Foods for gut health
Gut health has become a common topic over the last couple of decades as a major area to focus on for overall well being. Much of this attention has been on specific diets, supplements and tests to uncover what could be contributing to your gut health status.
With all of this hype has come an overload of information. In clinical practice, as naturopaths, we often speak with patients who are under the impression that they need some sort of fancy treatment protocol in order to be healthy. For some, it is true that there will be a recommended regime of foods, herbs and nutrients to take for a period of time but for the vast majority of us, we can find therapeutic benefits from simple everyday foods.
Rather than focusing on “super foods” that have travelled across the world, many of the most potent food medicines are those found at the local supermarket. The four categories below highlight what some of those foods are and why they are essential for great gut health.
Probiotics are essentially bacteria (and sometimes yeasts) that are ingested so that they can interact with the bacteria already within the body. Probiotic bacteria do not colonise the gut permanently, rather they come in temporarily to help encourage and support a healthy microbiome environment.
The microbiome is the name we give the collection of different microbes that live within our gut. This is made up of organisms such as bacteria, yeasts, viruses and sometimes parasites. A healthy microbiome is one of diverse and thriving communities of microbes which help to break down our food, process chemicals and hormones, and form our immune system.
Many people will associate probiotics with the little capsules we keep in the fridge, however, probiotics can also be found in food forms - that is, foods that contain beneficial bacteria in them. These are mainly ‘fermented’ foods which have had their original nature changed due to bacterial activity (eg: cabbage that has been fermented into sauerkraut).
Examples of probiotic foods include:
As mentioned above, a healthy microbiome is essential for a well functioning gut. As well as introducing new bacterial species into the gut, we can also positively influence the microbiome by feeding it. These bacteria friendly foods are referred to as prebiotics.
Prebiotics are the non-digestible parts of our foods, also known as fibres. The “good” bacteria in the microbiome will feast on these foods while breaking them down and further fermenting them in the large intestine. Due to this fermentation in the colon, increasing prebiotic fibres in the diet should be done gradually to avoid large volumes of gas and bloating while the microbiome adjusts.
Prebiotic foods include:
Legumes (kidney beans, lentils, etc.)
Cooked and cooled potato
Polyphenols are compounds that occur naturally within plants. They are typically associated with the deep rich colours of purple, red and black but can also be found in other brightly coloured plant foods.
Due to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of polyphenols there has been much research done on the positive impacts these types of foods can have on our health. Much of the science shows that those who consume polyphenol-rich diets have protection against various chronic health concerns such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
But what does this have to do with gut health? Polyphenols are considered to be part of the prebiotic category, meaning they feed our gut bacteria. They have been given a special mention here because of their potent effects and how well they are tolerated by most people.
Due to the anti-inflammatory properties of polyphenols, they may also be a great recommendation for those with inflammatory gut concerns such as IBS, IBD and coeliac disease.
Examples of polyphenol foods include:
Black sesame and tahini
Herbs & spices
When we think of the health heroes in our meals we often think of the beautiful piece of wild caught fish or the fresh organic veggies, however, the accompaniments can be just as nourishing for the gut.
Eating ginger has been shown to improve many facets of gut health. As a prokinetic, ginger can help to speed up the pace of a sluggish gut and promote regular bowel movements. As naturopaths, we also know that ginger has a carminative effect on the gut, reducing discomfort and bloating, as well as quelling nausea.
Used by many Asian cultures, cumin is a digestive stimulant. It has astringent properties which helps to promote the initial stages of digestion by stimulating saliva production and increasing the release of enzymes in the stomach. Cumin, like ginger, is also a carminative and can settle an uncomfortable belly. It makes up one third of a common traditional Ayurvedic tea for gut health along with coriander seeds and fennel seeds.
The compound curcumin found within turmeric has shown to boost levels of beneficial bacteria while helping to reduce undesirable strains associated with certain chronic health conditions. Turmeric is touted for its anti-inflammatory actions which may promote healing within the gut lining. It is also a detoxification aid, supporting the production of phase 2 liver enzymes.
I couldn’t round out this article on foods for gut health without speaking about diversity. It is all good and well to include the foods listed above in your diet, however, if these are all you are eating, you will still see your gut health suffer. Diversity is the true key to long term good gut health. I recommend aiming for a minimum of 40 different plant foods every single week while also aiming to include something from each item above with most meals.
Gut health doesn’t need to be complicated and as you can see from the foods listed above, many of which are likely in your pantry or fridge already, it can be accessible for everyone.