunderdome. And indeed, there are good and bad bacteria in there, battling it out. You might know them by different names:
Good bacteria in microbiome = probiotics (ex: bifidobacteria, Lactobacillus)
Bad bacteria in microbiome = pathogens (ex: Enterobacteriaceae, Escherichia Coli )
The pathogens can lead to viruses like the common cold, flu or worse. But what about the good guys, the probiotics? Why are they in our bellies and what are they good for? They are the means through which your food becomes nourishment (or not!).
Essentially, most things you eat are not readily bioavailable. That means your body wouldn’t be able to do anything with the chunks of celery that slide down your throat and head for your intestines.
It’s the metabolites in the celery (and everything else you consume) that your body needs for nutrition. The metabolites only get released when the celery is digested by the good bacteria in your gut.
This is precisely why a healthy diet will NOT nourish you if you don’t have sufficient good bacteria. All the healthy food will just slide right through your pipeline with no way for your body to take advantage of the metabolites.
Also, there are different kinds of good bacteria (probiotics) that digest different kinds of metabolites. So not only is it important to keep the number of good bacteria in your microbiome high, but you also want strong diversity.
When your gut is inhabited by more pathogenic bacteria than good probiotic bacteria, your microbiome is officially unbalanced. This condition is called dysbiosis, and it’s the precursor to all kinds of things you do NOT want in your life, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hemorrhoids, food allergies and even potentially autoimmune conditions.
Is there any way to tell if your microbiome is currently unbalanced? Symptoms that you might be suffering from (or headed for) dysbiosis can include:
- Bloating and gas
- Skin rashes
- Food sensitivities
- Weight gain
- Acid reflux
- Brain fog
- Joint pain
- Chronic bad breath
Dysbiosis isn’t a disease per se, but it simply refers to the unbalanced condition of having more pathogenic bacteria in your microbiome than healthy bacteria. Why should you care whether or not your microbiome is balanced?
Well, consider for a minute that nearly 80% of your immune system lives in your gut. (3) So if you have any concern for your health, you might want to sit up and pay attention to what’s happening with the critters in your belly.
If you’re struggling with microbiome imbalance, that dysbiosis can affect you in a variety of different ways. Perhaps most surprising is that dysbiosis won’t necessarily just mess with your gut. It can affect you in areas you’d never dream were related to your gut.
Gut health and stress represent a classic chicken-or-egg endless cycle situation. Stress can cause gut issues, and an unhealthy gut will return the favor by causing a stress response in your brain. Fun, right? How is that connection even possible?
When you’re under stress, it signals your body to release molecules and neurotransmitters that increase inflammation in your body. Over time, this response can lead to decreased blood flow to your GI tract, slowed movement of digestive muscles, imbalanced gut bacteria and even holes in the lining of your intestines. (4)(5)
One of the newest areas of microbiome research is just how much our gut bacteria can impact our mood and behavior. Considering gut bacteria have been shown to release neurotransmitters, the impact seems to be very real. (6) Studies have concluded that probiotic health can be a key tool in treating major depression. (7)
Most of us have heard of serotonin, which is an anti-depressant neurotransmitter. Contrary to popular belief, serotonin is not made by your brain, but is in fact mostly produced by the gut. (8)(9) So if your gut isn’t functioning properly, you might not be able to produce normal levels of serotonin.
Is your microbiome a hidden culprit in your constant battle with the scale? It’s definitely a factor you shouldn’t ignore. Studies comparing the gut bacteria of lean people versus obese people show two very different bacterial environments. (10) But is this just another chicken-egg situation, where gaining weight is what causes you to have a different microbiome? Not so fast.
Ready to be freaked out? Scientists took bacteria from the microbiomes of overweight mice and transplanted them into the guts of normal mice. The recipients gained body fat despite the fact that they didn’t increase their food intake. The unhealthy bacteria in their guts were so busy over-stimulating insulin production, blocking nutrient absorption and increasing fat cell storage that these poor mice never had a chance. (11)
Inflammation and Autoimmunity
We’ve combined these two, because they both represent a malfunctioning of the immune system.
