Gut health has become a hot topic recently. Researchers are starting to understand just how significant the gut is in our overall health.
Simply put, the bacteria in our digestive system influences countless processes and outcomes throughout the body.
A good balance of gut bacteria may reduce disease risk, depression and inflammation, while a poor balance may do the exact opposite.
Finding out how to improve your gut health naturally is critical.
Many probiotic foods can help in this process. But, there are also other factors to consider.
Dietary Decisions That Heal Your Gut
The most powerful way to improve your gut bacteria is through your diet (1). After all, gut bacteria are in our digestive systems. Your diet is critical to your overall health anyway. It should be the first place that you focus on when trying to get healthier – regardless of what your specific goals are.
So then, what dietary approaches improve gut bacteria?
Increase Intake of Probiotics
If you’ve thought about gut health at all – you probably already know that probiotics are critical. The term just refers to live microbes (bacteria and yeast) that can help promote health.
There are many different sources of probiotics. Most of these are fermented foods. Many offer benefits of their own as well and they often taste amazing.
- Yogurt. Yogurt is one of the most common, and critical, ways to add probiotics to your diet. In fact, many of the studies into probiotics and their benefits have focused on yogurt. Just make sure you choose the product carefully – as some yogurt brands don’t have active cultures and many are high in sugar and/or artificial ingredients.
- Kombucha. This is a type of fermented tea and often relies on black tea and sugar. There are many variations, including flavored kombucha and even kombucha made with coffee. Most of the sugar is removed during fermentation and you can focus on lower caffeine teas to reduce the caffeine content.
- Kefir. This is another fermented drink. It is traditionally made from milk but there are other variations too.
- Sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is simply fermented cabbage (as is kimchi, a less common option) and it does contain healthy bacteria.
- Pickles. The pickling process involves fermentation, so anything pickled should have probiotics. This is especially true if you’re pickling vegetables yourself, rather than purchasing them.
- Many dairy fermented foods have non-dairy variations too. For example, the site One Green Planet talks about vegan fermented foods, including non-dairy yogurt and coconut kefir (made with coconut water).
These are the most common fermented foods. Other examples include miso, tempeh, lassi, traditional buttermilk (not the type found in grocery stores) and natto. We talk about the individual options in more detail in our fermented food article.
You’ll get the most benefits from focusing on a variety of different probiotic sources. This will give you access to more strains of microbes and more nutrients overall.
What About Supplements?
Probiotic supplements are popular and they do have benefits as well. They often provide a more concentrated source of microbes and the strains are carefully chosen.
They’re especially powerful if you have a specific health issue that you’re trying to address or if you know your gut health has been compromised.
In most cases, probiotic supplements are best used as a short-term measure. They can help you kick-start the process of improving your gut bacteria. But, if you follow the other approaches in this guide, you shouldn’t need to rely on supplements in the long-term.
Regardless of the food (or supplement) you plan to use, make sure you choose the product carefully.
- Fermented products should all contain healthy microbes because this is how they are made. But, these are sometimes removed during processing, especially if heat is used.
- Look for brands that use phrasing like ‘contains active cultures’. Many will list the specific strains as well.
- A product with more strains isn’t necessarily better than one with fewer. But, having a variety of strains in your diet as a whole is a powerful approach.
You can also make fermented foods at home. For example, the site Live Simply has a guide on making milk kefir, while Delicious Obsessions has instructions for making kombucha.
Fermented foods are powerful sources of healthy bacteria. Just make sure the bacteria haven’t been destroyed during processing
Rely on Prebiotics Too
Probiotics are critical, but they’re only part of the story. Regardless of whether you use food, supplements or both – probiotics just get healthy microbes into your system.
You still need a good environment for them to thrive. The same is true for the gut bacteria you already have.
This is where prebiotics come in.
- The term refers non-digestible fiber. Definitions vary, but prebiotics are often considered to include oligosaccharides, arabinogalactans and inulin.
- Our bodies can’t break down prebiotics but the bacteria in our gut can (through fermentation).
- Prebiotics are essentially food for gut bacteria. They help provide critical nutrients. Without prebiotics, your gut bacteria cannot function effectively and your balance of gut bacteria might be at risk.
- Dr. Axe has a detailed article on prebiotics. He offers extra insights into how these work and why they are so critical.
Thankfully, there are many prebiotics to choose from. Many of these will be in your diet already but you may need to increase your consumption. Some of the most powerful examples are as follows.
You’ll notice that most of these prebiotic sources aren’t common choices. They’re extremely effective but they may not be practical in your diet.
Because of this, many people rely on other sources of prebiotics. These have a lower amount of prebiotics per hundred grams but they’re easier to eat regularly.
- Dark chocolate
- Microalgae (including spirulina)
- Chia seeds and flax seeds
- Coconut flour
- Wheat bran
- Red wine (only when consumed in moderation)
- Apples (due to their pectin content, the site Liver Doctor examines the topic in detail)
- Apple cider vinegar
That list is a small sample. Most foods that contain fiber will have some prebiotics. The site Dr. Jockers offers a longer list, while Authority Nutrition offers more details about key probiotics.
Prebiotics tend to come from plants, so plant-heavy diets are especially good for your gut. Theories suggest that a vegetarian diet may be better than a diet that includes meat (2). But, there isn’t enough evidence to support this theory yet and meat does have health benefits.
Some foods are also synbiotic, which means they contain probiotics and prebiotics (3). Yogurt and kefir are both examples, which makes them exceptional for health.
