The digestive system is responsible for a lot besides absorbing nutrients and eliminating waste. It is a delicate system and it doesn’t take a lot for it to be bothered. A bad diet, unhealthy lifestyle habits, and stress can disturb this system and that is when you experience certain symptoms like gas, bloating, cramping, aches, diarrhea, or constipation. Certain medical conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Gastroesophageal Reflux, Crohn’s disease, or heartburn can put you at risk for rather serious digestive disorders.
Your body is full of microbes. This is no cause for alarm as these microbes live with us in harmony. They live in the gut, on the skin, in the mouth and nose, and on the genitals. The gut microbes consist of viruses, fungi, yeasts, and bacteria. The bacteria are what we are going to hone in on. Bacteria are usually associated with disease but most of them – the ones that live in the gut, are crucial for the immune system, skin health, heart and brain maintenance, and body weight regulation.
The bacteria live in the cecum, in the large intestine, and they are known as the gut microbiome or the gut microbiota. Essentially, you are more bacteria than a human if you count cells. And it isn’t just one kind of bacteria. Thousands of species inhabit the gut microbiome and each strain plays a different but vital role in keeping you healthy. Not all bacteria are good bacteria, bad bacteria live in your gut too. On a good day, the good bacteria keep the bad ones in check and everything runs smooth. When things go south, the bad bacteria get an upper hand in the gut, and slowly but surely your body begins to suffer.
A healthy balance of the good bacteria and the bad is what we aspire to and when the balance is disturbed, we call it dysbiosis. The bad bacteria release enterotoxins which affect the gut lining. Normally the lining of the intestines has tiny spaces that allow for nutrients and water to leave the gut and travel into the bloodstream. With the enterotoxins, the intestinal permeability is increased, allowing toxins, bacteria, and undigested food to enter the bloodstream as well. This causes gut inflammation and inflammation throughout the body. We, humans, have co-evolved with the bacteria and we can’t live a healthy life without them. Because gut bacteria play such an important role in our digestive health and overall well-being, we have to take care of them. Else, a lot of your body systems may crash.
Influence of the Gut Microbiome
The bacteria begin to grow within you from infancy. The first to show up is typically Bifidobacterium, which helps to metabolize the sugars in breastmilk, which is essential for growth. Since then, the numbers have grown and newer species are added depending on your diet.
- The human digestive system cannot deal with fiber but certain bacteria can. The bacteria break the fiber into short chain fatty acids, vital for gut health.
- The bacteria influence your immune system by communicating with the immune cells guiding them to take care of infections.
- With the development of the gut-brain axis theory, it is now known that the gut microbiome can affect the central nervous system, which in turn, influences brain health and function.
- The healthy gut bacteria also control healthy body weight.
- The most vital role that bacteria play is the role they play in gut health. A healthy gut microbiome communicates with the intestinal cells, digesting foods and preventing disease-causing bacteria from sticking to the intestinal walls.
Healthy individuals can also experience an occasional case of gas or bloating. But if it’s a one-off case, then there is nothing to worry about. However, if you are experiencing the symptoms mentioned above regularly, then you may want to take a closer look at your diet. Gut problems usually start with what you put into your body.
It has already been established that the gut microbiome is sensitive and it doesn’t take much to cause an imbalance. Things that you consume play a key role in maintaining the bacteria in your gut healthy.
A diverse diet goes a long way. A healthy gut needs a variety of nutrients and fiber to stay healthy. The more diverse the diet, the greater the variety of bacterial strains in the gut. A lack of diversity is usually associated with a limited recovery from external influences like antibiotics or infection. A diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fermented goods can help the good gut bacteria survive and flourish.
Fiber is vital, as fiber acts as a prebiotic, fiber content in your diet will help the gut bacteria to fight off harmful bacteria. Fiber can be found in a variety of plant-based foods. Prebiotic supplements are available, but why supplement something you can eat, unless the situation is grave. Prebiotic fibers help produce short-chain fatty acids which are a source of nutrition for the cells in your colon. Once in the bloodstream, they can promote digestive health and metabolic health, reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, and fight gut inflammation.
Alcohol is a highly toxic substance that can harm physical and mental health. In addition to that, consuming alcohol in large quantities regularly can lead to dysbiosis. However, the good news is that red wine has a high polyphenol content – a plant compound that passes through the stomach and is broken down by the bacteria in your gut. So red wine in moderation is okay.
