5 easy ways to boost your Gut Health

An unhealthy gut can cause many problems, starting with digestive issues or food intolerances but also less obvious things are controlled by big parts via you gut. This includes your mood, your energy levels, your weight or even your immune system.

The purpose of this blog is to provide you with five easy but scientifically proven ways to boost your gut health and thereby, improve your overall health and mood.

Before we start, I want to clarify that these tips probably work for most people but you might have reasons why something is not working for you. However, these tips are very easy to implement in your daily life, which means that you don’t need to follow a radical diet to live a healthy life.

So, let’s start with the first one:

Avoid processed foods

 
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Obvious, right? Let me explain it quickly with some science, as we have learned that unless we know the “why” behind something, we probably won’t do it.

Processed foods are full of added sugar, artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers. Research over the last years has shown that these three by itself can have detrimental effects on the health of the microbiome. [1-7]

Maybe the biggest problem of processed foods is not even what is in it, but what is missing; Fiber.
Fiber is usually removed when food is processed to change the consistence, to make it taste better and to increase the shelf life . However, by removing the fiber we remove the food for our microbes and will potentially starve them.

Which brings me to the next point; Eat more fiber.

Eat more fiber

Fiber is more than just the indigestible part of food that helps us poop. Even though it does…help us poop.

Some people don’t do well on high amounts of fiber but most of us can benefit from increasing the fiber intake a little bit. The typical western diet is deprived fiber and even though the current dietary recommendations suggest a daily fiber intake of 30 grams but the average is barely at 15 grams per day. [8, 9]

Although we cannot digest fiber, our gut bacteria digest certain kinds of fiber, which they need it for growing and they show their gratitude by producing different molecules that are beneficial for us.

One group of molecules produced by our microbes are short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Science has shown that SCFAs play an important role in health and diseases, especially via their function to regulate the immune system and to provide energy to the cells that line the gut wall. [10-12]

 
crosstalk between microbiota and the immune system via SCFAs [from 12]

crosstalk between microbiota and the immune system via SCFAs [from 12]

 

Research also suggests that starving gut microbes start eating the mucus layer, which is a protective slimy substance that lines the inner walls of the intestine. The mucus layer prevents the direct contact of the trillions of microbes in our gut with the cells lining the gut, including the gut-resident immune cells. If bacteria get too close to the gut wall, they can set off alarm bells within the immune system.

This can ultimately lead to chronic inflammation and you really don’t want to have that. It had been shown over and over again that chronic inflammation can cause or aggravate almost any disease, including cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart diseases. [13]

Researchers found that just a couple days on a western style diet that is extremely low in fiber reduced the mucus layer extremely, but just adding back some fiber and probiotic bacteria could restore the protective mucus layer in a short time. [14, 15]

 
Bifidobacteria or Fiber Protects against Diet- Induced Microbiota-Mediated Colonic Mucus Deterioration [from 15]

Bifidobacteria or Fiber Protects against Diet- Induced Microbiota-Mediated Colonic Mucus Deterioration [from 15]

 

Some high-fiber foods that are good for the microbiome are:

  • Raspberries

  • Artichokes

  • Asparagus

  • Broccoli

  • Chickpeas

  • Almonds

  • But also Cacao (so dark chocolate might not be too bad for you. Just get the really dark version)

Eat a more diverse diet

The next advice would be to eat a diverse diet. We know that the diversity of our gut microbiome is one of the most important indicators for our health, but how do we get there? [16, 17]

Professor Tim Spector, author of the fascinating book “The Diet Myth” explains in his talk at the King’s College London what matters the most for a diverse microbiome:

In brief, he points out that eating a wide variety is the most important factor for maximum diversity and that this factor was more important than following any specific diet (vegan, vegetarien, etc)

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An easy trick to increase the variety on your plate that has worked for me is that every time I go grocery shopping, I try to buy something I never had before or didn’t have in a long time. Some spices, some veggies or some fruits. Whatever it is as long as it is unprocessed. It might be you don’t like it but who knows… you might discover your new favorite food.

Fermented foods

Of all the tips on the list, the next one might be the most controversial one. Include some probiotic food.

Some people say that probiotics don’t do anything, others say it is harmful and again others praise them as cure for all.