Immune system OVERactive= autoimmune conditions
Immune system UNDERactive= infections and inflammation
If you’re like most people, you just think of your “immune system” as this vague collection of cells that swoops in to fix things when you’re sick. Well, approximately 80% of your immune system lives in your digestive tract. (12) When the gut bacteria are wreaking havoc on your digestive tract, it also makes your poor immune system go haywire. (13)
How? Abnormal gut bacteria (dysbiosis) can start to damage your intestinal lining. When protein fragments pass through this damaged lining (something that’s never supposed to happen!), your immune cells pick them up as toxic invaders. They will mount a full-blown immune response.
When this happens more frequently than it’s supposed to, it will trigger (in some of us) a genetic predisposition to autoimmunity. (14)
It’s pretty much what it sounds like, and it’s not pretty. When there are too many pathogenic bacteria in your gut, they can cause holes in your intestinal lining. The entire purpose of your digestive lining is to keep the food and bacteria separate from the rest of your “insides.”
So, having these things “leak” into your body can be truly devastating. It causes your immune system to work in overdrive, and over time, leaky gut has been linked to Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, asthma, multiple sclerosis and IBS. (15)
IBS and SIBO
Some scientists believe that Irritable Bowel Syndrome is caused by overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. (16) This is also known as SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) which is considered to be separate condition from IBS. However, research indicates that SIBO may be responsible for 80% of IBS cases. (17)
Crohn’s is a type of irritable bowel disease, and science still isn’t clear on exactly what causes it. Studies have shown that people suffering from Crohn’s seem to share high levels of three particular gut bacteria. The implication is that controlling the levels of these “bad” bacteria could help keep the Crohn’s under control. (18)
Hormones don’t just exist, but rather your body has to make them. The inflammation that is caused by an unhealthy microbiome can interfere with your body’s ability to manufacture hormones normally. This is one reason why your microbiome health can have an effect on everything from your mood to your quality of sleep.
There’s actually a subset of your microbiome responsible for estrogen metabolism (managing the estrogen load in your body), and dysbiosis can throw this out of whack too. (19)
So why should you care about having healthy bacteria in your gut? Those good bacteria aren’t just important to help fend off the pathogenic bacteria, but they have their own critical, life-altering functions that they need to perform for you.
Things like making vitamins (over 80% of vitamin B6 is made by bacteria – it doesn’t come from your food!), sweeping away waste, producing hormones, providing your cells with nourishment, communicating with your immune system.
Given all that, it’s no overstatement to say happy gut = happy life.
As mentioned above, an unbalanced microbiome can dramatically affect gut health, potentially leading to conditions like leaky gut, IBS, SIBO and Crohn’s. But the gut’s impact on your physical health extends far beyond your belly.
Your microbiome is intended to help your body maximize the amount of nutrients you get out of your food. This means that an unhealthy microbiome can result in vitamin and nutrient deficiencies and ultimately affect every organ and system in your body.
Conversely, cultivating a healthy microbiome supports overall health by allowing everything to function optimally.
For example, if your skin is getting the vitamin B and nutrients it needs, it will stop breaking out and start glowing. Bone health can improve because your body is suddenly able to metabolize more of the calcium you’re eating. Even heart health appears to be influenced by gut microbiotica. (20) The microbiome has even been shown to play a role in promoting healthy cholesterol levels. (21)
Good gut health also supports your immune system by being the first line of defense against pathogens that enter your body. Pathogens entering a balanced microbiome won’t even have a chance to say hello or grab a single morsel to eat before they’re kicked out.
But, if those same pathogens are lucky enough to stumble across a compromised microbiome, they’ll kick up their feet, gorge themselves on the bacteria buffet and start a nice little colony of pathogens ready to make you sick.
Have you ever gotten sick to your stomach at the thought of having to do something unpleasant? How about nervous butterflies?
Here’s a doozy: how many of us have fallen victim to stress eating or emotional eating? Diet books would have you believe it’s “all in your head” and you just need to psychoanalyze yourself thin. It’s not true.
There’s a real, tangible, biological link between your gut and your brain, and understanding it just might change your life.
