The gut plays a huge role in the health of your body, mind, and spirit. When it’s damaged, it can affect everything from digestion to mental health.
The gut connects the outside world with the inside of the body. We are now beginning to understand this space as a diverse ecosystem powering human life, and also the importance of gut healing foods.
Let’s take a look at why this ecosystem is so important, and what influences your overall gut health. Then learn what foods can help heal intestinal damage so you can continue towards peak performance.
Why does gut health matter?
Many of today’s chronic diseases can be traced to issues in the gastrointestinal tract (GI), which includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines.
This digestive system works to break down food, absorb nutrients, and eliminate waste. A healthy gut can lead us towards vitality, and an unhealthy gut towards sickness.
The Gateway to Health (or disease)
The GI tract is literally the gateway into our body. The cells that line this tube, and the healthy bacteria, or microbiota that live in it, are responsible for keeping harmful substances out and allowing nourishing substances through.
In between the cells of the GI tract are tiny gates called tight junctions. When the tight junctions are intact and healthy, nutrients and water are given the green light to enter. At the same time, unwanted matter is kept out.
When tight junctions lose integrity, red flags go up. The gates become ineffective, resulting in what we call leaky gut.
Leaky gut can also be called intestinal permeability. When the tiny cell to cell gaps loosen, compounds, such as pathogens or larger food particles pass through the gut lining, entering the bloodstream.
Such intruders initiate an immune response and systemic inflammation. Once chronic inflammation kicks in, it can lead to conditions such as autoimmune disease, brain fog, food sensitivities, skin issues, migraines, and chronic fatigue.
Consistent evidence suggests poor food choices and an imbalance of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa) may be the major culprits contributing to a leaky gut.
Our Microbiome (balancing the good bugs and bad bugs)
Did you know:
“There are more than 100 trillion microscopic species in the entire human body – a billion-plus in just a single drop of fluid in your colon alone.”
Interconnected Companion Guide, Dr. Pedram Shojai
We used to think that these were just waste species, but it turns out they have a tremendous impact on our digestion, inflammation, mood, and energy levels.
Being only 1% of human cells means that we must have a strong symbiotic relationship with our microbiota — we need them, and they need us! When we take care of them, they help us balance blood glucose, regulate hormones, control brain chemistry, and so much more.
Our nervous system and the microbiome we play host to are literally communicating back and forth, making decisions that will either propel or degrade our health.
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How to improve and maintain gut health
The chronic diseases we are seeing today were largely absent hundreds of years ago, and are proving to be closely linked to gut health. So, where did we go wrong?
The theory of evolutionary mismatch in diet and lifestyle may help us explain this disruption AND guide us towards healthier habits.
Evolutionary mismatch “refers to evolved traits that were once advantageous but became maladaptive due to changes in the environment. This can take place in humans and animals and is often attributed to rapid environmental change.” (Wikipedia)
Let’s use eating as an example. Before the agricultural revolution, hunter-gatherers had to forage for food. They rarely knew when or where their next meal would arrive. When foraging and hunting were successful, they filled up on nutrient-dense, high-energy foods, which proved beneficial in times of scarcity.
In most areas today, food is overly abundant. The body signals that helped us thousands of years ago, now encourage us to overeat. With the unfathomable increase in highly palatable processed foods over the last hundred years, this evolutionary mismatch is working to our disadvantage.
Improving and maintaining gut health comes through a balance of adding in gut-supporters and taking out gut-offenders. The best ways to boost your gut health are:
- Rewild our diets
- Add in pro- and prebiotics
- Avoid potentially harmful foods
- Reduce environmental toxins
- Decrease chronic stress
- Emphasize sleep
The 13 Best Foods to Improve Your Gut Health
What you eat is one of the biggest factors in gut health because it influences which microbes thrive, as well as the integrity of your GI tissue. Anything you consume can either have a nourishing (gut-supportive) or toxic (gut-offending) effect.
In a nutshell, gut-supportive foods are real foods that come from the earth. Plants grown in thriving soil and animals pastured, or caught, in their natural habitats are best for gut health. Humans evolved eating a wild diet, and our guts evolved to handle it best.
Here are the top foods to eat to rewild your diet, support healthy gut bugs, and maintain a healthy intestinal wall.
1. Animal foods and organ meats
Sure, we all know that we need adequate protein, most easily obtained through lean meat — animal muscle. But we have largely forgotten about the quality animal fats and organ meats that our ancestors nutritionally benefited from.
Nose to tail eating provides collagen, glutamine/glycine, omega-3 fats, vitamin A, zinc, and copper, all critical when it comes to a healthy gut. Apple and Chicken Liver Mousse never felt so good.
2. Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) can be beneficial in stimulating digestive juices and increasing stomach acid production to help break down and digest food. It also has antiviral and antimicrobial properties, which helps keep the “bad” gut bugs in check.
Some people find a shot of ACV helpful before meals, and it can easily be added to homemade salad dressings for a tasty zip.
3. Bitter greens
Bitter greens such as dandelion, turnip, and arugula help stimulate digestion and movement of food through the GI tract. Try our Rich, Flavorful Turnip Greens with Bacon & Pecans! The benefits of some bitters, such as dandelion greens, can also be enjoyed as an herbal tea.
