The vast majority of the ~ 40 trillion bacteria in our body actually resides in our intestines. We’ve got thousands of different species of bacteria living in our digestive tract, and each species plays a specific niche role. Although a small percent of these can cause illness, most of these gut bacteria keep us healthy, aid digestion, help regulate our body rhythms, and even improve our mood. The gut bacteria ecosystem is truly unique to each person, as much as our DNA is. No two people have the same species or assortment of bacteria. This gut bacteria ecosystem is often referred to as our gut microbiota, gut flora, or microbiome.
Given the critical roles our gut microbiota play, it’s important to treat them well. Different types of bacteria need to remain in relative balance, where the “good” bugs balance the “bad” bugs. The “good” bugs need to be kept well fed to ensure good gut function. This is how our health remains in a positive state. It is also how we can reverse diseases and restore our health.
Here are some easy ways to optimize our gut flora:
By consuming lots of different fresh foods rich in a wide range of nutrients, we are adequately nourishing our gut flora and helping it be diverse. The greater the diversity and number of gut bacteria species, the more significant their contribution is to our overall health.
A typical Western diet does a poor job of feeding a diverse gut microbiota. The standard American cuisine (SAD) tends to be excessively high in saturated fat, salt, sugar, and toxins. There is a limited variety of fresh plant-based food. Instead, the SAD diet is rich in all types of animal proteins, including chicken, beef, fish, eggs, and milk, that overfeed bad bacteria and eventually cause disease. Many complimentary side dishes include highly processed vegetables and grains, such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn, wheat, and rice provide a limited number of nutrients. When we overcompensate by eating a ton of fruit, we drive up our blood sugar level and continue to overfeed bad bacteria. In the end, the SAD diet lacks enough variety of nutrients to cultivate a healthy gut flora and keep us thrive.
Studies have found materially higher levels of diversity in gut microbiota in rural regions of Africa and South America. In these areas residents eat more fresh, locally-grown legumes and whole grains. They rarely eat processed foods, animal products and refined sugars. Their diets lead to greater diversity of gut flora and, hence, healthier lives.
Our gut microbiota appreciates probiotics found in fermented foods such as cooked beans, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Yogurt and kombucha, which are not handmade, tend to have low levels of live bacteria (probiotics) and high sugar content. This often overfeeds the “bad” bugs and hurts the gut flora.
Fermented foods contain the bacterium, Lactobacillus, which thrives in the digestive tract. At sufficient levels, lactobacillus will limit the growth of other less friendly species like Enterobacteriaceae that are associated with chronic digestive issues and inflammation.
Probiotics and fermented foods support the gut microbiota and help strengthen our immune system and overall health.
As we eat certain foods, we encourage the growth of specific gut bacteria which feed upon them. Sugar, artificial sweeteners, bread, alcohol, animal products, processed food, and excessive natural sugars (such as in fruit, tomatoes, honey, agave, and maple syrup) overfeed our “bad” bacteria. Enterobacteriaceae and Clostridium are examples of bacterium species which overgrow when fed sugar. This immediately damages the gut lining and leads to poor digestive health. Additionally, indulging in high levels of sugar, in any form, on a regular basis starves the beneficial bacteria and instead, triggers the overfeed of microscopic cancer cells.
Refined sugars have become ubiquitous in foods in many modern Western countries. They’ve become difficult to avoid completely. Processed foods, condiments, dressings, breads, grain-based products, dry spice blends, corn starch, and most drinks besides plain water have high levels of sugar. Minimizing these would help improve our gut health. We can instead make our own alternatives from scratch. Condiments and most salad dressings are often easy and quick to replicate. Whole ancient grains such as oats, millet, amaranth, and quinoa are great alternatives to bread or white rice. We can taste the amazing difference gained from eating fresh, non-processed foods and mixing in quality spices compared to pre-packaged items. The improvement in food quality and our gut microbiome will compel us to never go back to old eating habits. And we haven’t even talked about how much improvement we will feel in our overall health.
Fresh green vegetables, ancient whole grains, and legumes which are not refined or turned into flours, are high in fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates, and vitamins. These plant foods’ sugars are the ideal way to nourish the “good” bacteria in the large intestine, such as Lactobacilli, Bacteroidetes, and Bifidobacteria.
As a side benefit, foods rich in fiber and complex carbohydrates are great for our digestive health. They help balance blood sugar, keep us feeling satiated and decrease the risk of disease.
A whole-food, plant-based diet is rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols are plant compounds that cannot be easily digested or metabolized. Most polyphenols make their way to the large intestine where they are absorbed by the gut flora and boost the “good” bacteria considerably. Foods that are particularly high in polyphenols include leafy green vegetables, broccoli, lentils, leeks, spring onions,and berries. A plant-based diet where meat is an indulgence rather than a staple, quickly and materially improves gut flora diversity and health, which in turn improves overall health.
We can maintain our gut flora balance by regularly consuming polyphenols. Doing so keeps inflammation, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure in check.
Integrative, functional medicine physician Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. believes in the Hippocratic philosophy that “food is medicine”. Making the right positive changes to one’s diet can quickly promote a healthy gut microbiota and address chronic health issues ranging from obesity, inflammation, lethargy, digestive issues, sleep disturbances, mood swings, long haul COVID, to cancer.
If you are facing any other health issues – schedule a consultation with Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. She specializes in the microbiome, digestive, endocrine, and immune systems, and environmental toxicology to uncover the root causes of health issues on a cellular level. With her exceptional guidance, you are guaranteed dramatic improvements in your overall health quickly. By blending the best in evidence-based Eastern and Western Medicine with innovation and technology, Dr. Bhandari will get you started towards symptom relief and long-term health. Book a consultation today!