6 Foods Good for Gut Health To Supercharge Mind And Body

Sinclair, Cambria. Accessed June 2021.

There are over 100 trillion bacteria in your gut microbiome at this very moment, and all of them affect your health in some way or another. For many of us, the health of the gut and the bacteria it contains can always feel like an afterthought, as it’s difficult to even know which organs our “guts” refer to.

In 2018, gut health hit the mainstream, but with this heightened cultural awareness came fad diets and bogus suggestions aplenty.  I’m here to sift through this mess and show you that it’s still worth prioritizing foods good for gut health because helping your gut is the equivalent of helping your whole body at once! After you consume foods good for gut health your microbiome will be composed of entirely different bacteria than what you started with, many of which are beneficial to your physical and mental wellbeing. In any healthy gut, these healthy bacteria are both numerous and well-fed.

There are many foods good for gut health, like fermented, prebiotic, and high-fiber foods. When consumed alongside probiotic supplements and careful monitoring of stress levels, the health benefits of the digestive and immune systems working together with your gut microbiome can easily feel more attainable.

Let’s take a dive into the world of gut health as we cover foods and recipes to start adopting,  and which ones to cut out completely, with perspectives from two competing medical practices, and the mood-affecting gut-brain axis. Lastly, hear from Hawaii-based medical doctor and acupuncturist Dr. Catherine Kurosu as she delves into her take on gut health, Eastern and Western Medicines, and more.

6 Absolutely Astounding Food Types for Gut Health

Before we get into the best foods good for gut health to keep in your personalized diet plan, let’s brush up on some biology terminology you might’ve heard about in high school. 

  • Gut- A catchier name for your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

  • Digestive System- From fuel to stool, the system of the body tasked with digestion and conversion of foods to essential nutrients.

  • Microbiome: the total collection of all the microorganisms residing in your gut. It’s more than just bacteria! There are also fungi and viruses.

  • Gut flora/Microbiota: another name for the bacteria, fungi, and viruses, good or bad, residing in your gut. Together they make up the microbiome.

  • Probiotics: microorganisms (friendly bacteria) introduced to the gut for their health benefits.

  • Prebiotics: a fibrous food component that skips human digestion to feed gut flora.

  • Friendly Bacteria: This is what the vast majority of your microbiome is made of. Friendly bacteria kill off the more harmful varieties while contributing to the production of essential nutrients like folate and vitamin K. They need food in the form of prebiotics, and need to be diverse enough to accomplish all their amazing functions. You can improve gut health by increasing levels of these bacteria.

  • Harmful Bacteria: High levels of these in the gut can lead to anything from sugar dependence to life-threatening diseases. You can improve gut health by taking steps to lower the number of these bacteria.

  • Polyphenol: A compound that gets broken down by gut bacteria into short chain fatty acids and essential vitamins. Good sources include blueberries, green tea, dark chocolate, lentils and broccoli.

  • Stool: oh, you know. It’s the “number 2” when you head to the bathroom.

  • TCM: Traditional Chinese Medicine, the oldest and second largest form of medical practice in the world.
Coconut split open with spoon collecting coconut flesh, surrounded by leaves on yellow background.

Foods Good For Gut Health

1. Healthy Fats

Healthy unsaturated fats like extra virgin olive oil, or cold-pressed coconut oil (high in saturated fat, but still raises good (HDL) cholesterol) have mostly medium chain fatty acids that make digestion easier. Although coconut oil is chock full of antibacterial compounds, it’s still surprisingly one of the foods good for gut health. Meanwhile, olive oil is ideal for its polyphenol content, giving it a no-nonsense level of antioxidant action. Interested in healthy fats? Peruse our article on the super-healthy Blue Zones diet, which uses them heavily.

2. Lean Meat or Wild-Caught Fish

Examples of lean meat include skinless poultry and pork loin. Wild-caught fish, on the other hand, are incredibly high in omega-3 fatty acids, which gives fish like salmon and sardines powerful anti-inflammatory properties, especially in the gut lining area. The result? Greatly improved digestion! Farmed fish are fed antibiotics with their food, killing off both good and bad bacteria. There is even some evidence to suggest a single dose can have 2-year long repercussions. Try to eat wild-caught fish instead of farmed, or else your microbiome will be seriously confused and perhaps a little angry with you.