There are prebiotic supplements as well. These are useful if you can’t get enough prebiotics otherwise, although food sources are preferable.
Prebiotics are critical for supporting your gut health and are present in many types of food
Dietary Practices to Avoid
Some choices have the opposite impact – they can harm your balance of gut bacteria.
- A lack of diversity. A diverse diet is extremely beneficial. It offers greater access to healthy compounds. This also means your gut bacteria become diverse and are better able to adapt to challenges (4).
- Too much alcohol. Alcohol may have some benefits in moderation but large amounts can harm gut bacteria composition (5,6).
- Artificial sweeteners. Research is in its early stages but artificial sweeteners may impact the gut flora (7,8). This could be particularly problematic for anyone who relies on them heavily.
- Sugar and processed food. Diets high in sugar and processed food have negative implications as well (9). More research is needed but it’s clear that whole food diets offer more benefits and fewer risks.
A diverse diet that focuses on whole foods is the best way to promote a healthy gut
Other Areas that Can Affect Gut Health
Research is continuing to find new ways that gut flora can influence overall health. But, many of the interactions occur in both directions. This means that diet isn’t the only thing affecting your gut bacteria. Many other aspects also play a role.
Stress is extremely damaging to the body, especially in the long-term. This includes many negative implications for your gut, such as increased sensitivity and less blood flow. Those patterns can then impact gut bacteria composition (10).
Animal studies have shown that exposure to stress can lower the diversity of microbes in the gut (11,12). A similar outcome was shown in college students after exam-related stress (13).
These patterns may be especially strong during prolonged periods of stress, although much more human research is needed.
Gut bacteria aside, decreasing stress is critical for long-term health, although the process is easier said than done. The site Psychology Today has a good article that highlights six approaches that can help lower stress, even if you can’t change the situation at hand.
High levels of stress can significantly alter gut bacteria
Harm to your gut bacteria is yet another reason why smoking is a bad idea. Thankfully, research shows that gut flora can improve once people have stopped smoking (14).
Smoking can decrease healthy bacteria in the gut
Getting Enough Sleep
Sleep is important for health in many ways. Yet, many people don’t get enough of it.
One key component of sleep is the circadian rhythm. This is the natural cycle of awake and asleep, which is strongly influenced by melatonin.
The circadian rhythm doesn’t just impact sleep. It seems to have implications for many other parts of the body too – including your gut. Disruptions to your natural cycle may negatively impact your gut bacteria (15,16).
This includes patterns like going to bed late, not getting enough sleep at night, shift work and jet lag. Even short-term sleep deprivation can have negative implications (17,18,19).
Sleep problems aren’t always easy to resolve.
- But, good sleep hygiene is a critical starting point. The site Rodale Wellness highlights key practices you can rely on.
- Magnesium and vitamin D may also play a role in promoting sleep, as long as your vitamin D levels aren’t too high.
- If you still experience sleep problems, you might need to talk to your doctor.
Insufficient sleep or disruptions to your natural sleep rhythm can disrupt gut bacteria
Many medications can have a negative impact on gut bacteria.
The most significant example is antibiotics.
These patterns suggest that antibiotics should be used carefully. They are still necessary in some cases. But, doctors continue to prescribe them for conditions where antibiotics are not needed and are not helpful.
Other medications may disrupt gut bacteria too, including laxatives, antacids and painkillers. Some prescribed medications may be especially significant, like SSRI antidepressants.
This suggests that you should rely on natural remedies, along with a healthy diet of whole foods. Medications should be used carefully and only when truly necessary.
Many medications will impact your gut bacteria and antibiotics are the most significant
Being Physically Active
Your level of physical activity may have a direct impact on your overall gut health (24). In particular, being more active can help promote beneficial gut bacteria and improve the diversity of gut flora (25,26).
The outcome may be linked to the compound butyrate (a short-chain fatty acid). Butyrate levels tend to be higher in people with better fitness levels. Levels of butyrate-producing bacteria can also increase when you are more active (27,28).
Being more active is a simple technique that can improve gut bacteria levels
Babies who are breastfed tend to have a better balance of gut bacteria than those that are not (29,30), especially in relation to the Bifidobacterium genus of bacteria (31).
This pattern may be why children who were breastfed are often healthier and have fewer allergies.
Gut bacteria are another reason that breastfeeding is so important
Aspects of your local environment can also affect your gut bacteria. Air pollution is one significant example (32).
The balance of gut bacteria also varies depending on location. So, people in the United States have a different combination of species than people in Russia. The site Self Hacked provides more details about some of those differences.
Gut bacteria diversity is also greater if you live in a rural environment (33). This is mostly associated with diet, although behavior could be relevant as well.
Local environment also has an impact, although only some aspects of your environment will be controllable
Diet remains the largest single influencer of gut bacteria composition. Ideally, you should be consuming a varied diet, one that is rich in prebiotics and probiotics, while being low in artificial sweeteners and other artificial ingredients.
Simply focusing on whole foods is often enough to achieve this, especially if you include many plant-based foods and fermented foods in your eating plan.
Being active, getting enough sleep and limiting medications are also important steps.
Not surprisingly – all the approaches for promoting good gut bacteria are also critical for improving health overall.
Want to Improve Your Health?
Better health starts in the kitchen, with the food that you eat and the meals you prepare. Getting the best outcomes involves making good choices about the food and the ingredients that you use.
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