The bacteria that live in and on us are an integral part of our immune system and influence much of our health and well-being – they even talk directly to our brain and influence our mood and cravings. They protect us from infections, regulate and activate our immune system, and even regulate our weight and metabolism.
However as a result of our modern diets, sedentary lifestyles, and overexposure to stress, toxins, and medications our gut health is deteriorating globally. This deterioration has been linked with the obesity crisis, rising levels of diabetes and metabolic syndrome – and a whole range of autoimmune-related diseases from asthma and allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, and IBS, to Rheumatoid Arthritis, Parkinsons’, and MS.
If you suffer from digestive problems, food intolerance, or even a weakened immune system, you may want to consider taking steps to restore your gut health before your symptoms deteriorate. Here is our five-step plan to reset and restore your gut health:
1. Removing Harmful Foods & Toxins
Our first task is to remove several harmful chemicals and ingredients in our diets and lifestyles right away. There are also several indulgences that harm our gut when consumed in excess. Here are the main ones to look out for: Antibiotics Antibiotics are one of the most significant medical breakthroughs since their discovery and subsequent commercial production over 70 years ago. They have saved countless lives – without them, a small untreated cut or graze could result in death.
However, their success has come with widespread usage in farming and with significant over-prescription and unnecessary usage by ius – with grave consequences for the health of our gut microbiota. If your doctor does recommend a course of antibiotics – feel free to discuss how necessary they are and if in doubt seek a second opinion. Meanwhile, if you are given a course of antibiotics many experts recommend taking the course
Sugar in our diet feeds the types of bacteria and pathogens we want to keep in check – so a diet rich in sugar can lead to an overgrowth of these bacteria a resulting in balance and dysbiosis in our guts.
Further a study at Oregon State University found that altered gut bacteria as a result of a high-sugar diet, appeared to impact “cognitive flexibility,” in one’s ability to adjust to changing situations – and also showed an impairment of early learning for both long-term and short-term memory. It’s also worth noting that sugar is addictive and refined sugar contains no nutrients –only calories which are quickly absorbed causing blood sugar levels to jump and then collapse – causing hunger and further cravings.
Artificial Sweeteners Concerns over the health effects of artificial sweeteners have long been raised – and that consuming them prompts hunger and further cravings when the expected sugar hit doesn’t arrive – however recent studies have shown that artificial sweeteners also harm the balance of our gut bacteria – promoting growth in the undesirable strains of bacteria associated with obesity and diabetes – as well as inflaming the gut lining.
Processed foods – (defined as foods prepared with chemical additives or processes to alter the flavor or shelf life) – are very harmful to your gut bacteria as a result of the additives & ingredients they contain. How to identify which foods are processed? They could be described as anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food – or if you read the label any ingredient you don’t recognize (typically with a scientific name)
Preservatives & Emulsifiers
Preservatives are added to most packaged foods in order to slow or prevent the processes of oxidation and bacterial growth – or put another way they are designed to kill bacteria. There are many natural preservatives such as salt and natural acids, oils, and vinegars which are easily digested and not harm however most preservatives in our food are synthetic manmade – and studies have shown they could be doing serious harm to our gut Emulsifiers are very common in packaged foods which also extend the shelf life of foods and keep ingredients—often oils and fats—from separating.
Emulsifiers are found in many common household foods from mayonnaise to ice cream, biscuits to peanut butter with common emulsifiers including ingredients such as polysorbate 80, carboxymethylcellulose, lecithin, carrageenan, polyglycerols, xanthan.
Some major studies have shown how emulsifiers negatively affect the makeup of our gut bacteria and disrupt the protective mucous layer that shields our intestinal tract, resulting in inflammation and can lead to bacterial infection. Another side effect is an interference with the signal of ‘satiety’ – or feeling full – leading to overeating and getting fatter.
Artificial Food Colouring
The use of food coloring in processed food is now widespread to encourage sales, and many of the popular colorings used today have been found to have antibacterial properties. This was previously considered a positive effect but now we are increasingly aware of the damage such chemicals have on our gut flora. Alcohol is very effective at killing bacteria which is why it is used in sanitary wipes, mouth wash, and for cleaning cuts and grazes – so consuming high levels of alcohol or binging will not do your gut microbiome much good.