3. Whole Grains

Complex carbohydrates are essential because they take longer to digest and won’t hit your body with sugar all at once. Your friendly bacteria definitely don’t appreciate the simple sugars that do this, whereas the bad bacteria have a field day and get even more demanding. Whole grains are great, but not if they’re the bulk of your diet. As bacteria are normally responsible for producing a steady supply of feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin, GABA and dopamine, diets high in gluten (and sugar) can disrupt this process by causing inflammation that eventually reaches the brain, which can lead to dysfunction and mood disorders.

4. Probiotics

Despite what you may have heard, not all probiotic foods achieve their intended purpose. Greek yogurt and kombucha do not actually contribute meaningfully to a diverse microbiome, as it’s understood that the sugar content plays a role in the proliferation of bad bacteria. Avoid them, and stick to other fermented sources like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir (fermented milk smoothie), tempeh and miso, to name only a few. Ginger is another commonly fermented food that is a true powerhouse. Aiding and speeding digestion, it improves metabolic, immune, and digestive health! All these foods break down nutrients for better absorption and encourage a strong Lactobacillus population, commonly associated with a healthy gut and the expulsion of nastier bacterial strains. If you want to hear more about fermentation, check out our article!

5. Organic Fruit

Graphic of banana, with non-organic side showing visible pesticides and antibiotics.

Sinclair, Cambria. Accessed June 2021.

 

Have you always been annoyed by that uppity, exorbitant price tag on organic produce? Turns out there may be a worthwhile reason: their complete avoidance of pesticides and antibiotics that, needless to say, can be incredibly damaging to the balance of your gut microbiome. Also, foods like organic fruit that are high in fiber, are usually high in prebiotics. These are what keep the good bacteria fed, and thus are not broken down by the small intestine. If possible, pair this fruit with fatty foods, like in the form of peanut butter and banana whole wheat toast. They promote fatty acid production, and reduce insulin and cholesterol levels. Additionally, foods good for gut health like lentils, oats, bananas, berries, leeks, broccoli and nuts are high in polyphenols (if you stick to a high-fiber and high-polyphenol diet, you will naturally diverge away from meat as a staple).

6. Vegetables

You want to be aware that you’re having a mix of vegetables that are high in insoluble and soluble fibers (often, both are present). This way, you and your friendly bacteria can grow strong and tough together. Better choices fall under the category of “dark, leafy greens”: kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, chard, and spinach. Their high insoluble fiber content not only feeds gut flora but adds bulk to your stool. Similar to fruits, vegetables contain prebiotic fiber. Asparagus, chicory root, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, and onions are all high in inulin, a prebiotic fiber. Many of them are covered in more detail here.

Aside from food and probiotic supplements, the number one way to ensure a healthy, diverse and fully functioning microbiome is by developing a reliable self-care routine. The overarching goal should be to lower stress levels through various lifestyle habits such as sleeping and waking at the same time, regular aerobic exercise like jogging, and avoiding drugs that affect sleep quality such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine (especially in the evenings). Considering any one of these alternative approaches is the first step to clawing your way out of the rigorous demands of daily life, escaping for an afternoon, and ultimately rekindling your authentic, stress-free self.

To add onto this, it’s always good to have a diverse range of foods good for gut health as it gives the boost your friendly bacteria need to resist infection and disease. Gut bacteria simply won’t grow and develop without minimal levels of certain key nutrients. This is part of a much larger epidemic of our time, occurring in countries where the Western diet takes center stage. This diet is notorious for many things, large quantities of simple carbs and processed foods being the main culprits, but it also isn’t that varied. Did you know 3/4 of the world’s food supply is sourced from only a dozen plants and five animals? Fortunately, in today’s age of multicultural influences and globalization, a quick grocery trip allows you to introduce an endless array of whole grains, organic produce and probiotic foods into your daily meals.