Well, obviously it is not a cure all. However, more and more scientific studies are released that show positive effect of either probiotics or fermented food on reducing inflammation, supporting the immune system, helping with weight loss, improving digestion, supporting the detoxification of the body, improving mood levels and many other things (including cancer and T2D).
[18-26].

Some examples:

  • People who eat a lot of yogurt appear to have more lactobacilli in their intestines. These people also have fewer Enterobacteriaceae, a bacteria associated with inflammation and a number of chronic diseases [27]

  • Supplementation with Lactobacilli casei improved diseases symptoms in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. The beneficial bacteria helped to regulate the immune system by lowering pro-inflammatory proteins and increasing anti-inflammatory ones [28].

  • A meta-analysis found that probiotics supplementation was associated with significant improvement in HbA1c and fasting insulin in type 2 diabetes patients [24]

 
 

I want to add that most microbes found in probiotic food or supplements don’t really stay in our GI tract for very long but they still seem to do something beneficial for us while they pass through and they can also change the overall microbial community on the way. [31-32]

I usually would recommend to get your probiotics from fermented food as this is easy, fresh and cheap and also provides the prebiotics – that is the food for the microbes.

Probiotics might not be necessary if you have a healthy gut community but there are so many factors that can disturb your gut health. Some examples are antibiotics, medication, heavy drinking or simply an unhealthy diet.

I am also aware that it is still a big debate to whether probiotics really help to resurrect the microbiome but I found that this helps very well for me. So, I wanted to give that tip here as well.

The science also seems to back this up to some extend: A review of 63 studies found mixed evidence regarding the efficacy of probiotics in altering the microbiome BUT their strongest effects appeared to be restoring the microbiome to a healthy state after being compromised. [33]

Less stress

The last point on the list if probably the hardest for most people. It definitely is for me. Reduce your stress levels.

I am sure everyone knows this weird feeling in the gut before a test or a presentation. I don’t think we can avoid that and temporal limited stress is not the issue but chronic stress. I found that the only time I still experience gut issues is when I work under high pressure for a couple days. What helped me probably the most is to simply sit down with a fantasy book and let my mind wander in the imaginary world.

Two other things to reduce stress would be to go out into nature or play with some animals. Ever played with a dog or cat and still in a bad mood? I don’t think that’s even possible.

Playing with animals might also give your microbiome an extra kick. Researchers found that children who were exposed to dogs and cats during their first year of life experienced less allergies, which is probably due to the fact that the animals share some of their microbes. [34]

Just looking at this image reduces my stress levels

Just looking at this image reduces my stress levels

Okay that’s it. To sum up:

  1. Avoid processed foods

  2. Increase your fiber intake

  3. Choose a wide diversity of food

  4. Include some fermented food

  5. Reduce your stress levels

If you want to add something extra: Exercise has also been shown to be good for the microbiome. [35, 36]

And, especially if you live in the USA, you might want to choose organic whenever possible. Some recent studies show that pesticides like glyphosate negatively affect the microbiome. [37-40]

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References

  1. Astbury et al., High Fructose intake during pregnancy in rats influences the maternal microbiome and gut development in the offspring, Front Genet, 2018

  2. Townsend et al., Dietary sugar silences colonization factor for mammalian gut symbiont, PNAS, 2019

  3. Do et al., High-glucose or fructose diet causes changes of the gut microbiome and metabolic disorders in mice without body weight change, Nutrients, 2018

  4. https://www.agreatgutfeeling.com/blog-3/2019/1/5/how-do-artificial-sweeteners-affect-the-microbiome

  5. Suez et al., Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota, Nature, 2014

  6. Chassaing et al., Dietary emulsifiers impact the mouse gut microbiota promoting colitis and metabolic syndrome, Nature, 2015

  7. Chassaing et al., Dietary emulsifiers directly alter human microbiota composition and gene expression ex vivo potentiating intestinal inflammation, Gut Microbiota, 2018

  8. https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/increasing_fiber_intake

  9. King et al., Trends in dietary fiber intake in the United States, 1999-2008.,J Acad Nutr Diet, 2012

  10. Oliveira-Correa et al., Regulation of immune cell function by short-chain fatty acids, Clin Transl Immunology. 2016

  11. Sun et al., Microbiota metabolite short chain fatty acids, GPCR, and inflammatory bowel diseases, J Gastroenterol, 2017

  12. Goncalves et al., A Cross-Talk Between Microbiota-Derived Short-Chain Fatty Acids and the Host Mucosal Immune System Regulates Intestinal Homeostasis and Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Inflamm Bowel Dis, 2018

