If you're wondering what this alien-looking thing in the picture above is, it's called a scoby, but we'll get to that in a sec.
I would be surprised to find someone who's even remotely interested in health and hasn't heard the term "gut health" before. It seems to be all the rage in the health and wellness space right now, but why? What is so important about gut health?
This blog post will answer the above question and give you simple, practical ways to start improving your own gut health.
What is the "gut"?
The term "gut" really implies the entire digestive system which is made up of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and the place where the sun don't shine. Another term you may have heard before is the GI tract, or gastrointestinal tract.
Digestion is an incredible process, and each section of the GI tract has a specific function. We are able to take a plate of food and break it down to microscopic level in order to absorb it into our bodies and use it for energy or other functions...incredible.
Bacteria and humans.
Many folks (especially nowadays) may have a negative image of bacteria. However, we have thousands upon thousands of species of bacteria living on and inside us at any point in time! Without them, life as we know it would not exist.
Not all bacteria are beneficial though. Certain bacteria can cause illness or infection but a large number of species of bacteria are, to put it simply, "good" bacteria. Bacterial species such as Clostridium difficile and Helicobacter pylori actually help to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria that can invade the body and disrupt the natural function. The human body contains one of the most diverse environments of bacteria on the PLANET!
Roles of bacteria.
So what do these bacteria have to do with digestion and the GI tract? Well as I stated earlier, we have bacteria living inside us, and this includes the GI tract. The large intestine (colon) contains about 70% of all bacteria in the human body. This is because the colon is the main site for the breakdown of food components that aren't digestible such as fiber. In order to breakdown the fiber we eat in our diets, we need these beneficial bacteria.
Beneficial bacteria not only aid the digestion process, they help with the absorption of essential nutrients, promote proper nerve function, give us a stronger immune system, and can even improve our mood due to the direct link between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve.
Rainforest in the gut.
Just like in a rainforest, there is a massive variety of life living in our gut.The "predators" in the gut take the form of invasive bacteria. There is essentially a constant battle waging in your gut between "good" and "bad" bacteria, and we want the good guys to win. The larger the number of good bacteria we have in our guts, the stronger we feel the effects of the good bacteria previously mentioned. Our digestion will be regular and efficient, we will more effectively fight off infection, and our moods are likely to improve.
These good and bad bacteria each have their own food preferences, and what we put in our bodies can either help or harm our gut microbiome.
The bad bacteria like to feed on added sugars, ultra-processed foods, and simple carbohydrates (which are all foods that any nutritionist or dietitian will tell you to avoid. Coincidence?). Eating these types of foods will inevitably feed the bad bacteria in our gut and allow them to multiply, therefore potentially decreasing the amount of good bacteria.
The good guys like to feed on foods called prebiotics. These include:
These foods all contain healthy dietary fiber that our bodies can't digest but our good bacteria like to feed on. Sort of crazy how the good bacteria feed on healthy food and the bad bacteria feed on a big ol' plate of unhealthy food...just saying.
How to help the good guys win.
We can help the good guys out by incorporating healthy lifestyle habits like:
Avoiding foods with added sugar and synthetic chemicals like pesticides or rodenticides (eating organic)
Eating whole foods
Getting 7-9 quality hours of sleep per night
So where do probiotics come in?
Probiotics are foods that already contain healthy species of bacteria. These foods will introduce new healthy bacteria to the gut if not already there and increase their numbers if they are already there. Increasing the number of good bacteria in the gut is like giving our bodies extra troops to help fight the bad guys. Some of the best probiotic foods to include in your diet are:
Low-fat Greek yogurt
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the picture at the top of this post is of a scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) inside a jar of kombucha. Kombucha is simply fermented black or green tea, and the scoby is what introduces the friendly bacteria to the tea. It may look odd, but it basically has superpowers.
Whether it's finding healthy ways to decrease your stress, purchasing a plethora of prebiotics from the grocery store, or trying a new probiotic food you've never tried before, there are plenty of simple and accessible ways to start improving the health of your gut immediately. Trust us, your body will thank you.
Braeden Yacobucci, RDN/RD, LD, CF-OL1
Cara Barton, OTR/L, PN1, CF-L1
Hillman, E. T., Lu, H., Yao, T., & Nakatsu, C. H. (2017). Microbial Ecology along the Gastrointestinal Tract. Microbes and environments, 32(4), 300–313. https://doi.org/10.1264/jsme2.ME17017
2. Linares, D. M., Ross, P., & Stanton, C. (2016). Beneficial Microbes: The pharmacy in the gut. Bioengineered, 7(1), 11–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/21655979.2015.1126015