Foods Bad For Gut Health

Processed foods, red meat, and artificial sweeteners already take the cake as the most precarious foods to ingest in general. Then there are the digestion-upsetting foods like citrus fruits, spicy and fried foods, and beans. Their impact on our gut in particular is already well-established, so we should focus on some of the lesser-known foods and drinks that still carry a huge risk to gut health.

1. Corn

90% of all US corn is genetically modified. Wheat and soy are also among the top three GMOs in America. Since GMOs are linked to lowered populations of beneficial gut bacteria, it’s best to avoid corn and corn-based products altogether.

2. Certain oils

Canola, safflower, and soybean oils are not only the worst oils to use in cooking, as the gut wasn’t meant to process them. They are also the most common, and are usually what comprise that elusive “vegetable oil” concoction. This can make it tricky when going shopping, as the Western diet features them prominently. Good alternatives include coconut and olive oils.

3. Tap Water

Buy a water filter pitcher to keep in your fridge, because chlorine is often contained in tap water, which kills off gut microbiota regardless of whether they’re helping you out. Your immune system would NOT appreciate this.

4. Milk

Dairy such as milk is known to change the bacterial content of your microbiome quite rapidly… like in a matter of days. This change usually introduces new bacterial strains that are connected to inflammation and diseases.

5. Soy products

Soy nowadays is so overly processed that it reduces two key microbiota in the gut, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria.

6. Alcohol

Dysbiosis is a condition in which the levels of good and bad bacteria are not properly balanced, and the most common aggressors are alcohol and other irritating foods. In a study, 27% of alcoholics had dysbiosis, while no one in the non-drinker group did. When there are exceptions, like in the case of red wine, it is due to their polyphenol content, as polyphenols are only digested by bacteria.

7. Any Kind of Sugar

Sugar can affect our whole digestion process in some pretty gnarly ways. Just consider how a high-sugar diet results in not only greater instances of constipation, but poorer gut function. In fact, when you experience sugar cravings it may just be your bad bacteria demanding it, not you. It can be hard to avoid sugar nowadays, as I’m sure you know they go by increasingly clever names on

Western Medicine and TCM: Two Ways of Understanding

Western medicine now knows that the immune system, heart health, sleep, and disease prevention are all areas of your physical health that can be positively impacted by a conscious focus on digestive health. If your gut flora aren’t receiving the nutrients they crave, you won’t metabolize, absorb nutrients, or prevent infections like you should.

The Western medicine approach to gut health is, relatively speaking, still in its infancy stage. Researchers were making headway as early as the 1840’s, uncovering the presence of gut bacteria and the usefulness of probiotics, with more discoveries waiting to be made in the 20th century. In this short time, the available knowledge about these critical concepts ballooned into a multidisciplinary understanding of several interconnected parts of the body. This offered countless therapeutic opportunities to all sorts of gut-related ailments.

If you’re a go-getter and find that food just isn’t cutting it, you can experiment with Western medicine or supplements, just ask your primary care physician first. Keep in mind that taking OTC supplements comes with some pitfalls like unguaranteed quality, but is still a worthwhile pursuit given the essential nature of things like probiotics, Omega 3s and digestive enzymes. To improve the survivability rate of probiotic supplements, steer clear of any capsules that cannot handle the acidic environment of the stomach before they reach the GI tract. Good news: several options are still available! Try taking them at night, too, when your gut isn’t as active.

Traditional Chinese Medicine: What Makes it Different?

Venn diagram comparing two medical practices, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine, on the topic of gut health.

Pena, Katherine. Accessed June 2021.

Over the centuries and even millennia, TCM has really developed a strong reputation as a source of remedies for every type of ailment under the sun. You may be wondering what the difference is between TCM and Western medicine practices. In the realm of digestive and gut health, there is actually a ton of overlap between these disciplines in terms of what foods to make your staple and which foods to get off the table.

To start off the discussion, consider how several millennia ago, TCM recognized the intrinsic connection between digestive organs and one’s mood. If someone is worrying excessively, the consequence will most likely appear in their gut before too long. Certain foods affect levels of Qi, or one’s life force. Since Qi is believed by Chinese philosophies to provide vital energy to the whole rest of the body, TCM practitioners understood long before anyone else that dietary choices result in huge impacts on one’s state of mind.

