If you are here searching for ways to restore gut health, you probably already know how important the strength and integrity of your gut is! This blog will review how you can restore gut health in bite-by-bite steps, so you can easily digest what to do, and then make it a part of your daily habits.
But first, we will briefly review why the strength of our gut is important to our overall health. We will also review how our gut becomes weakened by some of our basic daily habits.
Why do we need to restore gut health?
What is our gut?
Inside the human body is a complex ecosystem of microorganisms composed of viruses, bacteria, and fungi, all of which collectively constitute what’s called the human gut microbiome. Balance and biodiversity in the gut microbiome create health. Imbalance and reduced diversity in this ecosystem create disease.
The gut microbiome harbor over a trillion cells belonging to thousands of different microbial species that collectively carry over 100 times more genes than that of our own genome. A recent estimate has shown that the ratio of bacterial to human cells is 1:1. (1)
What is the role of the gut microbiome?
So why is it so important that our gut microbiome stays healthy and diverse? Well, it so happens that our gut microbiome has a very important role in our body as a conductor of many amazing and necessary bodily functions that we often take for granted. As a conductor in our body, our gut microbiome is responsible for assisting in the coordination of many important bodily functions.
Some of the important functions of our gut microbiome:
Our community of microbes play a big role in our digestion. They break down complex carbohydrates to give us energy.
Production of short-chain fatty acids:
Our gut microbes help produce short-chain fatty acids to help maintain the strength and integrity of our gut lining. The short-chain fatty acids are involved in regulating your immune system, healing, combating inflammation and may help protect you against cancer and many other diseases. The integrity of our gut lining relies on our microbes producing the short-chain fatty acids. There is a strong correlation between a weak intestinal lining (leaky gut) and autoimmune diseases.
Produce essential nutrients:
Our gut microbiome help produce essential nutrients, including vitamin K, vitamin B12, niacin, pyridoxine, biotin, folic acid, thiamine.
Provide defense against foreign invaders:
The gut microbiome is our first layer of defense against foreign invaders in our body. An unhealthy gut microbiome can mean ineffective signaling to our immune system. Around 60-70% of our immune system, which protects us from disease, is found in the gut. The health of our gut is strongly correlated to our overall health.
“What is your gut feeling?” “Do you get butterflies in your stomach when you are nervous?” “I’m so nervous I’m sick to my stomach”. There is good reason you feel emotional experiences in your stomach!
The gastrointestinal tract is also called the second brain because it is equipped with its own nervous system made up of thousands of neurons. The gut and brain are able to communicate back and forth (bidirectional). Within the last decade it has become clear that the gut microbiome is a key regulator of the gut-brain axis. (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)
Help get rid of toxins:
Your gut microbiome helps in the degradation of potential harmful biochemicals that occurs during the metabolism of food so they can be safely eliminated.
After learning all the important functions of this conductor, you can see why we need to take special care of our microbiome! In this symbiotic relationship, we provide a home for these microorganisms and give them food. In return, these organisms serve us in many ways by maintaining our health and strength.
How does our gut microbiome get out of balance (dysbiosis)?
Like in any ecosystem, there is strength in diversity and balance. Healthy populations tend to have a diverse microbiota and a healthy balance of the good and not so good microbes. There is a positive correlation between gut microbiome diversity and overall health.
There are many potential causes of an unbalanced microbiome that can lead to disease. Some of these are beyond our control, such as your birth delivery (vaginal births have shown to have a more gut microbiome diversity); Breastfeeding; exposure to farming, animals, antibiotics. Babies acquire their gut microbiome from their mothers while passing through the birth canal and breast feeding.
Some factors that we may be able to control contribute to an imbalance of our gut microbiome including:
Nutrition: including the types of food we eat, probiotics, prebiotics, type of carbohydrate/ fats/proteins consumed, high fat/low carbohydrate diets, artificial sweetener consumption, meal timing, farming/soil, food additives, cooking, and food processing.
Lifestyle factors, including poor sleep, smoking, stress, lack of exercise. Living in an over sterile environment. The potential overuse of anti-bacterial soap, disinfectants, wipes, sprays. This is removing good as well as bad bacteria.
Medications: antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors, atypical antipsychotics, second-generation antipsychotic, osmotic-laxatives, opioids. (** when taking medications, I urge you to work with your doctor to get to the root cause of the symptoms. Your doctor may be able to wean you from some medications as you treat to cure the cause of your symptoms instead of taking medications for the symptoms.) ((8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17) (18) (19) (20) (21) (22) (23) (24) (25) (26) (27) (28) (29) (30) (31) (32) (33) (34) (35) (36) (37) (38) (39) (40) (41) (42) (43).