As a fetus, we have a little bundle of tissue called a “neural crest.” While we’re still in utero, that ball of tissue splits in two. Half of it turns into your central nervous system (your brain) and the other half becomes your enteric nervous system (your gut).
These two nervous systems are for the rest of your life linked via the vagus nerve, which is your literal gut-brain connection.
The implications of this connection are too vast to fully describe here. Have you ever noticed that feeling bloated can make you angry and sluggish? How about food intolerances showing up in your life and suddenly you’re also battling inexplicable depression? Heard of parents who swear that what they feed their kids can impact extreme behavior and mood swings?
While gut balance can be affected by factors as varied as your sleep patterns, external environment and stress levels, it is your diet that has the most substantial impact on your microbiome. (22)
So if you’re interested in helping your microbiome, we’ve got to focus on what you’re putting in your belly. There are two common ways that people try to tackle the rebalancing of gut bacteria: (1) adding to the population (taking probiotic pills), or (2) feeding the population (eating natural foods).
These are very different approaches, and we wanted to get to the bottom of just how effective either solution really is.
Probiotic pills have recently turned into a million dollar business. And we get why: if we feel like we don’t have enough quantity or variety of good bacteria, we want to get some of those bugs in there, STAT. But does that really work? And how do we figure out which ones we should be taking?
Types of probiotic pills
If you’ve ever tried walking into a store and buying “probiotics,” you know it’s not so simple. There are shelf-stable versions in the vitamin aisle, and then there’s a whole array of pills and drinks and shots in the refrigerated section. All the bottles are decorated with names of scary-sounding bacteria like acidophilus and you suddenly have no idea which strain your belly actually needs. Phew!
Let’s start with the first consideration: shelf-stable vs. refrigerated. A logical assumption would be that the ones in the fridge are more potent, because they’ve been in regulated temperature.
Are you sure though? Because there’s no guarantee they were shipped to the store under constant refrigeration. Even if they were, you still really don’t know how long each product has been sitting in its shelf or fridge.
Regardless of its location, it’s more important that you check when it was manufactured and how close it is to its expiration date. Remember, the bugs in that bottle are alive! If you buy ones that are nearly dead, well… you’re just wasting your money.
Now, how to choose which strain. This will depend entirely on your personal physiology and needs. Some strains are supposed to help with constipation, while others might help with loose bowels. (23)(24) It’s worth doing your research before heading to the store, so you know what to look for.
Also, you’ll notice most probiotics have a CFU number. This stands for “colony forming unit.” In other words, how many little bugs are in each dose that are capable of starting a new colony in your gut. Recall above we mentioned that there are over 100 trillion microorganisms in your gut? So you don’t even want to bother with pills that don’t have at least 1 billion CFUs.
Typically, trying to find a dose with 10 billion CFUs or more is the way to go. Otherwise you won’t even make a dent in that thriving metropolis of your microbiome. (25)
Pitfalls of probiotic pills
Now that you’ve chosen your probiotic… will it work? Honestly, the odds are stacked against you. These are incredibly sensitive products (again – they’re alive!) and the slightest disruption somewhere in the chain of packaging, transit, storage, even the trip from store to your home, can decimate the CFU count and leave you with ineffective pills.
Even if they’ve made it safely to your shelf or fridge, their journey is not yet complete. The biggest test is how many critters survive your stomach acid to land safely in your small colon, where they are needed. Only pills that have been prepared with an enteric coating are likely to make it through your stomach acid with the probiotic bacteria still intact.
If all of this has left you with a bad taste in your mouth (or wallet) about buying that next bottle of probiotics, there might be a simpler, more natural solution.
It’s as simple as this: food has the power to either heal or wreck your gut. Not pills, but food.
The less simple part for most of us is figuring out what food we should eat. We’ve boiled it down to a pretty simple recipe:
Whole foods, leafy greens, fermented foods and prebiotic fibers.
What’s a whole food? Something that hasn’t been processed or messed with in any way from how it grows in nature. Why do you want more of these in your diet?