Berries are packed with fiber and antioxidants and have strong anti-inflammatory properties. Fiber helps feed the “good” gut bugs, and antioxidants help sequester free-radicals that can cause cell damage to the GI tract.
Besides enjoying a handful of colorful berries, our Fruity Nut Cereal recipe is a great go-to breakfast.
5. Bone broth
Bone broth provides gelatin and collagen, as well as amino acids, such as arginine, glutamine, and proline. These compounds heal and soothe the gut lining, reduce leaky gut, and keep inflammation at bay.
You can make bone broth at home by slowly simmering bones, cartilage, and skin. Any poultry, beef, lamb, or seafood can be used. Try our Homemade Chicken Bone Broth recipe.
There are also some commercially available brands of bone broth available, such as Kettle & Fire.
It can be used for soups or stews, sipped hot in a mug, or added to recipes anytime broth or stock is called for.
6. Colorful vegetables
Plants contain flavonoids and polyphenols that are necessary for gut healing and microbial diversity. Aim to eat a rainbow of these fibrous foods throughout the day.
This Oregano Salad with Citrus Herb Dressing is a great example. Cooked vegetables are also healing and often easier to digest.
7. Fermented foods
For thousands of years, before refrigeration, fermentation was one of the only ways to preserve food. The healthy bacteria, or probiotics, in fermented foods make them a key part of any gut-healing diet.
Kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and kefir are all examples of fermented foods that you can make yourself or purchase.
If you are new to ferments, start small to allow your gut to adjust. Over time, work up to adding a spoonful or two to every meal. Always purchase ferments with live bacteria. If the product says “pasteurized,” the good bacteria have been destroyed.
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish show an increase in microbial diversity and improve gut barrier integrity.
At the very least, aim to add wild-caught, cold-water fatty fish to your diet once a week, and throw in some sardines now and then. Primal Peak’s Salmon Chowder recipe is always a crowd-pleaser.
9. Properly prepared nuts and seeds (maybe even legumes and grains)
Soaking and sprouting has become a lost art, but it’s making a comeback in kitchens as awareness grows around the benefits of traditional methods of food preparation. Soaking and sprouting decrease gut irritants, improve digestibility, and increase nutrient availability of nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains.
10. Pure, mineral-rich water
We certainly don’t want to be drinking water with harmful bacteria in it. However, chlorinated water may be negatively affecting the good bacteria in our gut. Using a filtration system that removes chlorine, while replenishing beneficial trace minerals is key to healthy water.
11. Root vegetables
Foods like beets, carrots, cassava, and sweet potatoes contain specific carbohydrates that help feed the beneficial gut flora and reduce pathogen growth.
This Root Vegetable Gratin is a great way to pack in the profits.
12. Sea salt
Salt has a bad rap, but that’s mostly due to the sodium in processed foods. A clean diet can sometimes result in inadequate salt intake, and natural salts can improve digestion.
Adding in mineral-rich varieties can play an important role in the production of stomach acid (HCL) for proper digestion of food. Add a pinch to your water and don’t be afraid to sprinkle some on your food.
13. Sulfur-rich foods
Foods rich in sulfur can be beneficial for detoxification pathways and immune health, and therefore, the gut. Eggs, cruciferous veggies, and alliums like onions and garlic are good sources of sulfur. These foods can easily be worked into a primal lifestyle meal plan. Check out some of our favorite sulfur-rich food recipes:
Add in Probiotics and Prebiotics
Some of the foods listed above offer either probiotics or prebiotics — common words in the health space today. Read on to learn more about getting the right balance and diversity in your microbiome.
Probiotics are microorganisms (or good bacteria) that are introduced to the body for their beneficial qualities.
Fermented foods provide a diverse number of probiotics that help support the immune system and outcompete pathogens in the gut.
Getting probiotics through food ensures that live bacteria enters our GI system. We are learning that the species and strains can drastically vary from batch to batch, so it’s best to seek a variety of probiotic-rich foods.
Fermented foods can be problematic in people with existing gut conditions, such as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or candida overgrowth. Until restoration occurs, probiotic supplements can help.
Probiotic supplements can ensure the specific genus, species, and strain, but we still know very little about what makes up an ideal microbiome. What works for one person may not work for another, and certain bugs may be ineffective for certain individuals.
There is much more to understand before supplementing with probiotics becomes an exact science.
Prebiotics are the foods that feed the probiotics. They are dietary fibers that are indigestible for humans, but fuel for our microbial friends. The coolest part is that the healthy bacteria eating them produce important nutrients to support OUR digestive wellness in return!
Prebiotic rich foods include:
- Bananas (Banana Paleo Pancakes)
- Fennel (Rhubarb Fennel Salad)
- Garlic (raw)
- Ginger (Ginger & Cinnamon Turmeric Chai Latte)
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Jicama (enjoy with Quick & Easy Guacamole for a Crowd!)
- Leeks (raw)
Incorporating more of these foods into your meals on a weekly (or even daily) basis will help support a good-bug gut environment.
