Living inside you and on your skin are 100 trillion microbial cells — bacteria that far outnumber your body’s 10 trillion human cells. That’s right — you are more creepy-crawly than guy or girl, with most of those bugs residing in your gut.
Scientists are just beginning to understand that your gut microbiome plays a critical role in your health and weight, not only impacting appetite, metabolism, digestion, elimination and detoxification, but influencing cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and even brain health.
The bacteria in your intestinal tract help your body digest and absorb nutrients, regulate metabolism and fight pathogens to bolster your immune system.
“The more diverse your gut microbes are, the healthier you are,” says Dr. Gerard E. Mullin, a gastroenterologist and director of Integrative GI Nutrition Services at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. But our western diet — high in fat, red meat and refined carbohydrates and low in fiber — disrupts the gut ecosystem, says Mullin, author of The Gut Balance Revolution. This messes up our appetites, slows our metabolism and promotes inflammation, an unhealthy response that has wide-ranging impacts on our health. Taking antibiotics also destroys healthy gut flora.
The good news is you can restore your inner ecology quickly and easily just by eating foods containing health-promoting microbes (probiotics) that reseed the good-gut bacteria and fiber-rich foods (prebiotics) that fertilize the gut’s friendly flora.
“I liken it to gardening. You have to prepare the soil, fertilize it and maintain its health,” says Mullin.
So start cultivating the fertile field of bugs in your belly. Here are some key prebiotic and probiotic foods you should eat regularly for good gut health.
Artichokes: A veggie loaded with an insoluble fiber called inulin that ferments into healthy macrobiotics in the colon. Other good sources of inulin include asparagus, onions, leeks and bananas.
Polenta: A high-fiber carbohydrate that ferments into multiple strands of gut flora in the colon.
Cruciferous vegetables: These include broccoli, cauliflower, kale and cabbage containing sulfur compounds that are broken down by microbes in the gut and release substances that are known to reduce inflammation and the risk of certain cancers, including colon, stomach and breast cancer.
Blueberries: High in antioxidants and fiber, blueberries (and other fruit, like bananas) diversify our microbiota to improve the immune system.
Yogurt: Researchers in the United Kingdom found that people who ate about 1/3 cup of yogurt daily had a 28 percent lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than people who consumed no yogurt. Yogurt contains one of the most common probiotics: lactobacillus. Look for the yogurts with several strains of “live active cultures.”
Kefir: This fermented drink made from cow, goat or sheep milk contains enzymes, yeasts and other probiotics, plus high levels of vitamin B12, calcium and magnesium — all of which have been shown to heal “leaky gut” syndrome, ease inflammatory bowel disease and boost immunity.
Sauerkraut: The fermentation process that turns shredded cabbage into sauerkraut increases the bioavailability of nutrients. And in the gut, it dramatically boosts the population of good microorganisms that crowd out unhealthy bacteria and improve the health of intestinal cells. Sauerkraut contains high levels of glucosinolates, compounds shown to have anti-cancer properties.
Kimchi: This spicy fermented cabbage, a staple condiment in the Korean diet, is one of the best probiotic foods you can eat — if you can handle the heat. It’s also rich in calcium, beta-carotene, and vitamins A, C and B2.
Tempeh: A fermented grain made from soybeans (and loaded with probiotics) is also rich in protein, so it is often used in patties as a substitute for meat or tofu.
Miso: Made from fermented barley or rye, miso is often mixed in hot water for a tasty Japanese soup. It’s rich in the good bacteria lactobacillus
Now that you know how to get your fill of good-for-you bugs, conduct your own biology experiment: Start introducing these foods into your regular diet and take notes on how they make you feel.