For a healthy digestive system, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. We’re not just talking the food you eat, but also the creatures that help break it down.
The digestive system and brain are interconnected, and sensations and abnormalities in one often influence the other. “Gut feelings” and stress vomiting, for example, are a conversation between the digestive and enteric nervous system. If your gut bacteria is out of whack, it can literally impact your mind or sleep patterns. The composition of people’s gut bacteria also correlates to their risk of diseases including cancer, obesity and inflammatory bowel, heart and liver diseases. It’s even linked to HIV, autism and mental illness. Digestive-wise, abnormal (bad) gut bacteria affects the way our bodies absorb carbohydrates and increases the storage of calories of fat. In short, it’s easier to gain weight and become unhealthy.
Because it’s so interconnected with the rest of your body, your gut bacteria is essentially a blueprint for your life. Some people are born lucky, with the ideal flora, and their bodies look and act the part. However, if your gut bacteria is abnormal, your digestive fate is not predestined. Follow these guidelines to get your gut bacteria on track.
One of the easiest ways to get your digestive system on the fast track (quite literally) is to increase your fiber uptake. Where do you find it? Produce, the not-so-secret weapon of healthy eaters. Replace not-so-fibrous foods like red meat, beer and almost all processed foods with produce and your gut will thank you, inside and out. In addition to increasing your fiber intake, you’ll decrease consumption of substances that foster abnormal bacteria. Fleshier fruits and vegetables—sweet potatoes, lentils, even pineapples—are fantastic sources of fiber. You get bonus points for eating the skin and keeping it raw.
Spend money on probiotic pills if you’d like, but actually adjusting the composition of what you eat is far more effective. Fermented foods like kimchi and yogurt (especially yogurt) contain probiotics like Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Unless you can’t digest it, yogurt is one of the best things you can put in your body—opt for plain yogurt with at least some fat in it. If it’s flavored or comes with little pieces of candy to stir in, that’s a sugar trap, and the opposite of what you want.
Fat is a necessary part of our diet and bodies, but the type of fat we consume affects our gut bacteria. It’s important to remember that not all fats are equal. Unsaturated fat is fine, good even. Saturated fat should be moderated, and trans fat should be avoided. That being said, unsaturated fat promotes healthy bacteria. Good fat, good bacteria. Bad fat, bad bacteria.
Now that you’ve got the diet down, it’s time to exercise and encourage good bacteria to grow. Studies show a correlation between exercise and microbial diversity. The more diverse your gut bacteria, the less likely you are to develop medical conditions associated with abnormal microbiota, as the bad dudes are outnumbered. Exercising also improves the digestive flow and can reduce stress, which tends to negatively affect digestive microbes.
Photo: liz west/Flickr
Sarra Sedghi is Paste Food’s and Paste Science’s assistant editor and knows a lot of random facts about the digestive system.