However, there are benefits to drinking low levels of certain drinks: Some alcoholic drinks – red wine is a great example – contain many nutrients in addition to alcohol such as as polyphenols which come from the skins of the fruits used to make them – and these are very beneficial to our microbiome. Meat & Dairy Eating excessive (red) meat is widely identified as a cause of heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Studies have shown that a diet high in meat is associated with more of the wrong gut bacterial species.
Meat in your diet should be reduced to make way for more plant-based foods and switched to organic free-range meat and dairy. Aside from any ecological or welfare concerns, there are several reasons to avoid or remove intensive or factory-farmed meats for the sake of your gut microbiome: Here are some of the most harmful meat products and ingredients to watch out for:
As with processed foods – Processed meats – such as bacon, sausages, hams, and salamis are prepared with chemical additives and processes that are very harmful to your gut bacteria and should be removed from your diet Antibiotics in meat & dairy: Much meat and dairy produced through intensive farming contains varying quantities of antibiotics– despite withdrawal guidelines designed to limit this.
Long used in commercial meat and dairy farming to fatten livestock they are now banned in Europe (for fattening purposes) but are still used widely in the USA, South America, and Asia They were initially introduced to control the spread of disease and infection in animals reared in cramped conditions as farming intensified.
However, they were soon discovered to promote weight gain in the livestock as a by-product – increasing the farmer’s yields and profits. Only now do we understand that the effect of antibiotics on the animal’s gut bacteria, results in dysbiosis, increasing energy absorbed from their feed and making them fatter (much the same as the effect on humans).
There is also a growing concern about antibiotic-resistant bacteria developing in intensive farming and being transferred to humans organic products are less likely to contain these antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Pesticides & Herbicides These are chemicals formulated to destroy unwanted organisms and unsurprisingly are also effective at destroying the bacteria in our gut. Pesticides from animal feed end up in the meat we eat in a similar way to antibiotics Fat-soluble pesticides used to produce animal feeds have been shown to transfer to tissues and eggs and then to humans.
2. Repairing your gut
Foods to help reduce gut inflammation, repair and strengthen your gut lining Curcumin is a compound found in turmeric, the yellow spice common in Indian and south Asian cooking. Several studies have demonstrated the beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of Turmeric, together with its ability to inhibit the growth of pathogens or ‘bad’ bacteria and microbes, as well as protecting the wall of the intestine. You may see the greatest benefits through taking high doses – in which case we recommend buying turmeric or curcumin in capsule form – unless you enjoy a lot of curry!
Butyrate is also a strong anti-inflammatory that, in addition to helping control the growth of the cells in our gut lining plays a key role in maintaining gut health. It is the major source of energy for your colonic mucosa (the mucous lining that protects your colon) and it also helps reduce inflammation, reducing associated pain, bloating, and gas.
Foods high in fiber will help to increase butyrate levels as they feed the ‘good’ bacteria in your large intestine and colon that produce this chemical. However, if you have an inflamed or diseased gut, eating a lot of fiber may inflame it further – in which case a phased introduction may be required. Apples As the old saying suggests – an apple a day will indeed feed your gut health and keep the doctor away.
High in fiber and low in sugar apples also help generate butyrate upon digestion feeding our good bacteria. Resistant Starch While we advise removing sugary foods and refined starch – resistant starch on the other hand is a good way to feed the good bacteria that release butyrate.
While refined starch is broken down and absorbed rapidly upsetting the balance of our microbiota and piling on the calories, resistant starch is hard to digest so will pass through the stomach and small intestine largely undigested to reach the large intestine.
Here it feeds the good bacteria releasing butyrate – helping to reduce inflammation and strengthen the intestinal lining. Resistant starch can be found in grains, seeds, legumes, pulses, and in unripe bananas and green peas. Interestingly however some of the starch present in both pasta and rice
3. Give Your Diet an Overhaul
Many companies are advocating the consumption of probiotics – or live bacteria to add the right bacterial communities to our guts. While some of these strains or communities may already exist in your gut, the wrong diet will be inhibiting their growth. It is, therefore, more important to build the foundations for a healthy gut microbiome through healthy diversity in the right food and particularly fiber in your diet. This will in turn feed and promote the growth and diversity of the desirable ‘good’ bacteria for a healthy gut. Some key foods to look out for include:
Olive oil is a source of one of the healthiest fats known to man, rich in a range of polyphenols and antioxidants, which help reduce inflammation in the gut and elsewhere in the body. One major problem with olive oil is that the quality varies and some lower-quality versions can be extracted using chemicals, or diluted with cheaper oils.