Put simply, natural whole foods support gut health by lowering inflammation in the body. That’s because these foods are high in antioxidants, which do battle against free radicals and prevent your cells from suffering oxidative damage.
Oxidative stress negatively affects your gut microbiome. So bringing in the antioxidants as a front line of defense will allow your microbiome to thrive instead of being under attack.
Steamed leafy greens
Leafy green vegetables are like the superheroes of the food world. From providing essential vitamins and minerals to helping reduce inflammation, it seems like there’s nothing they can’t do. We’re talking about collard greens, chard, kale, and spinach, oh my!
Do you eat your leafy greens (especially kale) raw? If you do, and if you find yourself getting bloated, there’s a reason. We discuss this more in the How-To section below, but we highly recommend lightly steaming your leafy greens.
Not only does this reduce the existence of possible pathogens on your greens, but it also makes the greens more easily-digestible by your body. The raw fibers of most leafy greens can be really tough on any digestive system that’s not in top shape. Lightly steaming them will soften the fibers and make them much easier for your body to digest.
What’s a fermented food? Everything from pickles to sauerkraut and kimchi and tempeh.
Why should you add these to your diet? Fermented foods are high in naturally-occurring strains of the friendly bacteria you want in your gut (like Lactobacillus). Instead of popping a probiotic pill where you’re not really sure what’s inside or whether it’s still alive, eating these foods is going straight to the source.
You don’t want to overdo it on these. We recommend just adding one serving per day, either with breakfast or lunch.
We’ve got a breakdown on the best fermented foods further below (in the How To section), but for now, please be mindful of the ingredients in the fermented foods you choose to buy. If you pick up a jar of dill pickles or sauerkraut, make sure it comes from the refrigerated section. You want to look for minimal ingredients and no preservatives or added flavorings.
Prebiotic fibers and starches
Contrary to what you may have heard, fiber is NOT the enemy. Specifically, there is a subset of fiber known as prebiotic fiber that is critical to a healthy microbiome.
Prebiotic fiber is a fancy term for the undigestable plant fibers that feed the good bacteria in your colon. In other words, these plant fibers are food for your friendly bugs.
When it comes to nutrient-rich foods, the part that benefits your microbiome is the part that is NOT digested. Say what now? When you eat something like celery, your stomach will digest parts of it and your body will absorb some of those nutrients. But the part of the celery that isn’t broken down and passes along to your colon is the part that your gut bacteria get to feed on.
When the stuff they’re feeding on is rich in nutrients and polyphenols, then your good bacteria are fortified and happy. (26) When the stuff they’re feeding on is crap like processed spray cheese, that’s the perfect environment for toxic bacteria to thrive in.
Raw asparagus, dandelion greens, leeks, onion and seaweed all contain inulin fiber that increases good bacteria in your gut. (27) (28) (29) (30) Flaxseeds are also excellent at not only promoting the growth of health bacteria, but also supporting regular bowel movements. (31)
Your little gut bacteria that are responsible for keeping you happy? They can’t do all that work on their own. They need helpers, best friends, a support system. Enter polyphenols.
Polyphenols are micronutrients found in veggies, tea and other superplants. Not only are they powerful antioxidants (fighting against inflammation), but they also selectively encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria. Essentially, they act just like fertilizer for good bacteria.
The best way to get maximum polyphenols in your diet is to eat and drink the rainbow. From brilliant red beets to deep orange carrots and bright green celery. Different colored plants provide different benefits, and the variety is what keeps your microbiome diverse and strong.