What are some symptoms of poor gut health?
Digestive complaints: gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Obesity. Insulin resistance. Mental health issues. Autoimmune diseases. Food intolerances.
There have been many studies involving human health. Over 700 publications were found that provided associations with gut microbes and obesity/metabolic syndrome, and 400 with cancer. Dysbiosis of gut microbiome is closely related with gastrointestinal diseases, bone, mental aging-related inflammation, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, circulatory rhythms, metabolic diseases. (14)
How can we restore gut health?
The goal is to “control the controllable.” There are many things we can do to help promote a healthy gut flora and improve our health. Let’s focus on sustainable daily habits that can help strengthen our gut lining and improve our fighting chances against diseases
Nutrition: what to eat:
Remember we all have our individual food preferences and tolerances. The only foods you should absolutely avoid are: 1. Food that you are allergic to or do not tolerate well. 2. Food that you do not like. 3. Food that is expired. With that said, when adding new foods, especially high fiber foods to your diet, add them gradually and give your body time to get used eating this way. Also, always drink plenty of water when increasing your fiber intake. In addition to this advice, everyone responds to foods differently. It can be helpful to keep a food journal if you find yourself feeing “food sensitive”. You know your body best and can tune into any changes your body experiences.
1. Prebiotics: Eating prebiotics is a great way to restore gut health.
Let’s give our gut microbiome something they can chomp on! It is important to include food in your daily diet that will feed your microbiome and keep them satisfied. These foods will boost your health and well-being by maintaining the gut lining and help prevent inflammation. These are non-digestible carbohydrates and fibers that feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
Include beans, legumes, pulses, lentils, chickpeas, asparagus, onions, leeks, garlic, scallions, artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, Whole grains (can be gluten free if needed). Brightly colored fruits and vegetables.
2. Include foods with probiotics:
Live fermented foods and cultured dairy products are great sources of natural probiotics. These include yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut (unpasteurized), tempeh, cheese made from unpasteurized milk (typically brie, camembert, mozzarella, cheddar), sourdough bread, lacto-fermented pickles.
Probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” You can also purchase probiotics in a pill or gummy form at the drug store. You may want to try one that has a broad spectrum of species. You can purchase one that contains a prebiotic built in as well. I prefer to stick with food sources, but you do what works for you. For more information on the benefits of probiotics and how to choose one that best suits you, visit The Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics: The Basics – The Mental Wellness Dietitian (angelalagonutrition.com)
3. Include healthy fats:
All nuts including almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts, and their respective butters. Seeds, flaxseed, chia-seeds. Olive oil. Avocado, avocado oil.
4. Add Herbs and Spices:
Herbs and spices are rich in polyphenols and great to use to spice up your meals. Use black pepper, cardamon, cayenne pepper, cilantro, cinnamon, cumin, garlic, garlic-infused olive oil, ginger, herbs, oregano, parsley, mustard, red pepper flakes, thyme, and turmeric.
5. Include foods rich in polyphenols:
Include fruits and vegetables with bright colors, coffee, tea, and a serving of red wine (5 ounces for women and 10 ounces for men). (15) If you don’t already drink alcohol, don’t start. There are many other ways to get in the antioxidants from red wine. The polyphenol called resveratrol can also be found in grapes, grape juice, tea, peanuts, pistachios, blueberries, cranberries, and dark chocolate.
6. Try restricting feeding during the day to a 12-hour window.
For example, this could mean finishing your dinner Sunday night at 7pm and then not having breakfast until after 7am Monday. Studies indicated that restricting the window of meals each day partially restored circadian fluctuations, including a decrease in the abundance of Lactobacillus observed during the feeding phase. Intermittent fasting has shown to improve the gut barrier function, increase microbial diversity, enhance antioxidative microbial pathways, and even reverse intestinal inflammation. (15) (41)(42) (43)
Conclusion for foods to include to restore gut health:
All these recommendations of foods to include are essentially a blueprint for living and daily habits that may help you maintain or improve your health. Many of the above suggestions coincide with the Mediterranean diet protocol. The Mediterranean Diet positively affects microbiome diversity. This means that it improves the resilience and strength of your gut. This way of eating lowers oxidative stress and inflammation, while improving insulin sensitivity and immune function. Consequently, this reduces Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus as well as many other diseases. (44) For additional information on the importance of food diversity and gut health see: Importance of Food Diversity in Gut Health – Gut Health And Nutrition.
For extensive assistance on adopting this way of eating see my earlier blogs: How To Adopt A Mediterranean Diet – Waistline Dietitian; Mediterranean Diet 101: 40 Tips To Get You Started – Waistline Dietitian and Mediterranean Diet Pros and Cons – Waistline Dietitian.