Therefore, buying the right type of extra virgin olive oil from a trusted brand or source is incredibly important Fish Oily fish like olive oil, is full of good anti-inflammatory fats. The key ingredient in oily fish is omega 3 which is well renowned for its health benefits. However, there’s a big difference in the omega-3 content of different varieties of fish. Fish caught in the wild rather than farmed, will have higher levels of fatty acid.
The approximate percentages of omega-3 oil content by type of fish are as follows:
- • Group I: mackerel (1.8%), trout (1.6%), herring (1.5%), sardines (1.4%), albacore tuna (1.3%), salmon (1.1%)
- • Group II: halibut (0.6%), river trout (0.5%), catfish (0.4%)
- • Group III: cod (0.3%), snapper (0.2%), tuna packed in water (0.2%) Meat: As discussed in 2, the quantity of meat in your diet should be reduced to make way for more plant-based foods – but that is not to say meat needs to be avoided altogether as – it is the quality and source of the meat is important.
Exclusively Grass-fed beef for example has twice as much omega-3 fatty acids than intensively farmed beef, although this still pales in comparison to mackerel or trout. Better reasons to eat organic meat is the absence of antibiotics- and when pastures are well managed, the production is generally less energy-intensive, less polluting, and more humane.
Fruit & Vegetables
Plants are an essential part of our diet and should comprise the significant majority of what we eat if we are to restore and maintain our gut health. We recommend eating a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables nourishes to promote diversity of our gut flora and provide the fiber our bodies need to feed our microbes and clean our gut.
There are however some fruits and vegetables that are particularly beneficial Phytonutrients: The skins of most vegetables contain phytonutrients – which naturally occurring bioactive chemicals that give fruits and vegetables their colors. These bioactive compounds all contribute to a healthy gut by promoting the growth of the different strains and species of microbes such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli. In turn, the increased diversity of our gut microbes helps us extract more phytonutrients from our diet promoting further growth and increasing the absorption of these beneficial compounds by our bodies.
Good sources of Phytonutrients include Cruciferous Vegetables, which include cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli. contain sulfur-containing metabolites, known as glucosinolates, essential for the production of glutathione, an important antioxidant, as well as amino acids that are essential for building tissue and muscle.
However, brassicas may not be suitable for those with gut inflammation or leaky gut as while sulphur is beneficial for a normal healthy it can also aggravate inflamed guts.
Dark Fruits, Vegetables & Spices Dark Fruits, Vegetables & Spices are rich in flavonoids, thought to help with allergies, inflammation and infection. These can be found in a variety of fruit, vegetables, and spices including black tea, red wine, apples, chocolate, peanuts, blackberries, blueberries, purple carrots, red cabbage, and eggplant.
Blueberries are widely touted superfoods for their general health benefits as well as encouraging the growth of ‘good’ bacteria such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. Leafy Greens Leafy Greens such as spinach, Kale, and lettuce are also an excellent source of essential minerals, including magnesium, manganese, and potassium.
Spinach is also a good source of folate Green and Black Teas Studies have shown consuming black and green teas results in less of the bacteria associated with obesity and more of the ‘good’ bacteria linked with lean body mass. tea is a good source of polyphenols, and while the polyphenols in green tea are more effectively absorbed Allium Vegetables Garlic, white onions, shallots, and leeks are all rich in Phytonutrients, alliums, and allyl sulfur compounds.
Garlic in particular is well known as a remedy for killing ‘bad’ microbes. (The next time you have a sore throat, try eating a food containing raw garlic and you should start to feel better in minutes).
These vegetables are also a valuable source of inulin – one of the most popular prebiotics. Jerusalem Artichokes are High in Inulin, an insoluble fiber that bypasses the small intestine, this fiber will find its way to the colon largely undigested where it is fermented by and feeds our good bacteria. As with other foods high in fiber –it may be necessary to introduce this food carefully and gradually if your gut is sensitive or inflamed.
