How healthy is your gut? This is NOT a sexy question. It should be of interest, however, if you are trying to lose weight, improve digestion, or simply optimize your overall wellness. Over the last couple decades scientists have been closely studying the bacterial gut environment, or microbiome. What they are learning is that our gut bacteria have critical functions that are key to good health.
The functions of the microbiome include:
aids in digestion of food the stomach and small intestine have been unable to digest
helps produce vitamins B and K
serves as a protective barrier against intestinal infection
helps with blood-clotting
prevents cancer and heart disease
Having a proper balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut is important to support these functions. But, it is also important because an imbalance in the microbiome can cause problems as well. According to Dr. Mark Hyman, director of the Cleveland Clinical Center for Functional Medicine, bad bugs in the gut produce toxins that trigger inflammation, pre-diabetes, and promote weight gain. In other words, having an unhealthy gut can make it difficult to lose weight and lead to serious medical problems down the road!
There are multiple ways your gut can get out of balance (more “bad” bacteria than healthful bacteria). One main area that we can control is diet and nutrition. In terms of diet, it is recommended that we limit (or even better, eliminate) sugar and processed carbohydrates, increase consumption of vegetables and plant-based foods, and eat more omega 3 fats such as those found in fish and olive oil. Consuming probiotic foods (those that contain good bacteria) such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut will encourage those good gut bugs to multiply. Adding more prebiotics (foods with undigestible fiber) such as bananas, certain raw vegetables, and whole grains helps provide fertilizer for the good bacteria to grow in the gut.
In addition to eating properly you can help improve the health of your microbiome by getting enough rest and managing stress properly. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night for adults. In terms of coping with stress, it is important to find healthy outlets such as exercise, meditation, or talking with a good friend. Coping through alcohol, sedentary escapes (internet surfing, bingeing on Netflix), and overeating only compounds health problems. If sleep difficulties and stress have plagued you for some time it is worth seeking help from a professional as these problems will affect much more than your gut health.
As we have seen, the gut is about so much more than just digestion. Being good to your gut will pay dividends to your overall health and help to prevent disease down the line. Fortuntely, the things we need to do to have a healthy gut are not too unfamiliar and are going to improve our lives in other areas as well. Eat right. Sleep well. Reduce stress. If you want to learn more about the amazing microbiome and the importance of gut health some great books I can recommend are: The Good Gut, The Microbiome Solution, and The Gut Balance Revolution. To help with that diet piece I have included a recipe for a delicious and gut healthy smoothie. Enjoy.
HAPPY GUT SMOOTHIE
½ slightly under ripe banana (prebiotic)
½ cup frozen blueberries (prebiotic and antioxidant)
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
1/3 cup plain greek yogurt (probiotic)
1 scoop protein powder (optional)
Ice for crunch and texture
A little bit of raw, unfiltered honey to taste
Blend all together until smooth and creamy.