- Black tea
- Green tea
- Peppermint tea
Tea is one of the richest sources of polyphenols ever discovered, with more scientific and clinical studies supporting its health benefits than any other “superfood” around. What most people don’t realize is that tea is one of the most potent probiotics around. (32)
Black tea in particular packs the highest probiotic punch, and here’s why: the molecules in black tea are larger than those in green tea. This means they’ll stay in your intestinal tract instead of being immediately absorbed. By hanging out longer in your intestines, these black tea molecules actually induce the growth of beneficial bacteria. Not only is this healing for your gut, but it also helps aid your digestion. (33)
Green tea is no slouch either. Studies have shown that the EGCG polyphenols in green tea can help heal gut damage to the intestinal lining caused by peptic ulcer disease or oxidative stress. (34) Green tea polyphenols have also been shown to alter the gut microbiome in rats in such a way that they promote anti-obesity effects. (35) (36) Even cancer-related microbiomes have been shown to shift and reverse back to a healthier state after regular consumption of green tea polyphenols. (37)
Maybe even cooler is the fact that tea polyphenols actually have antiviral and anti-microbial properties. This means they can help prevent the overgrowth of pathogens and yucky bacteria like E-coli or even yeast (Candida).
If you’re keeping track, that means tea polyphenols do battle on two fronts.
Offensive: help promote growth of good bacteria.
Defensive: inhibit growth of bad bacteria
There’s a reason why tea is considered to be one most effective natural remedies against dysbiosis!
Drinking a variety of teas is an excellent way to promote microbial diversity. And yes, quality of tea does matter. The actual polyphenol content in tea can vary dramatically depending on how the tea was grown, harvested, processed and brewed.
So if you’re trying to drink tea for its gut-healing benefits, you want to make sure you’re drinking tea made with leaves from the first flush (harvest). These always have higher polyphenol content. You’ll then want to make sure the leaves were minimally processed and not brewed too hot, so as to preserve the polyphenol content.
Your gut microbiome isn’t exactly something you can see, right? So is there a way to tell whether it’s getting healthier?
You can certainly find expensive mail-order test kits that will give you some answers. But there’s a much simpler, FREE way you can check on your gut health progress every single day.
Get familiar with your poop. It’s something that we don’t think of as “polite conversation” in our society, but it’s such a simple way to check in on your gut health that most of us ignore and flush away — literally.
The Bristol Stool Chart (below) is meant to be a guideline so you can start doing regular observations to check for things such as: frequency, color and form.
This is probably the simplest factor to pay attention to, and you might already know where you fall in this category. Most science agrees that going at least once per day is ideal. After all, bowel movements are how your body eliminates toxins and waste. If you’re going 2-3 times per day, that’s also healthy and could just be a sign of a high-fiber diet, higher metabolism or simply eating more food. Going more than 3 times per day, or less than once a day, are both possible indicators that your gut bacteria are not balanced.
The color of your stool can change depending on what you eat (leafy greens can make it dark green while beets can turn it reddish), but it’s also an excellent indicator of your gut health. Ideal color is medium to dark brown. A very dark, blackish color can indicate serious issues in your upper GI tract. Yellow or green color can mean that your liver or gallbladder are not properly breaking down fat.
This is where you’re going to want to take a look at the Bristol Stool Chart to see how you compare. Stool that is well formed means your gut bacteria are doing their job in extracting nutrients from your food and also eliminating waste properly. Stool that is too hard or too soft indicates microbiome imbalance. Ideally, you want to be a 3 or a 4 on the chart below.
By keeping track of what’s going on, you can see whether changes to your diet are having any impact. If your stool is not ideal and you’re not noticing any changes, you might want to consider talking to your doctor about it.
Ready to get glowing and flowing? Let’s go!
The following 7 steps will take you through the fundamentals of getting on track to a balanced microbiome. We recommend scanning through each of them and, if you prefer, you can take one step per day to focus on, and then move to the next step whenever you’re ready.
If there’s one major takeaway, it’s this rule of thumb: the key to a flourishing microbiome is to eat diverse, fresh whole foods and fermented veggies while avoiding processed foods and sugar.
We’ve already talked about the potent polyphenol content of tea. Now we’re going to let you in on a secret. It’s the number one reason why more people aren’t benefiting from tea: quantity.
Quantity, quantity, quantity.
Studies have shown we need to consume a daily minimum of 400-500mg EGCG (a type of polyphenol) in order to experience health benefits. The number of cups this equates to depends largely on what kind of tea you’re drinking. If it’s very high-quality, you’ll need less. If it’s poor quality, it can be nearly impossible to reap any true benefits.
