Your gut microbiome, the bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that live inside your gut play a role in many aspects of your health.
A large and diverse colony of beneficial bacteria living in your gut can help your body improve immune function, synthesize nutrients, control appetite, and improve your mental health.
You can influence the health of your microbiome (for better or worse!) through the lifestyle choices you make every day.
Improving the microbiome is “a worthwhile investment,” says clinical scientist Dr. Sunny Patel, “you can’t be too small or too big” to work on.
Environmental factors, such as diet, have been found to have a greater influence than your genes on your gut health. This means that what you eat isn’t just nourishing you, it also nourishes and modifies the trillions of microbes that live and grow in your gut.
You may be able to change the bacteria in your gut very quickly, even in a matter of days, but it may take several months and routine support for long-term changes and benefits to appear, Patel says. So how do you do that?
Plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, beans, seeds, nuts, and whole grains, contain fiber that microbes love. The microbes in your gut feed on the fiber you eat that is not digested in your small intestine.
“I recommend aiming for 30 ‘plant points’ each week, which means eating 30 different plants over the course of seven days,” said Dr. Megan Rossi, also known as a gut doctor. A healthy gut contains a diverse community of microbes, each with a preference for different foods, So the more variety you eat, the more bacteria will grow in your gut.In addition to plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, you can increase your fiber by switching to whole-grain pasta, brown rice and whole-grain bread.
While it’s best to eat plenty of these high-fiber foods, it’s been shown to increase your fiber intake by 6g per day (the amount in a bowl of high-fiber breakfast loaves or two thick slices of fiber in a bowl of whole-wheat bread). It has a beneficial effect on the intestinal microflora.
Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables can also be beneficial because they provide you with a variety of phytochemicals, which are compounds produced by plants that can help increase certain types of gut bacteria.
Certain types of fiber and carbohydrates in particular promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut. Known as prebiotic foods, these everyday ingredients make an easy and cheap addition to your diet. Bananas, onions, scallions, garlic, cabbage, leeks, oats, asparagus, nectarines, berries, and grapefruit are all prebiotic foods. Following a varied Mediterranean diet will ensure you eat plenty of these foods.
It is best to slowly increase your fiber intake, as well as drink more water, to avoid symptoms of gas or bloating from a change in your diet. Some people may be sensitive to fibre. If this sounds like you, consult your doctor before making any major changes to your diet.
Fill up on fermenters
Live yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, natto, and sauerkraut are examples of fermented foods. These foods have been transformed by microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeasts, traditionally as a way to preserve food or add flavour. Wine, cheese, bread, vinegar, and some pickles are also fermented but may not contain live bacteria.
A number of studies have suggested that microorganisms from live fermented foods can make their way into your gut and may affect your microbiome, but more research is needed to understand the benefits of this for your health. Regardless, many fermented foods are nutritious because they contain vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, such as fiber, protein, and fats, that are essential for optimal health. And it’s delicious.
Fermented foods are cheap and easy to prepare at home. If you’re buying from the supermarket, check food labels first, because sauerkraut and kimchi made with vinegar or pasteurized (killing bacteria) won’t contain beneficial microbes, but will still be delicious.
Cut back on ultra-processed foods
Limiting the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet advises Professor Tim Spector, of King’s College London, as they have been shown to “reduce the diversity of bacteria” in your gut. Processed or ultra-processed foods have also been linked to “bad” gut microbes through some of the research Spector has been involved with.
There could be many reasons for this. Processed foods can crowd out unprocessed high-fiber foods from the overall diet. The food structure, or food matrix, is disrupted by mechanical or chemical processes that make the food more digestible so that it does not reach the small intestine. Researchers have suggested that it may also be due to the added sugar, fat, salt, and other additives in these foods. More research needs to be done in this area.
Don’t snack late at night
Writing in Spoon-Fed, Professor Spector says that leaving a 12-hour gap between dinner and breakfast, or intermittent fasting, can benefit your gut microbiome. One explanation behind the potential benefit, Spector writes, may be that our gut microbes may “need to rest and recover as part of our circadian rhythm, which may be important for the health of our gut.”
Other studies have shown that after Ramadan, people who fasted had increased levels of beneficial gut bacteria and a greater diversity of microbiomes (more diverse types of microbiome). However, these studies are small and limited to specific ethnic groups, so more research needs to be done in this area.
Not everyone will find changing their eating habits helpful or beneficial, especially if it means cutting out a healthy whole-grain breakfast and switching to processed snacks later.
A recent small study looked at the effect of a nine-week indoor cycling regimen on college-aged American men and found that the composition of their microbiomes improved after the trial ended. These findings are similar to a number of previous studies, suggesting that exercise may alter the composition of gut bacteria, resulting in “potential host benefits.”
In the latest paper, the authors note that “exercise, especially high-intensity exercise, may promote an automatic change in food choices toward a healthier direction,” and thus, “some of the changes in gut microbiota may be due to differences in food intake, in addition to exercise itself.” .
A healthy microbiome is one of the benefits you can get from healthy eating and regular physical activity. A healthy, well-balanced diet can help prevent diet-related diseases and give you the energy and nutrients you need to stay active and maintain a healthy weight, according to the NHS.