What is ‘gut health’?
When people talk about their “gut health,” it’s usually referring to the gastrointestinal tract, not your beer gut and how you can make it disappear! Haha. But in all seriousness, it’s no surprise nowadays that our gastrointestinal health is crucial to understanding our overall human health. In a nutshell, the gastrointestinal tract transports food from the mouth to the stomach, which converts it to an absorbable form in the small intestine so you can properly nourish yourself and use those stored nutrients as energy.
Recently, there have been countless studies that show that the GI system has an even more important and complex job than it has been previously studied. It’s been linked to other numerous aspects of health that have nothing to do with digestion, from immunity to emotional stress to chronic illnesses, including cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
This is an incredibly vast topic and if I go into every detail and study that was done on the microbiome then this blog post might be a thousand pages long! So I will just go over the basics. Why do I mention the microbiome when talking about “gut” health? The microbiome consists of trillions of bacteria that also consist in the form of fungi, parasites, and viruses. These microbes are mostly found in our digestive tract, specifically the small and large intestines. The microbiome is sometimes labeled as a supporting “organ” because of its key roles in promoting daily operations of the human body. Everyone has an entirely unique network of microbiota that is originally determined by one’s DNA. We are first exposed to microbes as an infant during delivery through the birth canal and through the mother’s milk. At this point, the microbes that infants are exposed to are dependent on the mother’s microbes. As time goes on, environmental exposures and diet can change one’s microbiome to be either beneficial to health or place one at greater risk for disease. Isn’t it crazy how bacteria can determine SO much of our current and future health issues?!
Specific types of bacteria have been linked to lower the immune system in certain individuals. Some of these bacteria create a greater risk of asthma and allergies, chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, and diabetes. Gut health has also been linked to anxiety and depression, also known as the “gut-brain connection.”
What alters our gut health?
- The food we eat plays such an important role in the bacteria that is present in your gut. High amounts of processed foods and not enough fiber, vegetables, and fermented foods (if you can handle them) can definitely play a role in the stability of your overall gut health.
- Babies delivered vaginally have been shown to have more of a diverse group of bacteria than babies who were delivered by C-section.
- Our environment plays a role as well. If you were more exposed to germs and bacteria, you most likely have a more established gut filled with healthy gut bacteria. All the more reason for your kids to play outside!
- Use of antibiotics throughout your life can drastically kill off healthy bacteria in your gut, altering your gut health in the long run.
What to look out for
You don’t need to record every single bowel movement or stomach cramp you have, however, becoming mindful of how you feel and your overall immune system should give you an idea of the status of your gut health. Bloating, gas, diarrhea, stomach pain or nausea are all direct signs that something in the gut isn’t working as it should. If these symptoms remain constant, you may need to consult with your doctor or nutritionist.
How to maintain your gut health
It really always goes back to the basics when trying to maintain proper gut health. Eating a balanced diet that’s rich in vegetables, whole grains (if tolerated), fruits, nuts, and less processed foods, getting good sleep, drinking plenty of water, and exercising are the first steps for maintaining a healthy gut. (Not just a healthy ‘gut’ but overall health as well!) Some people find it helpful to try an elimination-type diet to pinpoint what may be affecting their gut negatively (foods such as dairy and gluten). But everyone is different, so finding what fits your needs is also important.
Probiotics and fermented foods are also a great way to maintain gut health. Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics because they contain live bacteria. If tolerated, you can experiment with foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, and pickled vegetables. *However, if diagnosed with SIBO or any other gastrointestinal issue such as IBS or IBD, please consult with your doctor or licensed nutritionist as too much live bacteria can do more harm than good in these individuals.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Let’s start with prebiotics. Prebiotics are foods that are non-digestible that stimulate the activity of probiotics in the gut microbiome. Prebiotics are naturally found in bananas, garlic, onions, dandelion greens, asparagus, and certain fibers such as resistant starches and inulin.
Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria found in foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir. Speaking of kefir, if you don’t like creamy textures, I highly recommend trying a carbonated kefir by Kevita®, they are super tasty!
Probiotics are also available in supplement form. However, there have been studies that showed the negative effects of probiotics in certain individuals which didn’t actually help change their gut microbiome for the better. More research is still being done to show if probiotics alone can help with certain GI issues. Moral of the story: try to get your nutrients from food first and if you feel you need added nutrients, (in this case bacteria), then consult with your doctor or nutritionist to help you find a good probiotic supplement with no added processed ingredients and/or fillers.
As we now know, gut health is SUPER important and shouldn’t be taken lightly. There is so much that is still unknown regarding the microbiome and starting with the basics can be your best bet. Experimenting with new recipes that include vegetables, nuts, fiber, and fermented foods can be exciting! Try out my new kimchi zoodle recipe as a start and I have a gut feeling you won’t be disappointed.
Komaroff, A. The gut-brain connection. Harvard Health Publishing.
The Microbiome. The Nutrition Source. Harvard School of Public Health.
Shreiner, A., Kao, J., Young, V. (2016). The gut microbiome in health and in disease. Current Opinion in Gastroenterology. 31 (1), 69-75.
Tsai, Y., Lin, T., Chang, C., Wu, T., Lai, W., Lu, C., Lai, H. (2019). Probiotics, prebiotics amelioration of diseases. Journal of Biomedical Science. 26 (3).
Tuohy, K., Probert, H., Smejkal, C., Gibson, G. (2003). Using probiotics and prebiotics to improve gut health. Therapeutic focus. 8, (15), 692-700.
Recipe for Kimchi Zoodles:
- 2-3 cups of zoodles. ( I use the spiralizer attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer to make my zoodles)
- 1 cup of spicy kimchi ( I use this brand)
- 1/2 cup for of liquid amino ( different than the coconut
aminosI usually use. This brand has more of a salty taste and less sweet with no coconut flavor. I use this brand). It pairs great with this recipe!
- 4 carrots – peeled into Julienne strips or just using a peeler and continuously peeling the carrot down to its bone. This creates beautiful noodle-like carrots.
- 1 tsp of Thai chili sauce (optional) this is for added flavor. If you are allergic to fish, DO NOT use. It has anchovies in it. *
- I added chicken breast to mine. This is optional as well. *
- 1 tsp of coconut oil
Start by making your zoodles with your spiralizer and cutting your carrots the way I listed above. Put the zoodles and carrots in a bowl and set aside.
Next, if making this dish with chicken, heat up your pan with coconut oil and place your cut up chicken into that pan until cooked.
In a separate pan, add your liquid
Serve right away and enjoy! I enjoy eating this either hot or even cold the next day as leftovers.