“Healthy” and “gut” are two words we usually don’t put together. We usually associate “gut” with belly fat, but this is something totally different with fascinating emerging science. So, what do we mean by a “healthy gut”?
We’re actually talking about the trillions of invisible, microscopic organisms, mostly bacteria, that live in the human digestive tract, the greatest concentration being found in the large intestine. Until recently, not a lot of attention was given to these creatures because, 1) the technology wasn’t available to study them, and 2) come on, we’re talking about poop bugs; how important can they really be to human health?
Improvements in molecular technologies since 2006 have led to an explosion of scientific research indicating that the microorganisms living in our digestive tract actually play a central role in human health and biological processes, influencing our physiology, metabolism, nutrition, hormonal balance, brain health, immune function, even gene expression.
Furthermore, disruption or damage to these microorganisms, called “dysbiosis,” has been associated with the development of numerous diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease), diabetes, heart disease, colon and breast cancer, obesity, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune diseases, depression and more.1- 3
Bottomline: the emerging science of the human gut microbiome is telling us that a healthy, thriving gut microbiota is necessary for a healthy, thriving human being. So profoundly important is the gut microbiota to human health it’s been called the “forgotten organ.”4
Let’s take a closer look at this exciting new area of research and learn what we can do to optimize our health by optimizing our gut microbiota. But first, it’s important we’re on the same page with a few basic terms.
Definition of four important terms
Our gut bacteria can be divided into two broad categories:
A healthy gut microbiome has balance and harmony defined by two essential characteristics:5
Like humans, our gut bacteria are living organisms that need food to provide energy. Since they live in our digestive tract, they eat what we eat. So, if we want the beneficial gut bacteria to thrive, we need to feed them their preferred food—Fiber!
Dietary fiber is THE key nutrient for fueling beneficial bacterial species.6 They love to ferment fiber and can’t survive without it. So, in order to have the good gut bacteria outnumber the bad ones, we need to eat a high-fiber diet. Since dietary fiber is only found in plant foods, fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds become the necessary foundation of the daily diet.
As noted above, diversity of beneficial bacterial species is also necessary for a healthy gut microbiome. The American Gut Project, the largest study to date connecting the human gut microbiome with dietary choices, has discovered an important key: the single most powerful predictor of a diverse gut microbiota is the diversity of plants in the diet. Another way to think of that is the diversity of whole, plant fiber foods in the diet, like apples, carrots, pinto beans and oats, for example.
The greater the diversity of fiber foods eaten, the greater the abundance and diversity of the beneficial bacterial species. In fact, their research has shown, no matter the type of diet, those participants who ate more than 30 different plant foods per week had gut microbiomes that were more diverse than those who ate 10 or fewer plants per week.7
Many factors play a role in keeping our gut microbiome balanced: diet, sleep habits, exercise, stress management, alcohol and cigarette use, toxins, diseases, drugs and medications, genetics.8 We will focus on 1) dietary habits that harm the gut bacteria, because diet is one of the main determinants of the composition of the gut microbiota, and 2) on prescription drugs and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, because their use is so common in the US: 66% of US adults take prescription drugs, and nearly 9 out of every 10 Americans use OTC medications regularly.
According to the recent 9th edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,9 more than 90% of adult women and 97% of adult men do not meet daily fiber recommendations of 25 and 38 grams.10 This is associated with the fact that more than 85% of adults under consume fruits, vegetables and whole grains, key sources of dietary fiber.9
Since health-promoting bacterial species thrive on dietary fiber and die out without it,11 the Standard American Diet does not promote a healthy, thriving gut microbiome because it is a low-fiber diet. It is further characterized by a high intake of ultra-processed foods, sugar and refined grains, excess salt, food additives, artificial sweeteners, animal fat, especially saturated and trans fat, and animal protein, all of which cause an unhealthy gut microbiome by promoting the increase of pathogenic bacterial species, increasing inflammation and compromising the intestinal barrier by increasing gut permeability.5,8 Simply put, it feeds the bad guys and harms the good guys.
Outside of diet, prescription drugs and OTC medications can have a significant impact on our gut microbiome. Some, like life-saving antibiotics, have a direct role in not only destroying pathogenic bacteria, but also the beneficial bacterial species,8 throwing our gut microbiome out of balance. In this case, your doctor may ask you to eat fermented foods, like yogurt, and/or prescribe specific probiotic supplements.
Our gut microbiota can also dictate how our body responds to a drug or medication, affecting how much is digested, how potent it will be and what it will do.12 The complex relationship between drugs, OTC medications and the microbiome is an area of active research which will yield important information for helping us understand how to maintain a healthy gut microbiome.
The word ‘probiotics’ refers to live microorganisms that are good for us. There are three main sources of probiotics:
Let’s consider each of one these probiotic sources.
Beneficial bacteria already present in our gut.
We’ve already discussed how to increase the beneficial bacterial species living in the gut—eat a plant-predominant diet of whole, unprocessed fiber foods, fruits, veggies, beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, incorporating a diversity of different fiber foods each week.
Probiotic supplements are highly concentrated amounts of live, beneficial bacterial strains. There is evidence that they can be helpful for many health conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, allergies, inflammatory bowel disease and female urogenital problems.13 Since antibiotics destroy both good and bad bacterial species, it would seem like a good idea to take probiotic supplements after a course of antibiotics. However, researchers have shown that probiotics actually slow the recovery of the gut microbiota to normal after antibiotics.14 For this reason, and the fact that their health benefits are species specific, it is prudent to consult with your doctor or other appropriate healthcare professional before taking them.
Probiotic supplements alone can not fully optimize beneficial bacterial diversity because 1) the supplements contain a limited number of species, and 2) all the different species in the supplements may not necessarily take up permanent residence in the gut.15 If you stop taking a probiotic supplement, research suggests it is possible that within two to five days, it can be like you never took it.16 That’s why eating a wide variety of whole fiber foods from day to day is the foundation of a healthy gut microbiome.
Research studies have shown that eating fermented foods daily is one way to increase the amount and diversity of beneficial gut bacteria.17-19
Traditionally fermented foods are growing in popularity in the US. These fermented foods are made in brine, meaning the vegetables and/or fruits are covered with water, salt is added, and they are left at room temperature for several days or longer until they are bubbling with an abundance of beneficial bacteria. Some examples of traditionally fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, beets, pickles.
Choose vegetables and/or fruits fermented in brine rather than pickled in vinegar in order to maximize the number of beneficial bacterial species present.
There are other types of fermented foods that contain probiotics:
In order to optimize your gut microbiome to enhance your health, do these three things:
Not sure how to add more fiber foods to your plate? The Full Plate Living Membership was created to help readers like you easily identify whole fiber foods and find delicious ways of adding them to meals at home or any favorite restaurant. Sign up for your free membership to access self-paced courses, practical recipes, healthy living workshops and more.
If you are under medical supervision for any reason, please consult with your doctor before following any of the dietary recommendations above. If you are taking any prescription drugs or regularly use OTC medications, it would be prudent to discuss with your doctor the nature of their impact on your gut microbiome.