Gut health is a complicated topic, and the conversation around it touches on everything from bloating to mental health disorders. But without getting caught up in complexities, there are some basic things about gut health everyone should know.
For one, it’s important to understand what gut health even is. Gut health has little to do with the size of your stomach; it’s actually about what’s going on beneath the surface, in your digestive tract. The healthier your digestive tract, the smoother your digestion — and your ability to properly digest your food is of critical importance. Digestion is where most of your nutrient absorption takes place. It’s also where your brain receives some signals regarding your hunger and fullness. When things in your gut are out of balance, the rest of your body’s systems may also be affected.
“There are up to 500 types of bacteria in the gut,” says Katherine Brooking, a registered dietitian and co-creator of AppforHealth.com. “They comprise our microbiome." You might have heard references to “good” and “bad” gut bacteria. Your gut contains a balance of both "good" and "bad" bacteria. "Good" bacteria is thought to aid with digestion and improve overall health, while "bad" bacteria may have the opposite effect.
"Research suggests the gut bacteria in healthy people are different from those with certain diseases,” Brooking says. Here are some of the health impacts of these bacteria, followed by some foods that may help improve your overall gut health.
When you aren’t taking proper care of your digestive tract, certain symptoms are likely. “If you have a healthy gut, you’re less likely to experience bloating, upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation and other gastrointestinal ailments,” says Brooking. When these ailments strike, there are ways to help combat them, such as drinking water or eating foods with fiber.
If you don’t have a healthy digestive system, you’re going to feel some digestive discomfort. But that’s not the only concern to keep in mind when thinking about your gut health. “Scientists believe that gut bacteria and gut health are closely linked to overall health and the likelihood of getting conditions like diabetes, depression and colon cancer,” says Brooking. “It’s thought some kinds of bacteria may protect against ailments, while others may raise the risk.” In the long term, taking care of your digestive tract can help you to avoid disease.
Typically, when you think of foods that are good for your gut, probiotics are one of the things that come to mind. Simply put, probiotics are “good” bacteria that exist in your gut naturally that help keep your digestive tract healthy. Prebiotics, meanwhile, are a class of nutrients that feed the good bacteria in the gut and help them to thrive.
You can actually ingest probiotics and prebiotics, which may help maintain a healthier gut microbiota. “Ingesting probiotics can help balance your ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria to keep your body working the way it should,” Brooking says. Some people increase their intake of probiotics by taking a pill. There is some research that shows these pills can be beneficial and some research that isn’t as definitive. Other people try to get their probiotics through incorporating probiotic-rich foods into their diets. These foods, along with other gut-healthy foods, tend to be nutritious, as well. So eating more of these foods doesn’t really have much of a downside. Here are a few of the best foods for your gut.
It’s a good idea to add this spring vegetable to your dinner table. There are lots of great ways to cook asparagus, and it’s rich with gut-healthy prebiotics. Asparagus is particularly notable for its high levels of the prebiotic fiber inulin.
Sweet! Eating dark chocolate is actually great for your gut bacteria, since it contains both probiotics and prebiotics. But that’s not all dark chocolate can do — here are some other health benefits you might not know about.
Garlic is more than just an ingredient to add flavor to your food. It has lots of health benefits, including the beneficial effect of prebiotics. The more prebiotics you eat, the more you allow your naturally occurring healthy gut bacteria to thrive.
Sauerkraut is surprisingly rich in nutrients, with vitamins such as vitamins B6, C, and K and minerals such as iron and manganese. But in addition to those benefits, sauerkraut has probiotics due to the fact that it is a fermented food. Not only do these probiotics help improve your gut health in general, but they also help your digestive system to absorb more of these key nutrients from your food.
Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa and whole-wheat bread are filled with fiber. Fiber is essential for a healthy digestive system. All the fiber in these foods is one of the many reasons eating carbs is actually good for you. And if you cut out carbs completely, your digestive system could suffer the consequences.
Since yogurt is a fermented food, it contains lots of probiotics that can help increase the amount of good bacteria in your gut. Greek yogurt has more protein than some other types, so it is generally regarded as healthier. But almost all yogurts have this gut-healthy benefit.
Really all nutrient-rich foods are good for your gut, in a sense. Maintaining a balanced, nutritious diet is important for keeping your digestion running smoothly. There’s no one gut-healthy food that’s the end-all, be-all of gut health! You can eat all the kimchi you want, but if the rest of your diet is lacking, you probably won’t feel your best. The idea that quick-fix diet “secrets” can improve your health is one of the nutrition myths you should stop believing.
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