7. What foods to limit: The following foods may have adverse effects on the gut microbiome:
- Limit added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and high fructose-corn syrup.
- Limit artificial sweeteners.
- Excessive alcohol.
- Avoid cured and processed meats and food additives.
- Limit foods containing emulsifiers and food additives: Gums, Carrageenan, Maltodextrin.
These foods can be damaging to our good bacteria and gut lining or help feed the bad bacteria. The goal is to eat food that supports the gut lining the majority of the time. That said, remember these are guidelines and foods to limit or have less often. A good goal is to focus the majority of your meals with the gut healthy foods and save other foods for occasional use.
Lifestyle changes that will help restore your gut health:
Besides your nutrition, there are other daily habits that can improve your gut health!
8. Daily physical activity:
Physical exercise has positive effects on microbiome biodiversity. I think physical activity is really one of the best things you can incorporate into your day. It helps your body in so many ways. And now, improving your gut microbiome diversity is another!
Experts suggest at least 150 minutes of exercise a week. This can be easily broken up into 20-30 minutes a day. Even a short walk every day is beneficial. You could break it up into 10-minute walks 3 times a day!
Adding more physical activity is part of self-care! Always check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.
- Active living refers to moving more in your daily life. If you are not able to set aside extra time in your day to exercise, its ok! You can still get many health benefits from moving your body in your daily activities.
- It is often easier to stick to activity in short bouts throughout the day instead of trying to carve out 30 to 60-minutes at one time. Find ways to integrate more movement into your daily routine. Try starting with a goal of moving for ten minutes a few times a day.
- For example, start with 10 minutes in the morning. You may head outside for a walk, or a march in place as you watch the morning news. Then, park your car at the farthest end of the parking lot at work. Walk for 10 minutes at the end of your lunch break. Taking a walking break during work has been shown to improve mood and productivity. In the evening after dinner take another 10 minutes of some type of movement you enjoy.
- Walk and talk. Hold walking meetings. Walk while you are catching up with friends. Walk whenever you are talking on the phone. Walk while you are listening to books on tape or your favorite music. Explore nearby state parks with friends on the weekend. Walk after work or school to relieve stress.
- The goal is to get your body moving more and sitting less. Start where you are with what you have. Gradually progress as your body allows more time and more enthusiasm in your movements. Set goals. You may want to schedule your movement time into your daily calendar.
- Set a timer or a reminder to get up and move during the day. Wear comfortable clothing and supportive shoes.
- Walk or march in place, dance during every TV commercial. Stand up and then sit down. Keep doing this during a commercial break.
- When you are on the phone, pace throughout the house. Get up and move to a different room. Stand. Sit and then stand again. Set a timer to remind you to move.
- Go get the mail, one bill at a time. Try a stationary bike if you sit and watch the television. Vacuum, dust, wash the floors, windows. Scrub your bathroom, Garden, mow the lawn with a push mower, weed. Plant a garden. Wash your windows or the car. Household chores can count towards your physical activity.
Any movement that can easily fit into your daily routine will help. The key is to move more and to sit less. Pay attention to how you feel. The immediate intrinsic rewards may be improved mood, energy level, and reduced stress. How does the movement make you feel? We know that any physical activity has some health benefits. The key is consistency.
If you are not already moving, don’t be nervous. Start where you are with what you have. Any movement is better than no movement. For many great tips on getting more movement into your daily routine, see HAES Life-Enhancing Movement – Waistline Dietitian. (34) (35)
9. Adopt fur babies:
10. Work on good sleep hygiene:
Individuals with good sleep hygiene have a more diverse gut microbiome. Routine can help your sleep hygiene.
- Start a sleep ritual.
- Get to bed and get up around the same time each day.
- Do something relaxing 30-60 minutes before bed. You could try some deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, relaxing stretching. This is when I like to do my yoga.
- Avoid electronic screens or use night mode an hour before bed.
- Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
Poor sleep habits can result in higher levels of inflammation. These habits can also increase our appetite. (36) (37) (38). For an in-depth article on improving your sleep Good Night’s Sleep Is the Key to Health and Happiness – Menopause Better
11. Stress reduction:
Stress is something we cannot escape but it decreases our bodies defense mechanisms. It not only compromises the quality of our lives but contributes to the development of chronic disease.
- Stress can increase our belly fat.
- Stress can set off a fire of inflammation that can lead our bodies into metabolic disorders.
- Stress can cause you to crave comfort foods and set off emotional eating.
