The older you get, the more your body responds poorly to those lifestyle choices you were getting around to fixing eventually. And more and more often, physicians are seeing the results of those choices in their exam rooms, with Americans complaining of extreme constipation, food intolerances, belly pain, and general malaise. So how did we get here, and how do we fix it?
Everyone has seen those clickbait ads that scream promises like 10 Ways to Improve Your Gut Bacteria Based On Science, 16 Easy Hacks to Enhance Your Gut Health, or at some point did a Google search for topics like Can Gut Bacteria Improve Your Health? There is so much information available, and everyone is trying to sell you the next best thing–it can get overwhelming.
The first thing you need to do is to start a food journal and output log. Not forever, but for one workweek keep track of the foods and beverages you are eating and drinking. This is NOT the time to start altering your food intake–be honest. The simple mindful act of writing down what you are consuming will tell you most of what you need to know to fix your aching stomach. And tracking how often you went to the restroom during the week will tell you just as much.
Once you have completed your food journal, sit down on your day off and look it over. What types of foods are you eating regularly? Are you relying on fast, convenient foods from chain restaurants or eating out frequently at sit-down restaurants? How much caffeine and water were you consuming? How often were you able to go, and did you have to take medication to help your gut along? Knowing where you are starting from is the best thing, so you can see in real time how things are improving.
Next, it’s time to go shopping. Chances are your food log was low on fiber-rich, nutrient-dense foods and water, right? So head to the grocery store. And try to shop without going into the middle aisles at ALL. Those middle shelves are where the stores put the highly processed shelf-stable foods. Good GI tract health begins with fresh produce, low-fat cultured dairy, lean meats, and whole grains. Another good rule of thumb is to make your veggies colorful. Dark greens like spinach, mesclun, and arugula are full of gut health powerhouse nutrition like Vitamin K, Vitamin D, Iron, Calcium, and Insoluble Fiber. (More to come in a minute about the types of fiber). For breakfast, try an easy scrambled egg skillet with bell peppers, spinach, jarred salsa, and shredded cheddar. Not only pretty on the plate, full of good nutrition.
You’re standing at the yogurt aisle and you are eyeing the dozens of options. Greek, whipped, no fat, low fat, prebiotic or probiotic. Too many choices. To get your stomach feeling better, avoid the “diet” versions, or versions that have an insane amount of added sugar or starch (yes, unless you see the words strained on your Greek yogurt, they thickened it with corn starch). According to the American Diabetes Association, ONE SERVING of CARBS is 15gm. That usually translates to 4 ounces of yogurt, 1 slice of bread, or a few crackers. Low-Fat yogurt made with brown sugar or cane sugar is actually better for you because more and more studies are proving time and again that using sweetener alternatives like sucralose, aspartame or stevia may lead to other health issues. Greek yogurt is also a good choice because it is so versatile. It contains more protein and soluble fiber than its counterparts and can be swapped into recipes 1:1 for sour cream, cream cheese, or mayonnaise. Limiting dairy consumption to cultured products, such as kefir, yogurt, cheese, sour cream or butter/yogurt blends will significantly decrease issues you experience with food intolerance, joint pain, and constipation.
But what about all those “Biotics”? Food industry marketing teams have spent billions coming up with ways to sell you health, and the terms change as quickly as the shelves get restocked. Probiotic literally translates to “good bacteria”. Your GI tract is not a sealed tube. The walls of your gut are highly absorbent, and work to nourish your body by extracting minerals, vitamins, water, electrolytes, and other essential building blocks like proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Think of your intestinal walls like a pair of pantyhose, screening your legs for imperfections and keeping you cool and comfortable in an office setting. In order for your gut to adequately screen the foods and fluids you ingest, you need these “good bacteria” to help process things.
One of the most common probiotics is the Lactobacillus family (remember good old yogurt?). Live active cultured yogurt or kefir is a great way to replace these hardworking eukaryotes. But what if you are allergic to dairy, and still want the benefits? In the produce section by the salad mixes, chances are you saw some refrigerated drinks called Kombucha. Kombucha is a centuries-old formulation that has recently become popular again, and for good reason.
Kombucha came to the Western world from the monasteries of Southeast Asia, as a fermented tea consumed by the Buddhist community to “improve wellness of spirit and form”. Its adoption by health devotees in the Ayurvedic and holistic movements has brought it to the shelves of your local supermarkets and it is flying off the shelves. The drink is sold in thick glass bottles, and like yogurt, needs to be kept chilled. It has live cultures within the drink and a slightly puckery taste. The best way to enjoy it is chilled after you have gently swirled the bottle to move the “strands” at the bottom throughout the beverage. These strands are the good bacteria in the bottle and will help your gut feel its best with regular consumption.
But what are PREBiotics? Prebiotic is essentially a term that can be used interchangeably with Fiber. It refers to additives or ingredients in a food or drink that help move your meal through the GI tract. There are 2 types of fiber: soluble or insoluble. You need both kinds every day to keep your belly functioning properly. Soluble fibers refer to the food component that can be dissolved in a solution or mix. On the food labels, under Dietary Fiber, you will see 2 numbers. One tells you the total fiber in a food product, and the other tells you how much is soluble or easily absorbed by your body. Insoluble fiber is just that: it doesn’t break down and serves as a mechanical propellant to move the waste products out of your gut quickly and easily. Insoluble fibers are found in salad greens, corn husks (hello Metamucil or psyllium), whole grain products, and other vegetables and fruits.
So, now your cart is full of fresh vegetables and healthy meat or meatless proteins. You’ve added in some good quality cultured dairy and decided to try some of that ginger-flavored Kombucha for giggles. But did you remember to think about how much water you are drinking?
In the typical American nutritional pyramid, most people should be drinking 64 ounces of water a day or a Half Gallon. While bottled waters make that task easier, they aren’t cheap, and so many of us just forget. Or perhaps the soda addiction is real, and it’s hard to give up flavored, sparkly beverages. Try substituting sparkling waters for sugar-laden soft drinks, and be gentle with yourself. You cannot cold turkey every bad habit overnight. Invest in a 64-ounce water bottle that you can keep filled from the tap and reuse. You can even add lemon juice, lime juice, or slice up some cucumbers, berries, or herbs to make tap water more palatable.
Last? Stop by the health and beauty aisle, and pick up a bottle of Super B Complex. A good general rule to remember is: Your liver builds A DEcK for storage (fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K in limited quantities daily), but your kidneys C the B’s on the flowers faster (water-soluble vitamins that are excreted daily and need constant replenishment). Your gut bacteria produce nearly all of the vitamin K that a healthy adult needs for clotting and healing purposes. But adding a B Complex to your supplement routine bolsters the good bacteria and keeps them functioning properly. A typical B complex formulation includes Niacin (heart health, circulatory support), Thiamine (improved liver function, helps with improved memory), Riboflavin (improved cognition, helps with cellular metabolism), and Cyanocobalamin (feeds the good gut bacteria and helps your body build more red blood cells and properly absorb dietary iron).
Having a healthy gut (and by extension a healthy body) is easier than you think. Drinking plenty of water, adding probiotics to your diet, eating both types of fiber, and getting adequate vitamins and other nutrients will keep things moving and functioning at peak performance. Now, try these steps for 2 weeks and see how you feel. On week 3, do a second food and output log. I am positive you will see a huge difference in what you eat, how you feel, and how effortlessly your system purges itself.