A person’s overall health is largely determined by the health of their gut microbiome. Each of us have about 100 trillion bacteria in the gut–that means a lot of bugs with many different personalities–some heroes and some villains. The balance between the heroes and the villains (or the good and bad bacteria) have a large impact on immune function, energy production, risk for obesity and nutrient absorption. In order to optimize the function of the entire body, feeding the good bacteria is essential as it helps overpower the bad bacteria.

There are only two proven ways to change or improve your micro flora (gut bacteria balance) long-term: diet and fecal transplants. Unfortunately most Americans disrupt their intestinal health by feeding their villain bacteria with inflammatory processed foods. Sometimes people assume that taking a probiotic can help improve their bacteria, despite a bad diet but this is a false assumption. Probiotics are effective short-term but the benefit of taking a probiotic ends when you stop taking the probiotic.

Americans damage their micro flora balance with additional culprits such as excessive stress, bottle feeding, and overuse of antibiotics. These actions can result in bacterial overgrowth which can lead to symptoms like abdominal bloating, diarrhea, brain fog and fatigue. Do your best to avoid the gut-busters and use the following seven tips to feed your good bacteria:

1. Eat Slowly and Mindfully

You are not just what you eat but you are also what you digest and absorb. A person may eat nutrient-rich foods but if they do not have the proper balance of bacteria in their gut then they may not breakdown all of the amazing nutrients that they have consumed. Eating slowly can help enhance the digestion and breakdown of your food. Chew your food thoroughly and practice mindful eating.

2. Eat Smaller Portions

A study published in 2016 found that a variety of lifestyle factors and dietary habits had an impact on gut bacteria in the study participants. The researchers collected stool samples in order to analyze the strains of bacteria that lived in the intestines. They found that excess intake of food was associated with a decrease in the variety of bacteria in the gut. Variety in the gut is a good thing–it’s ideal to have as much variety as possible in order to promote health. So make sure to eat small frequent portions of food throughout the day and stop eating before you feel full.

3. Feed the Good Bugs with Fermented Foods

Various foods contain strains of beneficial bacteria that are called probiotics. While probiotic supplements can be helpful, probiotic-rich foods can be as well. Food sources of probiotics include goats yogurt, organic kefir or yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, non-GMO tempeh, non-GMO miso, and kombucha. The same 2016 study found that consuming yogurt and kefir was associated with increased bacterial diversity in stool samples. If you can tolerate organic dairy it’s a reasonable way to boost the good bacteria–and if not, unsweetened coconut yogurt is another great option! 

4. Choose Prebiotics

Probiotics need a source of fuel to stimulate their growth and that’s where prebiotics come in. Prebiotics essentially function as a fertilizer for probiotics. Food sources of prebiotics include jerusalem artichokes, onions, chicory, garlic, leeks, bananas, soybeans, asparagus, eggplant, legumes, peas, green tea, and yogurt or kefir. As an added benefit, prebiotics have been shown to help increase a specific strain of bacteria that has been shown to promote weight loss in obese mice. Dig into these food fertilizers! 

5. Load up on Fiber Rich Foods 

Less than 3% of Americans meet the recommended level of fiber in their diet. This is a major public health concern because fiber plays a critical role in feeding a healthy gut, lowering cholesterol, reducing cravings, and so many important things. Researchers compared the diets and gut health of children from a village in West Africa compared to kids from Italy. The African children consumed foods that are rich in fiber such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables whereas the Italians primarily consumed meat, fat and sugar. The study found that the Africans had healthier guts with more diversity that were able to decrease inflammation and produce more energy. Make sure that you don’t skimp on the fiber! Load up on beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, non-starchy vegetables, starchy vegetables and fruit. 

6. Discuss the Necessity of Antibiotics with your Doctor

Patients commonly report a heavy use of antibiotics at some point in their lives. Antibiotics have been a great advancement in medicine but run the risk of being overprescribed. The risk of using antibiotics long-term is that they can destroy the balance of your bacteria, contributing to poor gut health. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pew Charitable Trust recently found that 30% of antibiotics that are prescribed by doctors are unnecessary–that equates to about 47 million prescriptions per year. Be sure to ask your doctor whether the antibiotics that are being prescribed are medically necessary.

7. Manage your Stress Response

Stress serves as an input to your microbiome and can have a significant impact on a person’s gut health. The key is to manage your response to stress rather than wishing all stress out of your life. What matters most is not the stressor, it’s your reaction to the stressor. We always have a choice: to react or not react. Find strategies and techniques that help to change your perspective or induce relaxation. That may include mindful breathing, meditation, yoga, walks, or anything that helps reduce your reactivity to stress.

The key is to promote the growth of good bacteria which can help to decrease the bad bacteria. Use these tips to help you improve the balance of your good and bad bugs. At your next meal remember that what you put into your mouth will impact your gut–you get to choose which types of bacteria to feed.