Harvard School of Public Health recommends we drink a minimum of 2-3 cups per day. (38) People in the Far East routinely drink 6-10 cups per day — they drink tea like we drink water.
Here is a recommended tea-drinking schedule to maximize the gut benefits:
Start your day with 1-2 cups of black and/or oolong tea. You can drink these before breakfast and/or with breakfast, depending on your preference.
Why? Black and oolong teas are gentler on your stomach than green tea, so they’re more palatable in the morning. Plus, they enhance digestion and contain flavanols that increase the good bacteria in your gut. These teas will also help regulate your bowel movements and their caffeine content provides an ideal fast-acting energy replacement for coffee.
1-2 cups of green and/or white teas during lunch and after lunch.
Why? These teas have a thermogenic effect that can boost the rate at which you burn calories. Plus, they help regulate ghrelin, the hunger hormone. This means you’re less likely to face a losing battle against snack and sugar cravings throughout your afternoon.
1-2 cups of herbal tea are recommended after dinner.
Why? Herbal teas are perfect before bedtime, since they are free of caffeine and brewed with calming plants and herbs. Extra bonus: the polyphenols from the variety of plants creates a diverse nutrient mix to help your microbiome thrive.
Lightly Steamed Veggies
Vegetables are a one-stop-shop prescription for just about any health condition, and a healthy gut is no exception. Jam-packed full of nutrients and vitamins, you can generally consider most vegetable to be “free foods” that you can eat with abandon.
However, if you already have an inflamed or compromised digestive system, please keep in mind that the rough fiber in raw vegetables can aggravate your situation. Doctors recommend lightly steaming your vegetables first, in order to soften the fibers. You just want to be careful not to overcook them — otherwise all those great vitamins and minerals will be gone too!
Fermented Foods (non-dairy)
If you’ve ever read anything about gut health, you’ve probably heard that you should eat “fermented foods.” What exactly are they, and are they all good for you? (Spoiler: no they’re not!)
Fermented foods get their name from the fact that they have cultivated beneficial bacteria you’ve likely heard referred to as “probiotics.” Adding these friendly bacteria to your gut can indeed promote healthy balance in your digestive tract, while also eliminating bad bacteria.
Nowadays, many yogurt products are advertised as containing probiotics. While they do indeed contain friendly bacteria, fermented dairy products are bad news for anyone trying to heal an inflamed gut. Dairy contains arachidonic acid, which has been shown to aggravate inflammation in the body. (39)
So what fermented foods are safe? Here are some great ones:
- Pickled vegetables
- Kefir made from coconut milk
- Unsweetened coconut milk yogurt
- Tea — especially black tea
Collagen / Bone Broth
One of the most popular “new” health foods is bone broth, which contains a healthy dose of collagen, glutamine and gelatin. Each of these ingredients plays an important role in maintaining healthy intestinal lining. While you can certainly take a collagen peptide supplement, drinking bone broth is actually far more beneficial for anyone already suffering from an unhealthy gut. This is because cooking the bone broth actually pre-digests the nutrients, making them more available for your body to easily digest.
Bone broth is available for purchase in stores or online, or you can also easily make your own! Just take the bones from any animal (chicken, fish, beef, pork, ox) and boil them in water to make your own brew.
Sprouted Grains and Legumes
If the thought of cutting back on gluten and processed grains is hard for you, know that there’s a whole world of healthier “ancient grains” and legumes that will nourish your body when prepared properly. Quinoa, wild rice (actually a grass, not a rice!), amaranth, spelt, millet, chickpeas, black-eyed peas and lentils are just a few.
What most of us in modern society haven’t learned is that grains and legumes come with a natural defense that can make them really difficult to digest. They protect themselves against being eaten by pests with phytic acid, and this is virtually impossible for our stomachs to break down. Even worse? Phytic acid actually prevents your body from fully absorbing any of the important minerals found in these foods.
This scary problem is easily solved, however, simply by soaking the grains and legumes first. It’s what our ancestors did for centuries! Because nature is amazing, it provided the antidote to phytic acid right in the same plant. Soaking grains and legumes releases phytase, a natural enzyme that not only breaks down phytic acid, but also helps to make minerals in the foods more digestible.
