Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, is known to have said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Despite the lack of technology and the vast amounts of knowledge we have now, somehow he knew the human gut serves as the lifeblood of the entire body. And boy, was he right. Researchers now have ascertained that without a robust gut, there’s no chance at the sparkling vitality we all seek. The question is: exactly how do you get that golden gut?
First, a few more details on your gut. More specifically, your gut microbiome—or the collective bacteria that live in your gut—which helps maintain balance in the body, and can even influence health and disease. Bacteria have gotten a bad rap for causing illness. But the truth is, bacteria can be both good and bad—and the good ones are absolutely essential to your well-being.
Growing evidence suggests that the purpose of your gut microbiome is far more important than originally thought; it even has the ability to switch on “a wide range of diseases, including cancer”.
Supporting your gut health might just benefit your entire body and your mental health—and, honestly, who couldn’t use a little more support for both?
How Important Is the Gut Microbiome, Exactly?
Let’s dig a little deeper. Bacteria in your gut not only influence digestive health, but also play an important role in everything from your immune system to even maintaining your weight.
The gut microbiome has been shown to influence energy and metabolism (healthy gut bacteria could mean the difference between effortlessly dropping those last few pounds and mauling through the fridge like a bear after hibernation).
You’ve likely heard of probiotics, living microorganisms that benefit gut health. Turns out, these tiny organisms may help boost immunity, prevent infections and even remove toxins from the body, which can support healthy skin (where do we sign up?).
Gut bacteria can also affect your mood and influence your behavior. Ever felt your stomach drop when seeing an ex, or have your belly growl just thinking about cheese fries? That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal tract are “intimately connected.”
Due to the gut-brain connection, research shows that probiotics can restore healthy gut bacteria, and may play a role in both treating and preventing anxiety and depression, two regrettably common conditions in modern society.
The Problem with Modern Lifestyles and Gut Health
The gut microbiome is very sensitive to drugs, diet and environmental pollutants such as heavy metals.
But these aren’t the only things that can make your gut bacteria get out of whack.
Foods and food additives. Artificial sweeteners—yes, this includes those in your Diet Coke or sugar-free gum!—have been shown to disrupt the balance of the gut microbiome.
Other food additives, such as those found in processed foods, also negatively affect gut bacteria. For instance, carboxymethycellulose (CMC) and polysorbate 80 (p80), both synthetic emulsifiers (food additives) common in processed foods, were shown to change microbiome composition, leading to low-grade inflammation.
This inflammation in the gut has been linked to mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression, as we discussed earlier.
Prescription medications. Estrogen used in oral birth control has been shown to change intestinal permeability, which is the term for your gut’s barrier. (This barrier filters out bad stuff and allows good stuff in, but can get damaged by certain medications, inflammation or toxins, which can lead to a range of health problems.)
Research shows that, contrary to previous belief, healthy gut bacteria may still be negatively impacted by antibiotic use long after you stop taking the popular drug.
Pesticides. Conventional pesticides sprayed on foods can harm gut health by altering the microbiome, which can lead to an imbalance between good and bad gut bacteria and even lead to gut inflammation.
Stress. Unfortunately, all that mental tension also impacts the health of your gut microbiome. Your gut contains more harmful bacteria when under stress, leading to an imbalance that can cause inflammation.
Sugar. Simple sugars (think cupcakes, sweetened yogurt and the simple syrup in your watermelon martini) can also disturb gut flora, leading to changes in metabolic activity and potentially influencing your risk for obesity.
So what’s the best way to reclaim a healthy gut?
Why Plants Are So Beneficial for Gut Health
There’s some good news here: while gut microbiome can be damaged, the gut is also very receptive to healing and rejuvenation—and it all comes down to eating more plant-based foods. Foods you can pluck from the earth, whole and unprocessed, can improve your gut health, particularly for people who have damaged microbiomes due to antibiotics, stress or you know, the occasional sugar binge.
While nearly all plants are beneficial for our bodies, there are a few key components that act as gut superstars that can replenish healthy gut bacteria and lead to awesome things like clearer skin and a happier you.
Fiber feeds good gut bacteria, which can help reduce inflammation, boost your immune system and improve intestinal function. Fiber also positively influences the gut to protect against obesity.
Excellent fiber pick for gut health: Flaxseed, which contains phytonutrients—compounds in plants that have positive health benefits—that fuel good bacteria and improve insulin sensitivity.
Excellent antioxidants for gut health: Berry lovers rejoice! Berries such as cranberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries make the list, as do cherries!
You’ve heard of probiotics, but what the heck are prebiotics?
Prebiotics, similar to probiotics, are also beneficial microorganisms that essentially feed probiotics to support a healthy gut. Prebiotics such as inulin, a fiber, boost healthy gut bacteria.
Excellent prebiotics for gut health: Dandelion greens, artichokes, onions, garlic, bananas, and yes, even seaweed (sushi, anyone?).
Probiotics are essential for gut health and can actually help eradicate pathogenic (read: disease-causing) bacteria in the gut.
Excellent probiotics for gut health: Miso, dairy-free kefir, kimchi and kombucha are all stellar picks!
How You Can Take Advantage of a Plant-Based Diet
Now that you recognize the importance of your gut for both mental and physical health, it might feel a little overwhelming to begin to implement diet changes that support a healthy gut microbiome. And if you’re wondering if a plant-based diet will make your meals dull and tasteless, we got you.
It’s easy to stick to your same go-to foods, even if they aren’t exactly benefitting you. Fortunately, by making some simple swaps and being patient with yourself, you can create a plant-based diet that helps sustain a gut microbiome that fuels your inner goddess.
Begin by swapping out a few processed foods for veggies: instead of reaching for a bag of chips, think hummus and carrots. Instead of making meat the star of every meal, get creative with vegetables (e.g. cauliflower steak, mmm!). Remember to incorporate plenty of protein and healthy fats. Many of the foods we discussed above can help you do this, including flaxseed and nuts, which contain antioxidants.
It’s easy to get so caught up in work and life that you leave little time for healthy dietary choices. Fortunately, modern options such as Sakara, vegan and plant-based meals delivered straight to your door, can make supporting healthy gut bacteria easy. Services like Sakara are perfect for those who want the “homework” done for their guts.
Those little organisms in your gut that influence so much of your health will thank you for focusing on plants. Now crunch, chomp and crack your way into a beautiful gut for a more beautiful you, inside and out.