Antibiotics were created to deal with infections caused by bacteria like urinary tract infections or strep throat. They have saved millions of lives to date. However, antibiotics aren’t smart enough to differentiate between the beneficial bacteria and the ones causing the infections. Hence these medicines tend to kill off a large number of bacteria when you take them. If you use antibiotics very often the effects on your digestive tract could last up to two years.
Smoking is not cool. After nine weeks of not smoking, your gut flora will start to flourish. Cigarette smoking comes with a heavy warning with good cause. 70 of the chemicals found in tobacco smoke cause cancer. Tobacco hurts almost every organ in the body and it increases the chances of developing Crohn’s disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
To avoid issues like this, certain foods help the digestive tract cope, maintain good gut health and reduce the risk of disease. These are known as Digestive Superfoods. These foods are readily available, delicious, and good for your gut. So, what makes a digestive superfood?
What Does It Take to be Super?
Not all the items stacked at Whole Foods are digestive superfoods. To be of some benefit to the gut, the food has to meet one or many of the following criteria:
- Fiber Content: Dietary fiber increases stool bulk and softens it, making it easier to pass. Fiber helps with diarrhoea as well. Fiber is used to keep healthy bacteria healthy by providing them with nutrition. Plant-based foods fall in this category.
- Probiotic Content: If a portion of food can contribute to the intestinal bacteria numbers, then it is a superfood. Consuming fermented foods is a source of good gut bacteria.
- Low Saturated Fat Content: Saturated fats tend to decrease the diversity in the gut flora and can promote the growth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut. Avocado, margarine, and vegetable oils are good sources.
- High Nutrition Value: Foods that support the gut while providing the body with vital nutrition are a must. Gut health alone cannot maintain you. Vitamins, minerals, carbs, proteins, and healthy fats are just as crucial.
Nutrition for you and the bacteria in the gut is what a digestive superfood must provide. So here are the top ten superfoods that could help gut health.
Made from milk that has been fermented by lactic acid bacteria, yogurt is the most easily available probiotic food around. Yogurt gives your gut health a good boost by increasing the number of beneficial bacteria. It can also help with bloating, constipation and diarrhea. It could also ease the intake of lactose or milk sugar. Not all yogurt is probiotic though. When shopping, look for “live culture” on the packaging. Apart from benefits for the gut, yogurt is a great source of magnesium, selenium, and zinc. It can boost your immune system, reduce the risk of cancer, regulate blood sugar, promote healthy bones, reduce inflammation, and can regulate weight and appetite as well.
Pectin– is a soluble fiber and apples have them aplenty. Pectin travels through your digestive system to the colon where friendly gut bacteria break it down. Apples help you with regular bowel movements and are a good home remedy for constipation. Furthermore, it can help with intestinal infections and reduce colon inflammation. Apples are a nutrient powerhouse and are a great source of vitamin C and E. Because of the pectin, they leave you feeling full which can help with cravings.
Additionally, they are also rich in polyphenols. Because they are rich in antioxidants, apples can help fight asthma, protect the brain and heart, and prevent cancer.
#3. Whole Grains:
Affectionately known as cereals, they are one of the best fiber-rich foods. Whole grains include oats, faro, and wheat products. The fiber in these grains improves digestion by adding bulk to your stool and by keeping the gut bacteria fed with the prebiotic fiber. They are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, protein, antioxidants, and polyphenols. They can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and type 2 diabetes and support healthy digestion. However, they are high in gluten and can sometimes trigger a reaction.
One of the digestive enzymes called papain is found in papaya and this enzyme is essential for breaking down protein fibers. It isn’t an essential enzyme but it helps if you have a high-protein diet. It has also been found to help with IBS symptoms. High in vitamin B complex, C and A, papaya are a good source of calcium, carbohydrates, and protein. It is a powerful antioxidant as well. Apart from this, papaya can help with the prevention of damage to the heart and skin, can reduce inflammation, and has anti-cancer properties.
You won’t look at this side-dish the same way again. This fermented cabbage dish is a great source of probiotics that can promote digestion and encourage the growth of healthy bacteria. The longer the kimchi is fermented, the better its probiotic value. Kimchi also contains fiber which helps with constipation and diarrhea. Rich in essential nutrients and 34 amino acids, kimchi can help boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, prolong cell life – meaning increasing longevity, prevent yeast infections and support heart health.
