Even if you do not consider yourself someone who suffers from gastrointestinal issues, maintaining gut health is still enormously important. If you do not suffer from something like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), then chances are you have not thought about your gut health and the role it plays in your overall wellbeing. The gut directly contributes to your immune system, brain function, and weight control. The typical person’s GI tract contains trillions (yes trillions!) of microorganisms, making up a unique gut microbiome in each person’s body.
Since everybody’s gut is unique, unfortunately maintaining gut health is not as simple as just taking a daily supplement. However, this is not to say that probiotics do not help. Probiotics are still essential as part of an overall maintenance regimen. It is just that if a person takes probiotics, but still consumes a high amount of daily sugar, the positive benefit of the probiotics is outweighed by the negatives from the sugar. As we’re aware, diet plays a major part in everything from diabetes to gout. Along with probiotics, a person’s diet should include whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and high fiber to properly maintain gut health.
Vegetables naturally contain prebiotics, which has been understood for the past few decades but are not as widely known as probiotics. Prebiotics are specialized plant fibers that boost the growth of healthy gut microbes by acting as a metaphorical fertilizer. They are complex carbohydrates that pass through the stomach and small intestine to be used by microbes living in the large intestine. Prebiotic fibers include Inulin, Oligosaccharides (OS), Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), Xylo-oligosaccharides (XOS), Galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), Isomalto-oligosaccharides (IOS). To make it a little less complicated, they can be found in foods such as garlic, leeks, onions, peas, soybeans, asparagus, beans, lentils, and some raw whole grains.
Beyond more vegetables, fermented foods have also been found to improve gut health. Fermented foods to try include staples like sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, fish sauce, and many less common foods like kefir and tempeh. The reason the gut like fermentation is because fermentation uses naturally occurring yeasts or bacteria to break down sugars in the food, creating a plethora of probiotic bacteria. If fermented foods are not your thing, the pill-form probiotic supplements mentioned above are still clinically proven to help digestion, balance intestinal microbiota, and aid the immune system.
Exercise has also been connected to improved gut health and healthy gut bacteria. This should come as no surprise, but the more active a person is, the more diverse their internal microbiome is. Also, exercise boosts the rate of formation of short-chain fatty acids, which keep the gut healthy by reducing inflammation.
The gut’s microflora influences almost every other function in the body. Before humans absorb the nutrients consumed through eating food, those nutrients need to be processed and digested by the gut. The gut breaks the nutrients down into small enough particles that the body absorbs the benefits. The human body not only depends on enzymes to soak up nutrients but also gut bacteria to use otherwise indigestible components of food such as fiber, which delivers a huge share of daily energy. Because of this, the microbiome is also coupled with good sleep, weight management, mental sharpness, and fatigue. There are at-home tests that can test the microbiome in your gut to help find which foods to avoid, which foods to focus on, and which probiotics are right for you.
Max Gottlieb is the content manager for Senior Planning. Senior Planning offers a free service dedicated to helping seniors find and organize long-term care.