Getting a Handle on Your Gut Health
Nancy Mure famously said, “If there’s one thing to know about the human body, it’s this: the human body has a ringmaster. This ringmaster controls your digestion, your immunity, your brain, your weight, your health and even your happiness. This ringmaster is the gut.”
Whoa, powerful statement, isn’t it? Is there any truth to what Mure proclaims? We happen to think so—as do many others, which is why more and more, you see information pop up about your stomach’s health. Getting a handle on your gut may feel evasive at times with countless fad diets purporting to remedy your midsection’s woes. Whether it’s going gluten-free or all-out fasting, many have their own opinions about which diets to follow and why. But what’s fact from fiction? What foods can actually help this important part of the body versus mere trends?
The prebiotics and probiotics industry is set to exceed $67 billion by 2024. This is great news for those afflicted with stomach illnesses such as Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Gastritis, Peptic Ulcer Disease, Gastrointestinal Disease, stomach cancers and even food poisoning. More than likely, you will encounter stomach-related illnesses at some point in time and you will turn to nutrient-rich foods to help you in your quest.
Let’s examine some foods you may or may not have heard of that are great for your gut, shall we?
Kimchi—have you heard of it? It’s all the rage in bodegas across New York City as well as restaurant menus—both Korean and non-Korean alike. Kimchi is jam-packed with probiotics as well as tasty spices, offering a nice alternative to unhealthy side dishes that are fried or high in saturated fat.
Rich in fiber, kimchi is fermented napa cabbage—a Korean recipe steeped in tradition and a staple of the country’s cuisine. The fermentation process of the cabbage enhances its incredible flavor while delivering quality probiotics directly to the stomach. Probiotics thrive off the glucose molecules in the vegetables, so the longer it ferments, the more probiotics cultivate. If you’ve ever watched someone make kimchi in person or on TV, some even bury it underground to allow it to ferment far away from sunlight. Thankfully, you seal the lid tightly to avoid a not-so-welcome dirt flavor!
Kimchi packs a variety of flavors and certainly isn’t for the faint of heart when it comes to its spiciness, but it’s also vital for proper digestion and peristaltic movement of food along the intestines. Probiotics found in kimchi get rid of deleterious bacteria that can cause inflammation and indigestion. Kimchi treats constipation, irritable bowl syndrome, ulcers and even leaky gut syndrome. Thankfully, you don’t have to make your own and bury it underground, either—it’s easily accessible at most grocery stores in a variety of distinct flavors.
Sauerkraut is known as the Western version of kimchi, as it’s fermented cabbage, dating back years and years in German kitchens. Conveniently served hot or cold, one cup of sauerkraut provides you with four grams of fiber, 12% RDI of iron, Vitamin K, C, B6, Folate and even copper. It helps reduce gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, symptoms of Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis.
With the variety of enzymes sauerkraut possesses, it helps break down nutrients into smaller, more easily digestive molecules. It can also boost your immune system through helping balance the bacteria in your gut, which keeps your stomach lining healthy. In fact, probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut can help you recover quicker from common colds or illnesses, decreasing your chances of needing antibiotics. Stronger stomachs help prevent unwanted substances from finding their way into your body, causing illness or disease.
Ah, don’t we all love yogurt? If you love your stomach, you definitely do, as it’s right up there with the fermented cabbages we just mentioned in terms of benefits. Yogurt, however, isn’t fermented cabbage, but fermented milk, a process that yields lactic acid that’s great for your tummy. One cup of yogurt can account for 38% of your daily phosphorous, 12% of magnesium and 15% of potassium.
Some of the probiotics in yogurt have been shown to lessen the symptoms of IBS. Even if you don’t have digestive problems, per se, the “good feeling” you get from eating yogurt is felt all over, helping prevent constipation and antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
Yogurt makes for a great midday snack or an ideal way to jumpstart your day. There are many varieties to suit your needs, be they full fat, nonfat and non-dairy.
Similar to kimchi, kombucha is making its way from East to West and those seeking healthy guts couldn’t be happier. With all of these foods contributing to our probiotic wellness, we would be amiss not to include a beverage, as well.
Kombucha hit the shelves of health food stores in the 1990s, but humans have been consuming this liquid for over 2,000 years. Legend has it the first to truly savor this tonic was Emperor Qin Shi Huang in ancient China, who publicized its wonders by referring to kombucha as “the tea of life”. Now that it’s experiencing a renaissance in supermarkets and health food stores across the country, it’s hard to ignore its natural healing properties.
Kombucha aids in natural detoxification due to its high amounts of gluconic acid, which helps to bind toxins and then expel them from the body. Through its organic acids, enzymes and probiotics, kombucha helps remedy an upset stomach, also lessening the symptoms of IBS, diarrhea and constipation.
Fermented kombucha can help you replenish your gut bacteria, which can be depleted by stress, alcohol use, antibiotics and other harmful organisms. Not to mention this incredible beverage can also help boost your immune system, lesson arthritic symptoms, reduce cholesterol and enhance your overall energy. And did we mention it’s also delicious?
Wait, can this really be true? Is chocolate truly the answer to our stomach woes? Cocoa has many surprising health benefits, especially its potent antioxidant functions, whether it’s lowering cholesterol, maintaining health or slowing down cognitive decline.
Components in cocoa can reduce the growth of Clostridium Histolyticum, which is a bacteria present in the intestines of those afflicted with inflammatory bowel disease. In pigs, higher levels of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species were also found in the colon in response to a high-cocoa diet; interestingly, the presence of widely known inflammatory markers was significantly reduced.
You may be most familiar with miso on a Japanese menu, as it’s often served in the form of soup. Delicious, healthy, and a great companion to sushi, miso paste is technically a probiotic food that contains millions of microorganisms similar or identical to the beneficial bacteria that live in your large intestine. Rich in B Vitamins and iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium, miso has a variety of health benefits in addition to being delicious to eat.
The Harvard School of Public Health conducted a recent survey claiming that the consumption of probiotic-rich foods can shorten the duration of infectious diarrhea, especially in infants and children. Miso, as well as other probiotic-heavy foods, was listed as being very beneficial. What a healthy alternative to the countless medications with subsequent side effects for stomach-related illnesses!
I bet when you think of bananas, you don’t immediately think of stomach health, do you? The dietary fiber found in bananas has been linked to many health benefits, including improved digestion. After all, a medium-sized banana contains nearly three grams of fiber, making it a great source for easing constipation and promoting regularity.
The fiber found in bananas are divided into two categories: pectin and resistant starch. The latter, found mostly in unripe bananas, winds up in our large intestine, where it becomes food for “good” gut bacteria. Furthermore, some studies show bananas may help protect against colon cancer.
If you’re wanting to start your day off with a gut-healthy combo, try slicing up a banana and placing it on top of a cup of yogurt. Both are sure to make you feel energized, but also to set your stomach at ease before you really get your day started. (Notice we didn’t get too crazy here and suggest it with chocolate—but hey, if you’re going for the triple thread, by all means go right ahead!)
All in all, only you can decide what is best for your stomach as you pursue options to quench unwanted side effects, characteristics and symptoms. These are just a handful of helpful foods to get you started in your process, but trial and error and research on your own are also needed to find the probiotic-rich and fiber-laden foods that make the most sense for you.
Thankfully, we’re living in a day and age where fermented foods and beverages are readily available and more commercially accepted than they used to be, increasing our chances of finding the right stomach-healing alternatives to antibiotics and over-the-counter medicines. By keeping track of how each food feels in your gut, you’re able to get a better handle on your overall gut health.