Asparagus: Asparagus is another vegetable rich in Inulin and also in protein. While seasonality limits availability to a brief period it gives you a good excuse to indulge! Apples As the old saying suggests – an apple a day will indeed feed your gut health and keep the doctor away. High in fiber and low in sugar apples also help generate butyrate upon digestion feeding our good bacteria.
Seaweed is an excellent source of prebiotics, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. Interestingly seaweed water is often used in farming and gardening to feed the microbes in the soil and support the plants. Chocolate Good news for all chocoholics – dark chocolate is good for our gut bacteria health – as it feeds some of the ‘good’ bacteria living in our large intestine and colon.
Cocoa is broken down to produce nitric oxide, which expands your arteries and is good for your cardiovascular system. Cocoa is also an excellent source of flavonoids and polyphenols which in turn feed our gut bacteria.
Other health benefits include increasing insulin sensitivity and when consumed daily, lowering blood pressure by an average of two to three points.
Whole Grains & Fibre Barley & Oats Both Barley and Oats have been an old staple in our diets for centuries or millennia and are both a great source of beta-glucan – another well-regarded prebiotic to feeds the ‘good’ bacteria in our gut. This prebiotic also helps lower LDL cholesterol levels, by stopping it from being absorbed into the blood.
Flaxseeds are both high in insoluble fiber – helping to regulate bowel movements and also Omega-3 – which is important for our gut microbiota. Resistant Starch While we advise cutting down or removing sugary foods and refined starch altogether – resistant starch on the other hand is a good way to feed our good bacteria and strengthen the gut.
While refined starch is broken down and absorbed rapidly upsetting the balance of our microbiota and piling on the calories, resistant starch is hard to digest so will pass through the stomach and small intestine largely undigested to reach the large intestine.
Here it feeds the good bacteria releasing butyrate which in turn helps reduce inflammation and strengthen the intestinal lining. Resistant starch can be found in grains, seeds, legumes, pulses, and in unripe bananas and green peas. Interestingly however the starch present in both pasta and rice can be restructured into resistant starch by cooling and reheating after being initially cooked.
There has been growing hype around probiotics as our understanding of the importance of our gut microbes became evident a few years ago. It is an almost instinctive reaction to seek out a supplement as a quick fix upon learning about our missing microbes. Now walking down the supermarket aisle, there are dozens of products competing for shelf space claiming health benefits due to their added probiotics.
However, there is little if any credible evidence to support many of their claims. In fact most probiotic products and supplements don’t contain enough diversity, or quantities of bacteria, nor a protective form of delivery for the bacteria to make its way through the stomach and reach the gut unscathed. Unless you have received medical advice indicating otherwise a better course of action will be to top up on probiotics through cultured dairy products and fermented foods.
If you have the time and resources you can even try to make your own, otherwise be sure to inspect the source carefully to ensure they still contain live cultures and haven’t been pasteurised. Live Yoghurt has long been known for its beneficial properties – and is generally okay for people with lactose intolerance. It is a great source of ‘good’ bacteria such as Lactobacillus – however, not all yogurts are equal – so it is important to check the labels to ensure they contain significant live active cultures.
Cheese Not all cheeses contain live bacteria, only cheese made from unpasteurized milk will provide sufficient probiotics to make a difference to your gut – while processed cheese may not contain any at all. Look out for the white French and Italian white cheeses – typically very high in bacteria or check the labels for live and active cultures. Cheeses high in ‘good’ bacteria include brie, camembert, mozzarella, cheddar, and stilton, however, the benefits will vary by producer. Sauerkraut – which is finely shredded cabbage fermented by lactic acid bacteria, is one of the oldest fermented foods from Northern Europe popular in Germany, Poland, and Russia.
Sauerkraut is low in calories, and an anti-inflammatory food packed with benefits. sauerkraut is a good source of antioxidants and dietary fiber as well as probiotics Some of the notable probiotic strains present in sauerkraut include Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Lactobacillus brevis, Pediococcus pentosaceus, and Lactobacillus plantarum.
Kefir is a powerful fermented probiotic drink containing about 30 different microorganisms, making it a much more potent source of probiotics than other fermented dairy products. It originates in Turkey – the word “ Keyif” translates to “Feeling good after eating”. It is made by mixing kefir grains which are cultures of lactic acid bacteria and yeast, with the cultures of cow, goat, or sheep milk. Fermentation of the lactose yields a sour, carbonated, slightly alcoholic beverage, with a consistency and taste similar to that of yogurt.