TCM starts by looking at digestive health in a unique way. It recognizes all foods as belonging to one of two categories: warming, or cooling. Suitable warm foods include ginger, cinnamon, fennel, winter squash, sweet potato, kale, and oats, while suitable cool foods are peppermint, apples, cucumber, cilantro, tofu, watermelon and yogurt. For better or worse, warm and cool foods affect the digestive process at various places in the body, from the tongue to the intestines. For example, the shape of a human tongue can vary from person to person depending on their diet and overall health, so this is one of the first places TCM draws clues from.

TCM’s teachings align with the notion that one should avoid unhealthy fats, antibiotics and other chemicals, and processed or denatured foods for a well-balanced and supportive gut microbiome. These types of food are all bad for the liver, and may contribute to irritability and aggression if left unchecked. For people with an upset stomach, it’s advised not to overindulge in spicy foods. TCM also aims to assess the current health of your spleen, pancreas and intestines. You could be advised to try squash, carrots, honey or ginger if you have a low appetite or undigested food in your stool. Soluble and insoluble fibers, along with plenty of filtered water, are needed for your small and large intestines to work together to move food along the GI tract. If you want to take this advice to heart, definitely avoid white carbs like white rice and white bread, picking their healthier counterparts instead.

Overall, TCM takes a holistic healing approach: make the right choices for your diet, with omega 3s, leafy greens and fermented foods, and it may be all you need to be on the road to recovery. In many instances however, herbal medicines or meditative practices like yoga lend much needed additional support.

In more recent years, scientific analysis under Western medicine seems to confirm many of these ideas, with DNA sequencing showing that an unbalanced microbiome (dysbiosis) is associated with a wide variety of disorders everywhere in the body. One important thing this tells us is that Western integrative medicine practices, due to its similar findings, can be pursued alongside TCM to accomplish so much more, because they would finally be speaking the same language!

Dr. Catherine Kurosu is an author, acupuncturist, and proponent of the blending of Western and Eastern Medicines, specifically given what each has to say about gut health. Although they seem like entirely different areas of study, there are many instances in which TCM and Western Medicine either stand in agreement or could potentially collaborate. The book she co-authored just last year, “True Wellness For Your Gut”, takes a rigorous examination of how these disciplines can (and should) work together to deliver optimized health care to patients addressing the health of their digestive systems. Read on to see our Q&A session!

Image: Monica Lau Photography. Accessed June 2021.

Self-portrait of Dr. Catherine Kurosu, Hawaii-based author and acupuncturist.

Q: Which foods have you found most evidently upset the balance of gut flora?

 

A: Most people need to play detective to determine which foods are causing stomach upset.  Sometimes, it is not readily apparent or intuitively obvious.  For example, whole wheat products sound healthy, but a person may be sensitive to gluten.  Yogurt can be a good source of probiotics, but if you are lactose intolerant, then it will cause gastrointestinal symptoms. In general, cooking simple meals from scratch is the best way to pinpoint what affects your digestion.

I would add, however, that excess refined sugar of the sort that hides in processed foods is absorbed too rapidly.  Your cells cannot metabolize that much sugar completely and substances called free radicals are produced and cause cell damage. This damage can cause chronic inflammation which can lead to metabolic diseases.

Q: What is the greatest lesson you think the eastern approach to maintaining a healthy gut and digestive system can impart to the Western modality?

A: The realization that everything we do, eat, and even think, can affect the gut.  In truth, this is not a new realization for Western medicine.  Historically, physicians recognized that foods had medicinal properties. They also acknowledged that a patient’s physical activity, sleep patterns, and state of mind could influence digestion, but after the Scientific Revolution, organ systems were studied and viewed as separate entities.  Over recent decades, this perspective has changed and Western medicine has started to embrace a whole person approach to health once again.

Q: What do you personally find the most fascinating aspect of the human gut?

