September 14, 2017

Hippocrates, the father of medicine, once said “bad digestion is at the root of all evil” and “death sits in the bowels.” This quote alludes to the integrity of the gastrointestinal tract which extends from the mouth to the anus and encompasses the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Each component of the gastrointestinal tract plays an integral role in releasing hormones and enzymes which allow us to digest and absorb vital nutrients from our dietary regimen. If our digestive tract is compromised, then we can suffer from various diseases such as Irritable Bowel Disease, Celiac Disease, Crohn’s Disease, Diverticulosis, Diverticulitis, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, and among several others. Each of these diseases adversely affects different parts of the gastrointestinal tract, however, can be mitigated by a prudent and proactive dietary regimen.

Currently, we know the gastrointestinal tract is complex and contains a network of microbial community. This microbial community depicts the gut microbiota which increases in diversity and density from the stomach to the colon. The microbiota ecosystem in the human gut synthesizes nutrients, aids in digestions and promotes angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels) and enteric nerve function. However, if the gut ecosystem undergoes abnormal changes due to antibiotics, illness, stress, aging, and a poor dietary and inactive lifestyle, then the aforementioned diseases may soon follow. Therefore, it is important to understand the dietary and lifestyle methods we can use to promote our gut integrity and mitigate the risk of various diseases. Herein, I will provide you the top five ways you can improve your gut health and improve your well-being.

Breastfeeding

  • Pamela K. Wiggins said it best, “breastfeeding is a mother's gift to herself, her baby and the earth.” For mothers, their first role in establishing healthy eating patterns and strengthening their child’s gut integrity begins with breastfeeding. The composition of breast milk makes it an excellent source of natural energy for the child’s overall development. Breast milk rather than formula should be consumed by the infant because it is easier to digest and has antibodies to help the child resist illnesses and infections. The current breastfeeding recommendations advise mothers to breast feed exclusively for the first six months. Breastfeeding for six months protects babies from infections and chronic diseases. Mothers who breastfeed below the recommendations can adversely affect their child’s health by increasing their risk for infections and chronic diseases. The benefits of breast milk are partly due to the indigestible glycans termed as human milk oligosaccharides which are easily broken down by Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus in the gut. These two bacteria are dominant during the early years of the child’s life and promote the child’s well -being and microbiota ecosystem, therefore, if you are expecting a baby make sure to breastfeed your infant for the recommended duration.

Avoid Antibiotics if Feasible

  • One of the primary culprits affecting the gut microbiota is the use of antibiotics. Although for some medical conditions antibiotics are necessary, in today’s society, they are often overprescribed and result in the loss of “bad” and “good” bacteria. Further, because 60-70% of the immune system is located in the gut, people often become susceptible to various illnesses when using antibiotics. Commonly used antibiotics include Penicillin, Cephalosporins, Macrolides, and Fluoroquinolone. If you use any of these medications, consult with your physician to determine if they are necessary for your medical condition.

Eat Produce(Fruits and Vegetables) in Season

  • Want to save money while also increasing your gut health then eat fruits and vegetables in season. The current recommendations set by the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern at the 2,000-calorie level is 2½ cup-equivalents of vegetables and 2 cup-equivalents of fruits per day. These recommendations will not only provide you with nutrient dense foods but will also allow you to increase your fiber intake as well. If you are over the age of 19, your Dietary Reference Intake for fiber is 38g for males and 25g for women. Many people who follow a western diet have a low fiber intake and have a high intake of red meat, refined sugars, and saturated fat. Therefore, if you meet your fiber recommendations not only will you improve your gut health but you may also decrease your cholesterol, guard against diabetes and gastrointestinal diseases, prevent constipation, and increase your satiety which can aid in weight loss. In Table 1, I have provided an excerpt of the fruits and vegetables commonly found in each To get the full list of the recommended fruits and vegetables to purchase during Winter, Spring, Fall, and Summer, please follow the link https://snaped.fns.usda.gov/seasonal-produce-guide.

Table 1

Winter

Spring

Fall

Summer

Apples

Apples

Apples

Apples

Avocados

Apricots

Apricots

Bananas

Bananas

Asparagus

Asparagus

Beets

Beets

Avocados

Bananas

Bell Peppers

Brussel Sprouts

Bananas

Beets

Broccoli

 

Consume Foods Rich in Probiotics and Prebiotics 

  • You have probably heard this before, consume foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics to improve your gut However, I encourage you to eat these compounds from food rather than a supplement. Food will have a higher bioavailability and an abundance of other vital and therapeutic nutrients your body needs for other bodily functions. If you look at Table 2, you will see the function and food sources of probiotics and prebiotics. Depending on your culture or ethnicity, some of the food sources provided may be unfamiliar. In my experience, kefir is by far my favorite probiotic food source. Kefir is basically a shake you can take alongside your breakfast. In your local supermarket, kefir can easily be found near the yogurt or dairy section. It comes in various flavors and can be blended with some of the prebiotics listed such as oatmeal and flax seeds.

    Table 2

    Compound

    Function

    Food Sources

    Probiotics

    Provides beneficial bacteria to improve gastrointestinal health and may also improve calcium absorption.

    Yogurt, (with active, live cultures), kefir, buttermilk, and other fermented dairy products; fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut, and fermented soy products such as miso and tempeh.

    Prebiotics

    Nondigestible food ingredients such as dietary fibers that provide food for gut bacteria to grow on; may improve gastrointestinal health and immune function; inulin and oligofructose are the most commonly studied prebiotics.

    Whole grains (especially oatmeal), flax and barley; greens; berries, bananas, and other fruit; legumes; onions, garlic, honey, leeks.

     

    Exercise 

    • The therapeutic benefits of exercise are well known; however, many people may do not know exercise is also beneficial for your gut health. As stated earlier, the diversity of the gut microbiota increases in diversity and density from the stomach to the colon. The greater the diversity, the stronger the gut health and immune system. Regularly exercising can enrich the microflora diversity and improve your well-being. When this occurs, there is an improvement in Bacteroidetes-Firmicutes ratios in the gut which aids in weight loss and mitigates the risk for obesity-associated pathologies. Further, exercise can also augment short chain fatty acids production in the large intestine which reduces the risk of gastrointestinal disorders and colon cancer. If you were to combine exercise with the other methods listed above then expect your risk for chronic diseases to decrease and your vitality to augment.

    Written by

    -Robert E. Salazar, MS, RDN, LDN