To keep your body strong enough to fight with inflammation and virus, it is important to keep your gut healthy. Gut and immune systems seem like an odd combination but they are tightly related, which means keeping your gut health can improve your immune system. Gut health is not only significant for the immune system, but also mental health! It is the so-called ‘gut-brain connection’, which means that anxiety can be influenced by stomach problems, and vice versa. When you feel nervous or angry, you can sometimes feel mild or even intense discomfort in the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract). Multiple studies have shown that anxiety disorders and depression are related to the gastrointestinal condition.
What is in the gastrointestinal tract that has such an effect? The gut microbiome is the answer!
Microbiome in the gut consists of trillions of microorganisms of thousands of different species, which include bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. It is unbelievable to think that we have all these microorganisms in the small and large intestines, but in healthy people, these coexist peacefully by helping our body to function properly and stay healthy. Once the peaceful microbiome environment gets disturbed, it can affect your immune system or mental health, which makes your body more susceptible to diseases. On the other hand, if it keeps its peaceful state, it can promote your immune system as well as your mental health.
Now that you know that the microbiome in the gut is what you have to focus on, you need to know what can positively affect the gut microbiome. In addition to genetics, environment, and medication use, diet is one of the main factors that can either promote or disturb the gut microbiome environment.
The gut microbiome can remain in a peaceful state by keeping balance with the following:
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Prebiotics and probiotics sound very similar, they are not the same but are interconnected to each other. Probiotics are live microorganisms that are good for the human body and keep our digestive systems healthy. Prebiotics provide food for the probiotics, a.k.a. “good bacteria” that can help good bacteria to be prosperous in your gut to promote health. Therefore, having both probiotics and prebiotics is ideal for your gut microbiome. Probiotics are most abundant in aged or fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, pickles that have been pickled in salt and water not vinegar. Kombucha, a tea drink fermented with bacteria and yeast, likely producing health related probiotic benefits, however high-quality evidence is lacking. Probiotics can also be taken as supplements. Prebiotic-rich foods include garlic, oats, asparagus, leeks, and onions, and these can be easily added to almost every dish!
Fibers, also known as ‘complex carbohydrates’ play a significant role when it comes to improving gut health. Carbohydrates can be subdivided by its complexity of structures, so ‘simple carbohydrates’ contain glucose and sugars like table sugar or lactose (milk sugar), which are readily absorbed in the upper part of the small intestine, whereas ‘complex carbohydrates’ like fibers can travel lower to the large intestine without being absorbed. Fibers need to travel down to the large intestine so that the gut microbiome and digestive enzymes can help to break down the fibers. As a result, the products of that process become essential nutrients that can help with improving muscle function and possibly preventing chronic diseases like certain cancers. Besides gut health, having fiber is good for decreasing cholesterol level, which can eventually lead to lowering risk for developing heart disease. Since fiber is a complex carbohydrate, it takes time for the fiber to be broken down and absorbed, and this helps controlling blood sugar level of the body, therefore, having fiber can help people with diabetes to control their blood sugar levels. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are considered good sources of fibers.
Avoid alcohol and drink water
Chronic alcohol use can cause various gastrointestinal problems, like inflammation and malabsorption of protective nutrients, which can cause damage to the linings of the digestive systems. An excessive amount of alcohol consumption leads to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria and the reduction of good bacteria. By disrupting the balance of the gut microbiome, those harmful bacteria can increase inflammation in our body and allow toxins to enter the bloodstream, which is a vicious cycle. In conclusion, avoiding alcohol is most idealistic, but having a moderate amount can be tolerable. Instead of drinking an alcoholic beverage, drinking water has proven to be beneficial in protecting the mucosal lining of the intestines, which can help to keep the balance of good bacteria in the gut.
Nicole Maslar RDN, LDN
*Researched and written in conjunction with UMASS Nutrition & Dietetic student Nina Seok