Foods to Avoid for a Healthier Gut
Not only do we want to eat the best foods for gut health, but we also want to avoid the worst offenders. GMOs, processed foods, excessive alcohol, and coffee can do a number on intestinal permeability and dysbiosis (imbalance in gut bugs).
Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs) are bad for gut health because of how they’re usually grown — as mono-crops.
When a single type of plant is sown in the same soil year after year, it depletes the soil of nutrients. Depleted soil requires the use of chemical fertilizers to produce a harvest. Monoculture food crops are also sprayed with RoundUp (glyphosate). The residues of these chemicals end up in our gut.
Dead soil leaves GMO foods depleted of gut-healing nutrients, while chemical additives leave your gut full of possibly irritating substances.
Alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets are the most prevalent GMO crops. These foods should be purchased organic, or with a Non-GMO verified label.
The most common GMO crops are also common ingredients in processed foods because they are cheap! But beyond GMOs, processed foods are often full of refined sugars, flours, and additives that feed bad gut bacteria.
These bugs tend to be the same types of bacteria who crave sugar — they can actually encourage you to eat more processed junk! Your cravings may have much more to do with gut dysbiosis than willpower.
Make sure that the bad bugs don’t crowd out the good bugs by removing these foods from your diet:
- Artificial sweeteners and colors (aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, etc.)
- Commercial baked goods (cakes, cookies, muffins, pastries, pizza, etc.)
- Commercial dairy products (processed milk, cheese, ice-cream, and yogurt)
- Commercial snack foods (crackers, pretzels, sugary granola bars, etc.)
- Commercial wheat-based products (bread, cereals, pasta, refined wheat flour)
- Industrialized oils (canola, corn, safflower, soybean, sunflower, vegetable oil)
- Junk foods (candy, candy bars, fast food, sugary cereals, chips, etc.)
Excess Alcohol and Coffee
Some of our favorite indulgences can actually be beneficial to the gut in small amounts. Red wine, coffee, and dark chocolate contain flavonoids and antioxidants. However, relaxants and stimulants like alcohol and caffeine in excessive quantities can negatively impact gut flora and tissue health.
Too much alcohol has been linked with leaky gut and general inflammation. Too much coffee can irritate the gut lining due to acidity, and will certainly not help heal already impaired tissue.
Lifestyle Factors for a Healthy Gut
While the focus of this article is on food, just eating well may not be enough. There are some other lifestyle factors that contribute to gut health.
Reduce Environmental Toxins
Unfortunately, we are exposed to tens of thousands of environmental toxins that may be disrupting our microbiome.
Conventional household items that often contain ingredients shown to contribute to leaky gut and dysbiosis include:
- Cleaning solutions
- Laundry products
- Personal care products
- Antibacterial soaps
- Air fresheners
- Plastic food containers
- Plastic water bottles
Eliminating products with harmful ingredients and opting for natural alternatives may be the missing link in your gut health formula. Check out the Environmental Working Group for helpful guides and recommended brands.
Limiting Antibiotics and NSAIDs
Penicillin was one of the most important discoveries to the human species nearly a hundred years ago. But, we all know that too much of a good thing can also be bad! Antibiotics help to kill harmful bacteria, but they also kill the good bacteria.
What’s most important is that we use antibiotics when they are necessary — and avoid misusing them for viral infections.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have also been found to compromise the barrier function of the gut lining, and may even initiate gluten sensitivity. Reducing our use of over the counter painkillers may decrease intestinal damage.
The expectations of our modern world push us into “fight or flight,” or sympathetic response, more often than not. This chronic low-grade stress is killing us. Up to 90% of all doctor visits are now said to be related to stress, and stress creates an environment in the gut that “suffocates” healthy bacteria.
The good bugs and our body systems (digestive, nervous, immune, etc.) all perform best when they are in a state of “rest and digest”, or parasympathetic dominance.
Practices like breathwork, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, time in nature, gratitude, and journaling have never been more critical and can have profound effects on our gut health.
Body systems need to shut down and repair consistently for optimal gut health. There’s no better way to do this than through adequate sleep. Long periods of uninterrupted rest allow for a nervous system reset and healing at all levels.
As we begin to learn more about the communication that happens between the gut microbiota and nervous system, it makes sense that habits for a healthy slumber are critical for gut health.
Next steps with gut healing foods
In this article, we reviewed why gut health is so important, and how we can improve gut health through the foods we eat, the environment around us, and lifestyle habits.
A focus on rewilding our diet with more nose-to-tail dishes, fermented foods, and eating a rainbow of colorful organic plants is a great place to start.
Removing processed sugary foods, environmental toxins, and excessive chronic stress will help limit the biggest offenders of our microbiome and digestive system.
Adding in pre- and probiotics and also improving your sleep hygiene may help your gut health as well.
Please remember that while many of the recommendations given here have been shown to increase health, we are all individuals and at different stages in our wellness journey. What works best for you may not work best for your neighbor.
If you’re overwhelmed with where to begin, let Primal Peak guide you with our 4 Weeks of Real Food program. Real food appreciation is a step towards a healthier gut and a healthier YOU!
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