Plus, it’s simple to do! Approximately 12 hours before you want to cook your grains or legumes (it can be longer — like overnight), place them in a bowl. Cover them completely with filtered water, and then the most important step: add lemon juice or apple cider vinegar. You’ll want one tablespoon of either for every cup of water. Adding this acidic element is critical as a catalyst to releasing the phytase.
Extra Virgin Coconut Oil
While saturated fats in general are known to inflame the digestive tract, coconut oil is a very unique (and beneficial!) fat, made from medium chain fatty acids. Why extra virgin? Because it has excellent antimicrobial properties (it’ll kill bad microbes).
Not only does this make coconut oil a safe way to get healthy fat in your diet, but the oil itself has proven anti-inflammatory properties. Ingesting coconut oil can actually soothe your intestinal lining and provide relief from inflammation of the bowels. (40)
Wild-Caught Fish, Pasture-Raised Meats, Cage-Free Eggs
You’ll be doing your gut a huge favor by choosing animal products that have been naturally raised. Conventionally-raised animal products are laden with antibiotics, hormones, pathogens and other toxins that can wreak havoc on your microbiome. When animals have lived lives as nature intended, including small amounts of those animal products in your diet can provide really healthy Omega 3 fats, protein and minerals.
We all hate to admit it, but sugar has basically no redeeming health qualities. And on the flip side, there are very few health issues that can’t be improved by avoiding sugar. Gut health is no exception. Here’s why:
When you eat sugar, any natural yeast in your body starts to go nuts. Yeast (also known as candida) loves feeding on sugar, which actually causes it to multiply like crazy, quickly leading to an overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria in your digestive tract. So if you’re looking to heal your gut, one of the quickest solutions is to cut the sugar.
And remember, “sugar” doesn’t just refer to sweets. Things like white flour and alcohol turn into sugar in the body, so you’ll want to avoid those as well. And yes — the ban on sugar also includes artificial sweeteners. Even though they’re not made with actual sugar, research has shown that artificial sweeteners can mess with your microbiome balance. (41) They stimulate the growth of unhealthy bacteria like Enterobacteriaceae, which increases blood sugar. (42)
Ahh, gluten: the sudden nemesis of bellies everywhere, right? Should you try to avoid gluten even if you aren’t Celiac or gluten-sensitive? The reality is that if you are having any gut issues, you might have a hidden gluten sensitivity. The only way to find out for sure is to cut the gluten and see how you feel.
The science behind this is that eating gluten causes the formation of a protein that can in turn cause cellular damage to your digestive tract. (43) Research suggests gluten can bring about changes to your gut lining and might be a contributing factor to leaky gut. (44) While the most common source of gluten is wheat and similar grains, you also need to look out for it in sauces, condiments, dressings and some pre-packaged foods.
Aren’t grains and gluten the same thing? Not quite. See, there are gluten-free grains like corn and rice that carry a different danger to your gut health.
All grains are naturally coated in a substance called “phytic acid.” This coating is actually designed to protect the grain from being eaten by insects while the plant is still growing. Sadly, the phytic acid can’t tell the difference between an insect or the inside of our bellies, so it resists being broken down and digested. This resistance can lead to inflammation in your digestive system.
See the section above about “sprouted grains” and how to eliminate the phytic acid. You can find breads and crackers made with sprouted grains in the natural foods aisle of most grocery stores, or you can even try soaking and sprouting your own!
Refined vegetable oils are high in oleic acid which is known to promote inflammation. Yikes! So what’s a refined vegetable oil? Avoid any of these: canola, safflower, sunflower and soybean. You can use any of these oils instead: grass-fed butter, ghee, unrefined coconut oil and, for non-heated uses, extra virgin olive oil.
By now you know that your gut will be much happier if you lightly steam your leafy green vegetables prior to eating them.
- Vegetables shrink after you cook them and you actually eat a lot more than if they are raw.