- Stress can lead to an imbalance in your gut microbiome. This can further lead to altered mood and emotional eating. It is a vicious cycle!
Stress has a negative impact on our gut microbiome and the gut-brain axis (the communication between our gut bacteria and our brain).
Prolonged stress can lead to a range of disorders such as diarrhea, leaky gut, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcers and reflux (GERD).
So, when you are stressed out, so is your family of bacteria in your gut. (If the conductor of the orchestra is stressed out and not functioning properly, the whole symphony will be off!). This leads to illness.
Take time to acknowledge your stress and work on healthy coping strategies. Just like sleep, stress has a symbiotic relationship with gut health. When you have more happy/good bacteria in your gut, you are less likely to feel stressed. For alternative ideas and stress management techniques see Habits to Improve Mental Health with Cannabis: Best Strains for Anxiety and Depression – The Pineapple Expressionist
Consuming a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, drinking enough water, getting regular sleep, taking time out for yourself to do activities you enjoy and having a supportive community to talk with are all healthy ways of dealing with daily stress.
Yoga and meditation have been found to be beneficial for managing stress and reducing anxiety in many people and keeping their good bacteria happy and in good working condition.(32)
Tips for managing stress:
- When you need help, get help. Don’t ignore stress. Think about what you need and ask for help.
- Go see a therapist, counselor, friend or family member to vent when needed.
- Try to reduce the stress in your life when possible.
- Learn to say no to extra responsibilities. (Sometimes these extras add up and cause you a lot of unnecessary stress).
- Carve out time in your everyday life to do things you enjoy.
- Remember self-care goes a long way. Self-care is making sure you are as strong as you can be to continue to help others, and it’s not selfish.
- Express gratitude daily. In every little thing.
- Whenever possible laugh, and don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Practice mindfulness. Slow down. When you eat mindfully, your digestion improves. When you can bring attention to the taste, texture, and flavor of foods, it will increase your enjoyment of the meal. Also, listen to your hunger and fullness cues. This can aid in digestion as well as lessen emotional eating. See A Step by Step Guide to Mindful Eating – Menopause Better. For more in-depth review of mindful eating.
- Try yoga. Yoga helps attenuate stress, depression, anxiety and lower cortisol levels which has been associated with reduced inflammation and improvement in gut microbiome diversity.(45) Try https://www.youtube.com/user/yogawithadriene, fightmaster yoga – Bing video for yoga videos.
Question antibiotic and medication use:
This does not mean that you should not be taking the medication your doctor prescribes!! Antibiotics are useful drugs when treating bacterial infections, but overuse will affect your healthy gut bacteria. Every course of antibiotics may kill up to one-third of the gut’s microbiome. (39) (40) (48)
What this means is to work on getting to the root cause of the problem. Taking medications is important if you need to. But question if there is something else. Each medication you take has potential side effects. If there is something you can be doing (like adding in exercise, yoga) that may give you a better outcome without negative side effects. It is essential to work closely with your health care provider to come up with alternate solutions when possible.
13. Do less cleaning? 😊
First, look at your cleaning supplies. Is everything anti-bacterial? It is always good to practice standard hygiene and wash your hands. But some standard cleaning chemicals can wipe out all bacteria, including the good ones.
Try gradually adding cleaning products that have less abrasive antibacterial properties. Many antibacterial cleaning and personal products can take a toll on your body’s good bacteria. In general, seek products or brands that are organic or use essential oils. Words to try to avoid are chlorinated, fluorinated.
Some natural brands include:
- Seventh Generation
- Mrs. Meyers
Some natural body soap brands:
- Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Liquid soap.
- Tom’s Marine Natural Beauty Bar Soap for Sensitive skin.
- ECOS Hypoallergenic Hand Soup.
- Ursa Major Fantastic Face wash.
- Avalon Organics Bath and Shower Gel.
- For other natural, organic tips see: Best Non Toxic Deodorant for Women That Works in 2021 – Wellbeing with Grace
14. Spend more time in nature (and dirt):
What about adding dirt? There is a difference between the soil in the ground and toxins that can make us ill. The microbial diversity of the soil helps breed diversity in our gut. Studies have shown that increase in germ exposure early in life, and children raised on farms had lower incidences of asthma than those raised in urban settings. (47)
This means get outside and get your hands dirty. Start a vegetable or flower garden. Or just get out and spend time with nature. There is evidence that spending time in nature, whether in your garden, or at a park, playing, digging, and breathing outside around dirt can be good for improving your gut microbiome diversity. (46)
15. Limit Alcohol intake to red wine (and only one serving ):
Wine is very rich in phytochemicals, like fruits and olive oil. When consumed in moderation it can counteract oxidative stress and provide antiatherogenic properties. Maximum 5 ounces for women and 10 ounces for men a day with food.