While yogurt is the most recognizable probiotic drink in the Western diet, kefir is more beneficial due to its greater diversity in probiotic strains – such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Streptococcus thermophiles, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, Lactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens, Lactococcus lactis, and Leuconostoc species. kimchi Kimchi is a fermented Korean side dish made of cabbage and other vegetables together with a spicy mix of seasoning.
Its origin dates back to between 37 BCE and 7 CE with many Chinese texts noting the Korean’s skills in making fermented foods such as wine, soybean paste, and salted and fermented fish. Kimchi consists of lactic acid bacteria Lactobacillus kimchi and other probiotic strains such as Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Lactobacillus as well as various other lactic acid bacteria and also provides
- • A good source of allicin and selenium reducing both cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases
- • Vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant reducing cancer, and also helps develop and maintain a healthy body, and clear and healthy eyesight.
- • Help remove heavy metals found in the liver, small intestine, and kidney and prevent stomach cancer
- • Helps weight loss by raising carbohydrate
5. Changing your lifestyle
In addition to our diet, our sleep patterns, stress, exercise, and exposure to the healthy outdoors all play a role in the number and diversity of your gut microbiome. Regular Exercise This is an important component in kickstarting your gut microbe makeover. Many studies have shown the benefits of exercise on the health and diversity of our gut bacteria – there are even companies examining the fecal microbes of elite athletes to harvest probiotic strains.
Rather than being over-ambitious, we recommend any form of exercise that is easy to do regularly and fits into your routine as consistency is key. If you can find sports or group activities this may help you become more motivated as they contain a social or competitive element which makes it more rewarding. If you are looking to maximize the gain many studies have found significant benefits from High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) which has been shown to significantly raise the calorie ‘after burn’ rate for many hours after the exercise. Fasting The benefits of fasting to your gut bacteria and to your health, in general, have emerged only recently.
A recent study published in the National Academy of Sciences shows how fasting may help protect the gut microbiome and in turn protect the body by activating an anti-inflammatory response in your gut, protecting both you and your bacteria.
While this research was conducted on fruit flies which express many of the same metabolism-related genes as humans, providing important clues about how our gut microbiota and our metabolic systems operate. One fascinating discovery that emerged from the study was that the flies that fasted – activating the gut-brain axis lived twice as long as the flies who did not.
Getting too little sleep alters the balance of bacteria in the gut studies have shown. Researchers found that moderate sleep loss in healthy men over two days altered the balance of their gut bacteria. Other studies have shown how sleep-deprived patients lose sensitivity to insulin the hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels, and results in weight gain.
Get outside in the garden and get your hands dirty: The soil in your garden or park has its microbiome and there is mounting evidence to show that getting out in your garden, getting dirty, breathing in, playing in, and digging in the dirt can be good for your health and your gut health. There is also clear evidence to show how childhood exposure to microbes in the air and soil is linked to a more robust immune system;
In another study, children in rural Bavaria playing in animal stables and drinking farm milk had drastically lower rates of asthma and allergies throughout their lives than their neighbors who did not. In a series of experimental studies, researchers have been examining the effect of injecting certain microbes from the soil directly into our bodies with very interesting beneficial effects on the patients.
One bacterium in particular M. vaccae has received a lot of favourable press and found to influence cognitive function and mood in mice. As this is an abundant species of bacteria simply getting outside you are likely to encounter this. Stress Stress is a result of our fight or flight response to threats we encounter – where our body releases adrenalin and hormones that cause an increase in blood pressure and pulse rate, faster breathing, and increased blood flow to the muscles.
It has a negative effect on our gut microbiota as well as the brain-gut axis – the communication between our gut bacteria and our brain. Prolonged stress can lead to a range of disorders such as diarrhea and leaky gut, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), peptic ulcers, and reflux (GERD).
Meditation is a powerful technique that has been practiced for thousands of years to help manage stress and reduce anxiety. It has been recognized as an effective means of reducing stress enabling better relaxation, cardiovascular health, and mental focus when performed regularly.
It is designed to create a state of deep relaxation – controlling our breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate. If you suffer from stress in your work or elsewhere in your life try to take a daily meditation session