Top Foods for a Healthy Gut that Go Beyond Probiotics

There’s no denying that the gut is the body’s super organ. Emerging data continues to reveal the endless benefits of a healthy gut microbiome. Researchers are identifying that the gut plays a key role in keeping you healthy and that a compromised gut can lead to the onset of various chronic diseases. But as with most things, the more that you know, the more that you do not know and that is especially true for the field of the gut microbiome.

New research on the microbiome is published daily but we are far from knowing exactly which gut alterations are most beneficial for specific disease states. But in time, those associations will become more evident. What’s clear in the current research is that while probiotics get all of the attention, there are plenty of other things that you can do from a dietary standpoint to optimize your gut health. While probiotics can be critical, that’s only the beginning of the story.

One of the first BeingBrigid articles was published in 2016 and it included a broad overview of 7 Ways to Feed your Good Bacteria. While feeding good bacteria through dietary intake is so valuable, the latest research reveals that this is only the beginning of the story. Read on to learn more about the top foods for an overall healthy gut!

Top Foods for a Healthy Gut

1. Prebiotics to Fuel your Probiotics and Short Chain Fatty Acids

Prebiotics are non-digested ingredients that stimulate the growth of the beneficial microorganisms in the gut. Probiotics need prebiotics in order to function optimally and produce short chain fatty acids such as butyrate, propionate and acetate. Butyrate and other short chain fatty acids are extremely important for fueling the cells within the gut, reducing risk of cancer and boosting anti-inflammatory activity.

Examples of prebiotic rich foods include: apples, green bananas, asparagus, garlic, jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onion, and pears.

2. Anti-microbial Foods to Protect Against Overgrowth

Bacterial overgrowth and dysbiosis are both very common in people’s gut due to diets high in added sugars and processed foods, in addition to high levels of stress and low levels of hydrochloric acid. Incorporate foods that contain natural antimicrobials into your diet as a way to balance out your system.

Key anti-microbial foods that can reduce the risk of bacterial overgrowth include cloves, curcumin (found in turmeric), coconut oil, oregano oil, licorice, and extra virgin olive oil.

3. Fermented Foods to Feed Commensal/Healthy Bacteria

One of the easiest ways to feed a healthy gut is by eating fermented and cultured foods that have healthy strains of bacteria. Not everyone needs to take a probiotic everyday. If your gut is in balance, eating 2-3 tbsp of probiotic-rich foods 1-2 times per day can be very effective for gut health. If these types of foods cause more bloating then it may be a sign that you have dysbiosis or fungal overgrowth (also known as candida overgrowth). This is a sign that you should be working with a functional medicine practitioner to design a gut optimizing plan that is specific to your needs. But for a generally healthy person, incorporating gut friendly foods like probiotics is a great thing.

Examples of fermented foods include: kimchi, sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar (raw, from the mother), fermented beets, fermented pickles, fermented salsa, etc. Cultured foods include yogurt and kefir (preferably organic) and/or non-dairy yogurts such as unsweetened almond yogurt or coconut yogurt.

4. Soluble Fiber to Feed Short Chain Fatty Acids

There are two types of fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. They are both beneficial for the gut, with research supporting gut healthy benefits from eating 40+ grams of total fiber per day. The soluble fiber is especially beneficial for the production of short chain fatty acids. As mentioned above, short chain fatty acids are the primary fuel for the cells in your colon. This type of fiber is the one that forms with water to create a gel like substance that aids in the removal of cholesterol and other toxins. Another study also showed that a high fiber diet rich in vegetables was associated with an increased production of short chain fatty acids.

Examples of soluble fiber include: psyllium husk, oats, chia seeds, ground flax seeds, legumes, and some vegetables.

5. Omega 3 Fatty Acids to Reduce Inflammation & Protect Commensal Bacteria

There’s two types of essential fatty acids: omega 6s and omega 3s (essential means that the body cannot produce on its own). Omega 3 fatty acids have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and have been associated with improved immune health, cardiovascular health and more. This type of polyunsaturated fat also happens to protect commensal bacteria by reducing levels of inflammation.