If you don’t already drink alcohol, don’t start. There are many other ways to get in the antioxidants from red wine. The polyphenol called resveratrol can also be found in grapes, grape juice, tea, peanuts, pistachios, blueberries, cranberries, and dark chocolate.
Some people should not drink at all, like women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, people under the age of 21 and people with certain health conditions. Some religions and social beliefs abstain from any alcohol. Herbal teas or water is used in place.
If you do drink wine, limit to the portion size recommended to get the biggest health benefit! Moderation remains the key to overall health.
Although one serving of red wine has shown positive health benefits due to the rich polyphenol content, more than one serving has a negative impact on your health and gut microbiome. It would be generally better for your gut lining not to consume alcohol. (31)
Where should you start?
Change is hard. Start where you are with what you have is always what I encourage. Try one or 2 new habits at time. This is a journey of self-discovery. Perhaps work on your sleep hygiene and try adding more vegetables to your meals. Below are tips for meals and recipes. At the end is a PDF that you can save.
I would encourage you to begin slow and start small if this is new way of eating. Keep it simple. Start with gradually adjusting the meals you have been cooking with the healthier food and seasoning options. You may not have to change a lot.
Start by seeing what ingredients you already have available. Try to plan each week’s menus in advance.
Try a new recipe weekly. You may be able to modify some of your favorite recipes you already use and just focus on using the foods to include on the Mediterranean Diet.
Remember this is not a race but a journey. Cook once and eat twice. Every meal does not have to be perfect. Try starting out with one meal a day and gradually add to more.
When you are ready to try new recipes:
There are so many delicious recipes available. These are just a few I found when searching for quick, simple Mediterranean Diet recipes and fermented foods. Attached are meal ideas with the recipe link attached.
Below are Mediterranean Diet recipe ideas. I used these because they encourage all the foods that will support our gut microbiome!
- EVOO OATMEAL: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/evoo-oatmeal
- VEGETABLE FRITTATA: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/vegetable-frittata
- Blueberry-and-Mixed Nut Parfait: https://www.prevention.com/food-nutrition/recipes/a31250645/blueberry-and-mixed-nut-parfait/
- Mediterranean Breakfast Sandwiches: https://www.eatingwell.com/recipe/262836/mediterranean-breakfast-sandwiches/
- Homemade Olive Oil Granola Recipe: https://www.themediterraneandish.com/homemade-granola-recipe/
- Healthy Breakfast Egg Muffins (Video): https://www.themediterraneandish.com/mediterranean-breakfast-egg-muffins/#tasty-recipes-16496
- Banana walnut bread with olive oil: https://www.themediterraneandish.com/banana-walnut-bread/#tasty-recipes-10626
- Hummus and Veggie Wraps: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/hummus-and-veggie-wraps
- Insalata Mediterranean Couscous Salad: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/insalata-mediterranea-mediterranean-couscous-salad
- Chickpea Walnut Sandwiches: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/chickpea-walnut-sandwiches
- Avocado Super Summer Wrap: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/avocado-super-summer-wrap
- Quinoa Tabbouleh: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/quinoa-tabbouleh
- Three Bean Salad: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/three-bean-salad
- Chickpea Spinach Pasta Salad: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/chickpea-spinach-pasta-salad
- Mediterranean Chicken Sandwich: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/mediterranean-chicken-sandwich
- Orzo with Feta, Olives, Tomatoes, and Dill: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/orzo-feta-olives-tomatoes-and-dill
- One-Skillet Mediterranean Chicken Recipe with Tomatoes and Green Olives: https://www.themediterraneandish.com/one-skillet-mediterranean-chicken-recipe/
- GREEK TURKEY MEATBALL GYRO WITH TZATZIKI RECIPE FROM:https://www.joyfulhealthyeats.com/greek-turkey-meatball-gyro-with-tzatziki/
- 5 INGREDIENT LEMON CHICKEN RECIPE FROM: https://pinchofyum.com/5-ingredient-lemon-chicken-asparagus
- Mediterranean Baked sweet potatoes: https://minimalistbaker.com/mediterranean-baked-sweet-potatoes
- FALAFEL BURGER: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/falafel-burger
- BAKED SNAPPER WITH TOMATOES AND OLIVES: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/baked-snapper-tomatoes-and-olives
- SPINACH PASTA CHICKPEA SALAD WITH SALMON: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/spinach-pasta-chickpea-salad-salmon
- TILAPIA WRAP WITH CORN SALSA: https://oldwayspt.org/recipes/tilapia-wrap-corn-salsa