Imagine a jungle where all kinds of animals, birds, insects, plants, and microbes co-exist. They feed on each other, reproduce and die, maintaining an intrinsic balance where the survival of each of them is related to the other.
Occasionally, the balance of life in the jungle gets disturbed. However, most of the time, the numbers are kept in check.
Similarly, your digestive system houses a community of microscopic organisms living in a mutually beneficial relationship with you. They are referred to as gut/intestinal microbiome, microbiota, microflora or flora.
This complex ecosystem includes thousands of microbial species: bacteria, yeast, parasites, viruses, etc. Their biodiversity and numbers are way higher compared to the ones in a jungle. According to a 2018 article, an estimated 100 trillion organisms reside in the gut, occupying a volume of a few liters.
Some bacteria are beneficial for our health. For instance, they produce B vitamins, vitamin K or butyrate. Small amounts of pathogens that can promote disease, depending on their quantity, are also present in the gut.
To ensure proper digestion and perform their other functions throughout the body, the good bacteria must dominate.
Studies have associated digestive disorders and other conditions (i.e. type-2 diabetes, leaky gut, heart disease, anxiety, allergies) with an imbalance between the good and the bad gut bacteria.
What to eat for a healthy gut flora
The good thing is that these two types of bacteria in our gut feed on totally different foods.
Interestingly, every person has a unique imprint of bacteria – it is more like a fingerprint. Despite the differences between us, we can apply some broad principles to improve or maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract.
I suggest having a two-fold approach.
First, avoid the foods that feed the bad bacteria or destroy the good bacteria: all processed high-sugar and high-fat foods.
Secondly, include foods that not only feed your beneficial bacteria but also increase their number and diversity, such as:
1. High-fiber in general (which can also help regulate blood sugar and cholesterol): plant-based foods like beans and lentils, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
2. Prebiotics, are also high-fiber foods but contain specific types of fiber that nourish the good bacteria. For example, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, cruciferous vegetables, chicory, onions, garlic, apples, bananas, berries, whole grains (barley, oats, rye, wheat), potatoes.
3. Probiotics contain live bacteria: sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented vegetables, beet kvass, yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, Kombucha, apple cider vinegar.
So, every time you put something in your mouth, ask yourself this question:
“What am I feeding now, the good or the bad tiny critters inside me?”
Besides food, other factors like chronic stress, lack of exercise, and insufficient or poor-quality sleep can negatively impact your good bacteria.
Adjusting the diet and lifestyle habits to create conditions for a happy-healthy gut will greatly improve your digestive, immune and mental health.
1. Introduction to the human gut microbiota (Biochem J. 2017)
2. Biomechanics of the Digestive System (Integrated Nano-Biomechanics, 2018)
3. Contributions of Intestinal Bacteria to Nutrition and Metabolism in the Critically Ill (Surg. Clin North Am. 2011)
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