By: Charlene Wang, MS, RDN, CHTP
Every human being is the author of his own health or disease. -Buddha
Have ever made an instinctive decision to “go with your gut?” If so, that mind-gut decision was not just metaphorical. You’re likely getting signals from an unexpected source: your second brain. For centuries, Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners have understood that strengthening your digestive tract increases the likelihood of healing and/or easing the symptoms of a variety of health conditions, such as mental and emotional problems, diabetes, digestive distress, menopausal complaints, IBS and immune system weakness. Research is now suggesting that your gut bacteria is tied to your probability of developing health issues such as diabetes, obesity, depression, and colon cancer.
Western medicine is beginning to understand the relationship between our guts and our minds with what is called the “Gut-Brain Axis.” The gastrointestinal (GI) tract, has an entire ecosystem of bacteria and a vast neural network operating in our guts called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The ENS consists of two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum. The ENS also governs the movement and regulation of the digestive system.
In other words, your gut and brain have the ability to communicate via the nervous system, hormones, and the immune system. This system of communication greatly affects how we feel physically as well as emotionally. In fact, researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes.
The enteric nervous system contains microbes in your gut that produce 50% of the dopamine found in your body and 90% of seratonin. These two neurotransmitters drastically affect your mood, happiness, and pleasure. Microbes can manipulate your cravings and eating behaviors for their own survival. Ultimately, it’s your diet affecting which bacteria thrives and as a result, the bacteria can transmit signals to your brain via the vagus nerve to keep eating the foods that ensure their survival. Even more the reason to eat a healthy diet to sustain the advantageous bacteria in our guts.
What Can You Do To Build Healthy Gut Bacteria?
Take A Good Quality Probiotic or Simply Eat Them
Probiotics are health-promoting gut bacteria found in the following fermented food products: kimchi, sauerkraut, dairy and vegan yogurt, kombucha, kefir, tempeh, and in supplemental forms. Many probiotics are similar to the bacteria naturally residing in our guts.
A variety of at least 10 different bacteria strains (different strains offer different benefits — some aid with digestion, some help with vitamin absorption, some promote bowel regularity).
- Probiotic supplements should contain at least 10 billion CFUs (colony forming units) per dose.
- Refrigerated probiotics have consistently shown faster and significant results with my patients.
- Encapsulated probiotic pills are advantageous to liquids because they help the bacteria survive the acidic stomach environment.
- Whole-grain or brown rice crackers
- Raw fruits/veggies
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Greek yogurt
- Protein bar
- To reap the long-term benefits of probiotics, I recommend consuming prebiotics on a regular basis.
Eat Plenty of Prebiotics
Prebiotics are a dietary fiber on which probiotics feed. Prebiotics are soluble, fermentable fibers that get consumed by probiotics and fermented into short-chain fatty acids which provide healthy benefits long after we’ve eaten our last bite of kimchi.
The best sources of healthy prebiotic foods are barley, oats, apples, burdock root, chicory root, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, flax seeds, and seaweed.
Sleep More, Stress Less
Stress can be linked to gut health. Research has found that when stressed, your brain sends messages to your gut in the form of chemicals, such as epinephrine. These chemicals affect how well your gut works. To reduce stress and support gut health, practice one of the simple methods research has found to reduce stress and enhance sleep: meditation, exercise, aromatherapy, petting animals, and various breathing exercises.
Limit or Eliminate Your Intake of Refined Sugar
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is high in fat and sugar and low in fiber which kills the beneficial types of gut bacteria, making your microbiota less diverse. Refined sugar also contributes to inflammation, weight gain, hormonal imbalance, and many more unwanted health issues. By eliminating refined sugar, you will cease to feed bad bacteria which disturb healthy gut flora.
Avoid Overusing Antibiotics
The objective of using antibiotics is to kill bacteria. Although that includes the harmful bacteria, it also includes the good bacteria needed for optimal gut function. This disruption of intestinal balance can cause a lack of diversity among bacteria that’s sure to affect your health.
Maintaining healthy gut is a health requirement as it prevents health problems. This is why dietitians stress over eating a healthy diet including prebiotics and probiotics. Therefore, start incorporating healthier options into your diet, feel the difference, and begin to trust those gut instincts.
This educational article, edited and adapted by Charlene Wang, MS, RD with Strata Integrated Wellness Spa reflects the personal opinions of the author and is written to provide helpful information on nutrition. It is not intended to be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. For diagnosis or treatment of any medical problem, please consult with your physician. Article content must not be reprinted or distributed for commercial use without the written permission of Charlene Wang, MS, RD. There are no representations or warranties, expressed or implied, with respect to the content, accuracy or completeness of any information contained in this article.