The best way to get it in your diet is through omega 3 rich fish that also happen to be low in mercury. Examples include: wild salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, trout, and oysters. In my clinical experience of reviewing thousands of omega 3 blood tests, it’s very apparent that this essential fatty acid is often low. This is even true for individuals that are eating omega 3 rich fish so you may want to consider a high quality omega 3 fish oil supplement too.

6. L-Glutamine to Heal the GI Barrier

There’s two main components of gut health: the gut lining and the gut microbiome. You should have a pretty good sense of the microbiome at this point but here is where we will go into more detail about the GI Barrier or gut lining which is essentially a hose or pipe that carries all of your food from your mouth to your anus. When the GI barrier is compromised a person develops a leaky gut which is when holes present in the pipe, leading to an increased immune response to various foods. Research also shows that when this happens, the GI barrier loses its protective coating from disease-causing-antigens. Having a leaky gut can make a person more susceptible to inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (ex: Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis) in addition to other autoimmune conditions. And no one wants that! 

L-glutamine is an amino acid that fuels white blood cells and other cells that generate new copies of themselves at a fast rate. White blood cells play a role in fighting inflammatory bowel disease through various mechanisms that combat inflammation and help seal the gut–no more leaky hose with water spraying everywhere! 

Where in the world will you find l-glutamine? Well it’s easier than you think since this amino acid is mainly found in protein-rich foods. Therefore, collagen protein powder, poultry, fish, eggs, cottage cheese and ricotta cheese are great sources of l-glutamine. Additionally, high protein plant foods such as lentils, peas, and soybeans (preferably organic) also contain l-glutamine. 

7. Foods Rich in Zinc to Support the Gut Lining/GI Barrier

Zinc is a super important mineral that is absorbed in the small intestine. Like l-glutamine, zinc plays an important role in protecting the lining of the gut. Zinc serves as a cofactor for various processes that are involved in growth, immune function, and tissue repair. Zinc has been shown to have a similar effect on inflammatory diseases as l-glutamine by decreasing permeability of the gut lining. Research shows that zinc deficiency in people with Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis is directly associated with an increased frequency of hospitalizations, surgical interventions and complications. 

Everyone feels their best when there’s no holes in their hose! So it’s best to incorporate foods that are rich in zinc including oysters, Alaska king crab, lobster, beef shank, pork, chicken legs, cashews, chickpeas, swiss cheese, and almonds. A zinc supplement may also be warranted.

8. Foods Rich in Polyphenols to Heal the GI Barrier

Polyphenols are plant-based antioxidants that have critical anti-inflammatory effects on the gut. You can find polyphenols naturally in vibrant fruits and vegetables. These polyphenols help lower inflammation in the gut and protect the commensal or good bacteria. 

Food sources of gut-friendly polyphenols include: pomegranate seeds, pomegranate juice (1 shot a day), blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and cacao powder.

9. Intermittent Fasting to Support Healthy Commensal Bacteria Levels

Intermittent fasting can have many benefits such as weight loss, improved circadian rhythm, insulin sensitivity, fast cellular repair, cognitive function and longevity. But beyond that there’s newer science that has shown an associated with intermittent fasting and improved levels of certain groups of healthy bacteria levels such as clostridia, akkermansia, and lactobacillus. Research shows that intermittent fasting leads to lower levels of unhealthy bacteria in the gut that often increase with age and unhealthy lifestyle factors such as poor diet, stress and excessive use of antibiotics. Even better, intermittent fasting gives you all of these benefits without costing you a penny!

Intermittent fasting is the practice of abstaining from food intake for a window of time, between 12-16 hours at night. Click the link to learn more about the benefits. It is not a practice that is recommended for everyone–especially people with adrenal dysfunction, impaired thyroid function or certain hormonal imbalances. 

Contributor: Brynn Scheinberg