- You get rid of pathogens that harm your gut health
- The fibers in vegetables will soften after cooking making it easier for your body to digest
- According to traditional Chinese medicine, eating cold raw foods on an extended basis harms digestive and gut health
But not all methods of cooking are equal. Here is an ancient cooking technique that not only preserves all the incredible phytonutrients in your vegetables by sealing them in oil, but also softens the fibers to be easier on your digestion.
- Soak your vegetables for at least 1 hour in a large bowl. Discard and refill the water once or twice depending on how much dirt is washed out of it. This will remove any surface impurities and potential pesticides/herbicides and freshen up your vegetables, reinvigorating them with life. You will sometimes notice an oily film on the water, not something you want to eat! You can use this water for watering your plants or garden.
- Heat a large pan or ideally a wok under medium heat. When the cooking surface is hot, add oil, when oil is hot add 1-2 slices of ginger (you can use garlic or skip this step). Ginger is great for digestion.
- Turn heat to high and immediately add the drained vegetables and immediately start to stir till all the vegetables are coated with oil. This coating of oil will seal in all the nutrients and juices of the vegetables.
- Depending on how much you drained vegetables, there should be a little water sizzling at the bottom of the wok. If there isn’t and your vegetables are starting to dry or turn color, immediately add 3-4 tablespoons of water to steam finish
In the section on fermented foods above, you learned which types are safe, since the popular go-to of fermented dairy can actually be an inflammatory nightmare for your gut.
Take a look at the fermented foods on the “safe” list (they’re also in the shopping list infographic above) and pick a few new ones to try. You’ll want to add one serving per day — preferably with breakfast or lunch. There’s no need to overdo it… consuming too many fermented foods can cause excess gas or bloating.
Cultures that emphasize eating a big breakfast, medium lunch and small dinner seem to live longer. There definitely seem to be digestive benefits to consuming more of your food earlier in the day, and avoiding too much food too close to bedtime. Try to keep this principle in mind when you plan your breakfast.
Focusing on fibrous fruits for breakfast is a gut-friendly way to start your day. Fruits like kiwi, berries, apples and grapefruit. Another excellent breakfast for gut health is congee or porridge, eaten with a serving of fermented vegetables. Why?
- The grains in the porridge are prebiotic fibers and provide the starch your microbiome thrives on.
- Grains turned into a congee form require almost no work to digest because they are already broken down.
- Your stomach and digestive system prefers hot foods. For long term gut health, starting the day with hot foods is like giving your gut a nice warm up before all the demands on it throughout the day begin, especially if you have a sensitive stomach.
- Adding fermented vegetables not only makes the porridge more interesting to eat but also provides additional probiotic cultures
How to make?
Porridge can be made with any grain. Always opt for whole grains (rice, millet, amaranth, oatmeal) vs processed ones (steel cut oats, minute oats). The only problem with whole grains is they generally take a long time to cook properly. So we recommend making a large batch for several days and refrigerating it and reheating to eat. Here is a recipe for making the porridge.
1/2 cup makes 4-6 servings. Use 1 cup of your chosen grain and put in large pot. Add enough water to just submerge and whisk with fingers to wash. Rinse with 2-3 rounds of water and discard (till water is clear). Pour out all water. Add pinch of salt, half teaspoon of oil, whisk into grain with hands. Add 8 cups of water. Set to high heat and once mixture shows signs of boiling immediately reduce to low simmer and cover with lid. Simmer for 60 mins. The final texture and viscosity should be much thinner than oatmeal and closer to pancake mix. It’s very easy for porridge to boil over so best to leave space between lid and pot by propping open with a fork or other utensil.
The gut-brain connection is very real, and remember that it runs both ways. So while improving your microbiome can result in improved mental health, it’s also true that your mental state can affect your microbiome. In simpler terms: too much stress can throw your gut out of whack, no matter how healthily you’re eating.
We highly recommend adopting a practice of medicinal breathwork. It’s easy, free and proven effective for thousands of years. It’s a simple as harnessing the power of your breath to move your Qi (lifeforce), which in turn allows your body to heal and regenerate itself.
How to do it? We’ve got a guide for 3 simple steps to turn your breath into medicine.