  13. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Inflammation_A_unifying_theory_of_disease

  14. Zou et al., Fiber-Mediated Nourishment of Gut Microbiota Protects against Diet-Induced Obesity by Restoring IL-22-Mediated Colonic Health, Cell, 2018

  15. Schroeder et al., Bifidobacteria or Fiber Protects against Diet-Induced Microbiota-Mediated Colonic Mucus Deterioration, Cell 2018

  16. Heiman and Greenway, A healthy gastrointestinal microbiome is dependent on dietary diversity, Mol Metab. 2016

  17. Mosca et al., Gut Microbiota Diversity and Human Diseases: Should We Reintroduce Key Predators in Our Ecosystem?, Frontiers in Microbiology, 2018

  18. Zaylaa et al., Probiotics in IBD: Combining in vitro and in vivo models for selecting strains with both anti-inflammatory potential as well as a capacity to restore the gut epithelial barrier, Journal of Functional Foods, 2018

  19. Wang et al., Probiotics for prevention and treatment of respiratory tract infections in children: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials., Medicine (Baltimore), 2016

  20. Kim et al., Change of Fecal Flora and Effectiveness of the Short-term VSL#3 Probiotic Treatment in Patients With Functional Constipation., J Neurogastroenterol Motil, 2015

  21. Blaabjerg et al., Probiotics for the Prevention of Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea in Outpatients—A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Antibiotics, 2017

  22. Koppel et al., Chemical transformation of xenobiotics by the human gut microbiota. Science, 2017

  23. Bisanz et al., Randomized Open-Label Pilot Study of the Influence of Probiotics and the Gut Microbiome on Toxic Metal Levels in Tanzanian Pregnant Women and School Children, mBio, 2014

  24. Yao et al., Effect of Probiotics on Glucose and Lipid Metabolism in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Meta-Analysis of 12 Randomized Controlled Trials, Med Sci Monit, 2017

  25. Sharifi et al., Kefir: a powerful probiotics with anticancer properties., Med Oncol, 2017

  26. https://www.agreatgutfeeling.com/blog-3/2018/8/19/should-you-take-probiotics

  27. Alvaro et al., Composition and metabolism of the intestinal microbiota in consumers and non-consumers of yogurt, British Journal of Nutrition

  28. Vaghef-Mehrabany et al., Probiotic supplementation improves inflammatory status in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, Nutrition, 2014

  29. Oliva et al., Randomised clinical trial: the effectiveness of Lactobacillus reuteri ATCC 55730 rectal enema in children with active distal ulcerative colitis, AP&T, 2012

  30. Doria et al., EVALUATION OF A PHYTO-SUPPLEMENT EFFICACY AS ADJUVANT IN REDUCING BODY WEIGHT AND FAT MASS IN OVERWEIGHT WOMEN, Current Topics in Nutraceutical Research, 2013

  31. Inoguchi et al., Effects of non-fermented and fermented soybean milk intake on faecal microbiota and faecal metabolites in humans, Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2012

  32. Veiga et al., Changes of the human gut microbiome induced by a fermented milk product, Scientific reports, 2014

  33. McFarland L. V., Use of probiotics to correct dysbiosis of normal microbiota following disease or disruptive events: a systematic review, BMJ, 2014

  34. Ownby et al., Exposure to Dogs and Cats in the First Year of Life and Risk of Allergic Sensitization at 6 to 7 Years of Age, JAMA, 2002

  35. Allen et al., Exercise alters gut microbiota composition and function in lean and obese humans, Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2018

  36. Monda et al., Exercise modifies the gut microbiota with positive health effects, Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2017

  37. Defois et al., Food Chemicals Disrupt Human Gut Microbiota Activity And Impact Intestinal Homeostasis As Revealed By In Vitro Systems, Scientific reports, 2018

  38. Aitbali et al., Glyphosate based- herbicide exposure affects gut microbiota, anxiety and depression-like behaviors in mice, Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 2018

  39. Lozano et al., Sex-dependent impact of Roundup on the rat gut microbiome, Toxicology Reports, 2018

  40. Mao et al., The Ramazzini Institute 13-week pilot study on glyphosate and Roundup administered at human-equivalent dose to Sprague Dawley rats: effects on the microbiome, Environmental Health, 2018