Many common phrases refer to our gut as our control center of sorts, which is actually scientifically backed! The gut-brain axis is a two-way connection between the central nervous system (the brain) and the enteric nervous system (the gut). This communication axis involves complex messaging between your endocrine, immune and nervous systems, tying the cognitive (thought-based) and emotional centers of the brain to the digestive and disease-fighting centers of the gut.
The gut-brain axis influences the function of immune, muscle and nerve cells found in the intestine. Growing evidence shows microbes housed in the gut also influence these cells, making both the gut-brain axis and the intestinal microbiome important pillars for functioning communication between the bodies two main “brains.” Research is growing tying issues with the gut-brain axis to depression, mood disorders, schizophrenia, irritable bowel syndrome and more. Scientists continue to uncover more about these complex systems and relationships that drive our health and well-being.
Most of the bacteria housed in the gastrointestinal tract are either benign (neutral) or beneficial to our health. Good bacteria aids in digestion, regulates the immune system, and is essential for health. The more diverse your good gut bacteria, the better. Pathogenic (harmful) bacteria can also be present in the gut. Diet is an important factor influencing the gut microbiome, and eating a whole food, plant-based diet provides the fiber the good bacteria need to survive and the fuel to flourish. Creating a productive communication system along the gut-brain axis is nurtured in the kitchen.
It's All in
Our gut health is impacted by our food choices. Do you know what puts you at the highest risk for an imbalanced gut?
Processed foods are any food that has been changed from the fundamental nature of the agriculture product. A processed food is altered from its original form, using methods such as canning, smoking, pasteurizing or drying. White bread, pasta, rice, and other refined grains are processed foods that can feed pathogenic bacteria, ultimately creating an imbalance in the microbiome. Choose minimally processed foods, which are altered slightly but retain close to the food's original nutritional content.
Ultra-processed foods have been altered but also include additives such as sugar, fats, chemical preservatives, artificial flavors, and colors. These additives can 'enhance' preservation, flavor, mouth feel, texture and food stability. Ultra-processed foods often add calories and have minimal nutrition. They are known to impair microbial life and cause inflammation by damaging healthy gut bacteria.
If you are used to reaching for ultra-processed foods, ask yourself if it's worth the risk. Before choosing a packaged or shelf-stable snack, consider the resulting instability it may bring to your gut.
Promote Healthy Bacteria
Fuel with Fiber
Fiber fuels a healthy gut microbiome. A low fiber diet starves good bacteria, decreasing microbial diversity and causing bacteria to feed on the gastrointestinal mucous barrier. Bad bacteria reaching the intestinal tissue increases risk of infection. Thankfully, even a 2-week increase in fiber can positively alter the gut microbiome. Women should aim for 24 grams of fiber per day, while men need 39 grams.
Note: Increase water intake by 1 cup for every 3 gram increase in daily fiber.
Plan for Prebiotics
Prebiotics are the non-digestible food components (dietary fiber) that feed and promote your existing beneficial bacteria, while starving and crowding out the bad bacteria. Prebiotics are not a form of bacteria, rather they are a fuel source for bacteria. Examples of prebiotics include garlic, onion, leeks, cabbage, beans, legumes, oats, apples and cherries. A diverse plant-forward diet will help ensure the good bacteria have plenty of fuel to survive. Try an apple a day and legumes on Meatless Mondays!
Probiotics are live cultures that are eventually housed in our intestine. Though they are found in supplemental form, the diet can be a fruitful source of these beneficial bacteria. Probiotics are found in foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, kimchi, sourdough bread, and pickled vegetables and drinks including kefir, kombucha. While there isn't a specific recommended daily intake for probiotic foods, aim to sprinkle them throughout your meal plan each week to grow your good bacteria.
Pick Up Pickling
Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics, and they're delicious! Pickling has been a tradition for generations, and is easier to do at home that you might think. Explore probiotics in your kitchen with our tried and true recipe.
Get to Know Kimchi
Kimchi, a staple in Korean cuisine, is a traditional side dish of fermented vegetables, such as napa cabbage and Korean radish. It's made with a varying selection of seasonings including gochugaru (chili powder), spring onions, garlic, ginger, and jeotgal (salted seafood). Find it in the international aisle at the grocery store, or in Asian markets and health food stores.
Kimchi is great on lettuce wraps, grain bowls or salads. It is also used in a variety of soups.
If you are new to eating probiotics, start slowly and pay attention to your body. There isn't a set recommendation for probiotics, making adding beneficial bacteria a very personal experience.
Add 1 tablespoon of sauerkraut or a 6 ounce serving of yogurt to your lunch. Try a bit of kefir on your whole grain cereal, or some kombucha during an afternoon snack. Work your way up to eating a larger variety of probiotic foods each week.
Considering a supplement? Look for a product with multiple bacterial strains, a quality assurance seal, and at least 10 billion CFU's (Colony Forming Units) for adults. As with any decision that impacts your health, check with your provider before starting a supplement. Certain people with compromised immune systems or severe illnesses should not take probiotic supplements.
Homemade pickled vegetables are quick, easy and forgiving. Check out this simple recipe then experiment with the flavorful punch.
Start the day strong with a beneficial bacteria bowl. High fiber, flavor and filling are just a few aspects of this tasty example.
Did You Know?
You can ease the destruction caused from poor gut bacteria and renew a healthy gut microbiome with a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods. Mostly found in plants, these foods fight inflammation to promote a healthy gut, while helping to reduce risk of cancer and other chronic conditions.
Include these powerhouse anti-inflammatory food choices often:
· Cruciferous Vegetables (Broccoli, Cauliflower, Kale, Cabbage, Brussels)
· Dark Leafy Greens
· Garlic, Ginger & Turmeric
· Berries & Cherries
· Wild Caught Fatty Fish
· Extra Virgin Olive Oil
· Nuts and Seeds, especially Walnuts
· Beans & Legumes