A: Once people understand that 95% of our body’s supply of serotonin is located in the gut, they may prioritize a healthy diet to improve their mental health. Also, knowing that the gut and brain are so intimately connected, people may be empowered to rely more on the messages that their gut is sending them while trying to make decisions, both momentous and mundane.  However, for me, the most fascinating aspect of the human gut is how it affects and is affected by our sleep-wake cycle.

The most important fact that I learned while co-writing the “True Wellness” series is the absolute necessity of adequate restorative sleep.  Not only does your sleep influence your gut health, it influences all your other organ systems and your intellectual and emotional wellbeing. If more people were aware of diverse ways in which sufficient high-quality sleep influences our biorhythms, I would hope that sleep would be prioritized for the sake of less chronic illness and better mental health worldwide.

The Gut-Brain Axis: A Go-With-Your-Gut Discovery

Graphic of human body with digestive system and gastrointestinal tract highlighted in red and orange.

Robertson, Ruairi. “Graphic of Human Digestive System.”. Healthline, 20 Aug. 2020,

Your gut is not an isolated system in the body. As we covered earlier, it is closely linked with many other areas like the immune and digestive systems. This link happens to exist between the gut and your brain, as well, and is called the gut-brain axis. It is connected through hormones and inflammatory signaling molecules, regulating your mood, stress, mental functioning and sleep cycle. TCM was well aware of this for thousands of years, and Western medicine has been playing catch up.

Because of this gut-brain connection, your microbiome plays a huge role in brain function. For instance, your gut stores 95% of your body’s supply of serotonin, a critical mood-boosting hormone that also allows for restorative, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This point is largely overlooked by society, but when you consider how most medications (SSRI’s) that treat mood disorders aim to increase available serotonin, changing to a gut-focused diet sounds like a surefire way to regulate mental health!

Furthermore, stress that accumulates in your life can translate quite easily into real physical effects on your gut, or vice versa. Prioritizing your microbiome can often be the most effective way to pull yourself out of chronic stress, mood disorders and cognitive decline, as poor gut health can even be their causes.

Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month

This is a good segway to the topics of Alzheimers, the MIND diet, and brain food, so let’s shift gears for a moment. As you might already know, June is Brain Awareness Month, a time of remembrance less to do with celebration and more to do with acknowledging the impact Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia leaves on society. Given that the average lifespan in developed countries is increasing dramatically, the age-related Alzheimer’s disease now affects 50 million people, earning it a spot as one of the major public health crises of our time. Not only that, but this number will almost triple in the next three decades.

Refreshing, freshly made blueberry smoothie surrounded by blueberries.

So how can we fight back against this debilitating illness? The brain is the fattiest organ in the body (60% fat), so any foods that contain healthy fats like olive oil or Omega 3 fatty acids from fish are ideal to have. Need a more concrete example of what to try? Unwind with this blueberry and chocolate smoothie that promises to nurture your brain health all while providing fuel for your gut flora! A salad with wild-caught salmon, walnuts, broccoli or pumpkin seeds and a dash of turmeric and ginger oil would also just as easily do the trick. If you still want to learn more about brain-healthy foods, hop on over to our post on the MIND diet, a super secret science-backed sustenance strategy that fuses the best tips and tricks from the Mediterranean and DASH diets for optimized brain, and therefore gut, function.

You cannot overstate how when helping your gut, your whole body thanks you. From the perspective of TCM, Western medicine, the MIND diet and the gut-brain axis, the gut is interconnected with the rest of the body and even your mind. An improper balance of the different bacterial strains who’ve made a home in your gut can lead to or exacerbate obesity, cancer, inflammation, anxiety, depression, and autism, When it comes to foods good for gut health, there are almost an exhausting number of options available, from organic produce and lean meats, to healthy fats, probiotic supplements and fermented vegetable and dairy products. Befriend your microbiome with these foods to take charge of your mental and physical health, and uncover a more authentic version of yourself. The “you” that is inquisitive, content, resilient, adaptable, and eager to tackle life’s greatest challenges!

Have we whetted your appetite for information on gut health? With a quick visit to Dr. Kurosu’s website, you can continue to expand your awareness of strategies to optimize your gut microbiome and what exactly is being done in the world of medicine!

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Written by Case van der Burg