I want to preface this post with the fact that I try to avoid being prescriptive because the field of gut health is still very new and we are only beginning to understand these complicated topics.
It’s hard to believe, but our gut has some sort of control on nearly every aspect of our body. Hippocrates famously said “all disease begins in the gut”, and while we know this isn’t 100% true, he was definitely onto something that was revolutionary and way before his time.
We have trillions of bacteria that reside in our gut that provide many functions that help us live healthier and happier lives. These bacteria help influence our metabolism and absorption of certain nutrients, produce compounds that alter our gut health, and even signal to other organs through the production of some of these compounds. This all sounds great, right?
The problem is that many individuals are living with something called dysbiosis, meaning their gut microbiota is in an unbalanced, abnormal, unhealthy state. This dysbiosis has actually been shown to influence the development of diseases and complications including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s disease. More recently, we have learned what causes this dysbiosis which includes antibiotic use, alcohol intake, stress, and importantly, dietary habits. Research also shows that as we age, we lose a lot of our healthy gut microbes. For all these reasons, you can see how important it is to take great care of your gut!
So, what can you do to make sure you are nurturing your gut?
Eat your fiber
Fiber is so very important and most Americans do not eat enough of it! Generally, it is recommended by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that adult women consume at least 28g of fiber per day and adult men consume 35g. (1) Nearly all individuals regardless of age and gender do not come even close to meeting the daily recommendations for fiber intake.
Fiber is important for a healthy gut because while we cannot metabolize it, our gut bacterial residents can and they LOVE it. By definition, dietary components that stimulate the growth and maintenance of beneficial bacteria are called prebiotics. Fiber is one of the only prebiotics that we know of at the moment and is definitely the most potent prebiotic. When the bacteria metabolize and break down these fibers, they produce a host of beneficial metabolites including some that are called short chain fatty acids (SCFA). These SCFA help keep your gut cells healthy, help feed other beneficial microbes, and actually get absorbed through our intestine to be used for a variety of functions throughout the body.
To increase your fiber intake, focus on consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables and increasing your consumption of whole grains such as oats, brown rice, and whole wheat breads. You want to do this gradually, however, because increasing your fiber too quickly may cause you to experience some bloating and gastrointestinal dysfunction. And beware: there is such a thing as getting too much fiber! Getting enough is important, but getting too much isn’t recommended either. By consuming adequate amounts of fiber, you can help ensure you are providing your gut microbes with plenty of nutrients and reap the benefits of their products in return.
Should I take a probiotic?
Probiotics, sounding a little similar to prebiotics, are actually live bacteria that are added to food products or available in supplement form. Recently, we have seen a boom of probiotic products reaching the market from yogurts, to fermented drinks, to soy products like miso and tempeh. Probiotics are also now added to many shelf-stable foods including cereals, granolas, snack bars, and even chocolate. The current research examining probiotics is still very new and there is a lot of debate as to whether probiotic supplements are actually beneficial. Most studies that have demonstrated a positive benefit with probiotic supplementation have been done in individuals with pre-existing gastrointestinal conditions. Whether or not you will actually see a benefit as a healthy individual is still not well supported. Furthermore, we still do not understand fully the roles that specific bacteria play within our gut and thus prescribing specific probiotics is difficult. As the research in this field grows, it is likely we might be able to recommend specific probiotics for specific conditions, but this isn't fully supported at the moment.
If you do choose to test out taking a probiotic here is some basic info to navigate the market. Focus on picking one that has at least 5 billion CFUs (colony forming units) and has a mixture of bacterial strains. The trick here again is to not overdo it and jump into taking 100 billion CFUs immediately. This can lead to some digestive upset and bloating. Probiotics should also be always stored in a cool, dark place, and many often require refrigeration. If you are interested in reading about the research behind specific probiotic bacteria, the Clinical Guide for Probiotics (www.usprobioticguide.com) is a good resource. Probiotics fall under the umbrella of supplements, and therefore are not regulated by the FDA. So if you do choose to take one, do your research products of interest and also pay close attention to how it's making you feel.
Stress can really wreak havoc on your gut microbiota. Your gut is very closely
connected to your nervous system, something we call the gut-brain axis. Have you ever gotten nervous before some big event, speech, or test, and had some digestive problems? That’s because your brain and your gut are in constant communication. Research has shown that when under high stress, your gut microbiota undergoes changes, shifting towards a more dysbiosis-like composition. Studies of subjects with a disrupted gut microbiota have shown that this leads to greater stress responses, which can lead to inflammation and mental health issues. Also, recent studies have shown that consistent stress negatively affects the diversity and abundance of gut microbiota. (2,3,4)
So, what do you do to reduce stress? A great place to start is to get enough sleep, make time in your schedule to do some sort of physical activity, shut off social media and work in the evenings, and focus on creating time for yourself. Incorporating mindfulness practices and meditation are also great ways to reduce stress.
Gut health is so incredibly important and it can be encouraging to know you have the potential to be able to foster good gut health. To prevent dysbiosis and reap the benefits of a healthy gut microbiota, focus on consuming adequate fiber (not too much) and reducing stress. Hope you found all of this information helpful. Feel free to reach out with any questions you may have!
Dahl, W.J. and M.L. Stewart, Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Health Implications of Dietary Fiber. J Acad Nutr Diet, 2015. 115(11): p. 1861-70.
Collins, S.M., M. Surette, and P. Bercik, The interplay between the intestinal microbiota and the brain. Nat Rev Microbiol, 2012. 10(11): p. 735-42.
Bailey, M.T., et al., Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation. Brain Behav Immun, 2011. 25(3): p. 397-407.
Aroniadis, O.C., D.A. Drossman, and M. Simren, A Perspective on Brain-Gut Communication: The American Gastroenterology Association and American Psychosomatic Society Joint Symposium on Brain-Gut Interactions and the Intestinal Microenvironment. Psychosom Med, 2017. 79(8): p. 847-856.
This post was adapted from a previous post over at Positive Nutrition.