Why do we need to make sure our gut is happy? Our gut is filled with about 100 trillion bacteria, in fact, we have more bacteria cells in our body than human cells! We are only starting to understand all the functions this community of bacteria has– they crack open indigestible food for us, supply our gut with energy, manufacture vitamins, breaks down toxins and medications, and train our immune system. We also know that having a good supply of friendly bacteria can help prevent type 2 diabetes, obesity, anxiety and depression. Here are my top five ways to a healthy gut to help you be your healthiest self. This article was written for Aboriginal Healthy Living Activities run by ISPARC and SportMedBC.
1) Feed Your Friendly Bacteria The Right Food: We know that the good bacteria thrive off fibres, particularly fibres we call prebiotics. Prebiotics are food for the good bacteria or probiotics. Some of the best prebiotics include oats, legumes (beans and lentils), flaxseed, onion, garlic, rye, barley, chicory root, and dandelion root. Two Indigenous foods that are potent prebiotics include wild onion and camas, and these provide some of the oldest evidence of prebiotic food consumption in North America dating back 9000 years ago. Sunchokes (Jerusalem artichoke or sunroot) is also native to North America and high in prebiotic fibres.
Not all fibre are prebiotics, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim for a wide variety of fibre rich foods including berries and wild rice. Fibre has other benefits on the gut which includes helping to ‘sweep’ it out, prevent constipation and support good blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
2) Stop Feeding The Bad Bacteria: Too much of the wrong type of bacteria in our gut can create an imbalance and start to push the friendly bacteria out. We know that the bad bacteria thrive off of refined carbohydrates including sugar, cookies, cakes, crackers, white bread, as well as food high in fat including fatty meats, deep-fried foods, and an excess amount of cheese. Artificial sweeteners can also crowd out the good bacteria as found in diet soft drinks, sugar-free yogurts and sugar-free jello.
Try and follow the 80/20 approach to balancing your food intake. If 80% of the time you try and eat the best you can, then once in awhile it is OK to have a few cookies or higher fat food. When your gut is full of the friendly bacteria, it is better equipped to manage small amounts of your favourite ‘treats’.
3) Sleep well, Self-Care around Stress and Be Active: There are some things that we can’t control in our environment that can have an effect on our bacteria population. In our external environment pollution, medications and additives in our food supply can decrease our friendly bacteria. Internally, a lack of self-care and sleep can also decrease our friendly bacteria.
We all know how important exercise is for our bodies, but sometimes we forget that it is also important to help with mood and digestion. Aim to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days. Understand the role that stress plays in our health, including digestive health. Try and take measures to reduce your stress and find ways to put self-care into your day. This may include taking time out for yourself, connecting to nature or a walk on the beach, calling a friend, or spending more time doing something you love.
4) Water is Life: Cleanse your body each day with the nourishment of water. Drink plenty of water and herbal teas, and limit juices, sodas, energy drinks and any other sweetened drink that feed the bad bacteria. Too much caffeine, over 2 cups of coffee per day, or energy drinks can be irritating for your gut and may increase transit time which affects nutrient absorption from food. Water also helps to keep you regular and prevents constipation.
Herbal teas can be used in place of water – try steeping some of your favourite garden herbs like mint, lemon balm or rosemary in hot water for a simple herbal tea. Make your water more interesting by combining it with sliced cucumber, frozen berries, lemon slices or even a combination of strawberry and kiwi. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also packed full of water and can be a great source of hydration.
5) Try One Fermented Food A Day: Traditionally, all around the world, cultures enjoyed fermented foods as part of their daily diet. Fermented foods are rich in beneficial bacteria and work to increase the population in our digestive tracts. In Asia they use Kimchi or Miso, in Europe they use Sauerkraut and in North America we have yogurt. Traditional Indigenous diets used fermented grease or t´łi’na.
If t´łi’na is not something you have access to you could try adding apple cider vinegar to your next salad. Just make sure it’s unpasteurized or unheated to ensure the bacteria are still alive.
Good Health Starts With Your Guts: Making sure your gut is in the best shape it can be is as easy as increasing your servings of vegetables at meals, adding some flaxseed to your oatmeal at breakfast, choosing herbal tea or water more often, limiting sitting time, going to bed an hour earlier, and spending more time on yourself. Remember the 80/20 rule and allow yourself a treat once in a while and know that if you have stocked your gut full of the best bacteria around, you will have no problem dealing with the occasional cookie.