Salmon is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids which can help with inflammation in the body. Those with IBD or food allergies suffer from inflammation in the gut and consuming omega-3 fatty acids can improve digestion and ease the digestion process.
They are also rich in vitamin B complex and protein – especially needed when recovering from injury or surgery. Salmon can also protect the heart, and brain and maintain mental health. It has all the nutrients necessary to promote good vision and healthy bones as well.
#7. Bone Broth:
Easily made at home by boiling the bones and connective tissues over a small flame and over a long time, the gelatin found in bone broth can bind the fluid in the food present in the stomach and can help the food pass through digestion with more ease. Glutamine, one of the two amino acids found in gelatin, protects the gastrointestinal wall and has been shown to help with the leaky gut syndrome.
Because bone broth is linked to collagen, bone broth is said to have anti-aging properties. Collagen also helps with joint health. Bone broth can also help you sleep better.
Similar to kimchi, sauerkraut is made from lactic acid fermented cabbage. Another probiotic food, this hotdog topping can add to the beneficial bacteria numbers in the gut. What’s more, is that sauerkraut can add up to 28 different strains of friendly bacteria. It also has a fair share of enzymes that break down nutrients into molecules that are easily digested. Nutrition-rich, sauerkraut can boost the immune system and because it is bulky, it can curb the appetite as well.
Ginger has been used in Eastern traditional medicine for disorders of the digestive system for centuries. It not only promotes healthy and quick digestion but can also nullify nausea and morning sickness in pregnant women. Ginger can also significantly reduce the occurrence of heartburn, gas, and stomach aches. Gingerol, which is found in ginger can also help with cough, common cold, and the flu. Highly antioxidant, ginger can help with osteoarthritis, regulate blood sugar levels, reduce menstrual cramps, lower cholesterol levels, prevent cancer, protect the brain from Alzheimer’s, and fight infections. Not bad, for a little yellow root.
Usually consumed as soup, miso is made from fermenting soybeans with salt and an edible fungus called koji. Like other fermented foods, miso is a probiotic source and has been found to reduce digestive issues and illnesses like diarrhoea. Miso also is a source of essential nutrients and minerals like manganese, calcium, and zinc which support the basic structures like bones and the nervous system.
Several other foods are good for gut health and the ones mentioned above are just the easiest to incorporate into your diet. The gut microbiota will begin to show a world of difference once you begin to consume gut-healthy foods and not to mention, the health benefits these foods provide are not to be scoffed at.
You also have options like kefir grains- a fermented milk drink, kombucha – a fermented tea, tempeh – fermented soybeans, fennel, chia seeds, Jerusalem artichokes, etc. Depending on where you are, you can find any number of foods available to you.
A Happy Gut
Most digestive superfoods have anti-inflammatory properties that help gut health. They can help with the symptoms of IBD, IBS, leaky gut syndrome, and indigestion. However, there are certain things that you must keep in mind.
- Firstly, these foods cannot correct a disorder, they can help to a certain degree and may reduce the severity of the occurring symptoms but ridding the gut of chronic diseases is a big no.
- Secondly, overall health is the result of healthy eating and good lifestyle habits. These foods can help you but not help with a major disease.
- Thirdly, before you introduce new foods to your diet, consult a dietician. There may be things that you are intolerant to and you might not want to risk it.
For a favorable gut environment, there are certain lifestyle changes that you have to make. The intake of processed foods has to stop. Processed is just a fancy way of saying salt, sugar, or preservatives added. Their nutritional value-add is very low and most of the time overloads your system with salt or sugar.
Ensure that your food sources are organic and healthy. Speak to a dietician about resistant starches, prebiotic fibers, probiotic foods, and healthy fats. All of these work towards a healthy gut.
Superfoods are not an alternative to taking medication for gut distress or even probiotic supplements, learn more about the 10 Best Prebiotic and Probiotic Supplements that Aid in Leaky Gut and add live cultures of good bacteria. They are foods that can help your gut along. If you have a healthy gut already, consuming such foods can help your gut stay that way and enhance it to some degree. But if you are facing gut issues, superfoods can help the supplements boost their efficiency. They are not a replacement.
On the whole, digestive superfoods can help gut health and ensure several other health benefits. It is always good to add superfoods to your diet.
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