4 Tips for Optimal Gut Health

how to improve gut health

To get a healthier gut, start with a healthier plate

Last week, I attended a Food as Medicine Symposium organized by NorthShore University Health System and Dr. Geeta Maker-Clark.  One big theme--and one of my favorite lectures--was all about the importance of the microbiome (all the microbes that live in and on your body) on your overall health, including its relationship to digestion and the immune system.

The event was attended mostly by physicians, healthcare professionals, and even some medical students, so I thought I'd distill some of the great insights from the microbiome lecture into 4 actionable tips that we can all apply in our kitchens.  Diet is the easiest way to insure we have diverse microbes in a healthy balance in our bodies.

Here are 4 quick tips to get your gut in a happier place:

1. Eat more probiotic foods. 

Probiotic pills and foods have bacteria in them that mimics the "good" bacteria in our gut.  The idea is that is by adding more good bacteria, you'll insure a healthy balance of microbes in your colon.  Probiotics pills often contain only a handful of strains of bacteria, whereas naturally fermented foods like kimchi (pictured above), sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, and kombucha contain much more diversity.  Our guts like diversity, so skip the pills and go for true-fermented foods instead, at least 2 tablespoons a day.  
Recipe to try: Homemade Coconut Yogurt

2. Eat more prebiotic foods.  

Prebiotics are what the probiotics eat.  Make sure your gut is an ideal environment for the good bacteria by giving them what the like to eat: insoluble plant fiber.  Be sure to eat lots of nonstarchy green vegetables like asparagus, kale, spinach, dandelions, and more for prebiotic fiber.  Most of us only get 1/2 the RDA of fiber.
Recipe to try: Black Pepper Peas and Roasted Asparagus

3. Get dirty.

Our microbiome doesn't just refer to our colons, but all the microbes around our bodies.  One downside of modern living (and our modern sterile environments) is that we kill a lot of our friendly bacteria with antibiotic products and medicines, cleaning products, and simply not getting enough contact with nature.  Seek out food that's grown in healthy soil, ideally from a local farm that doesn't spray pesticides and herbicides.  If you eat meat or dairy, always seek out antibiotic-free.  Take a walk, sit in the grass, and wash your hands with plain soap and water.
Recipe to try: make your own kitchen cleaning spray with distilled water, white vinegar, and essential oils

4. Avoid sugar and refined carbs

Ugh, I know.  Same old, same old.  But one inspiring aspect of this Food as Medicine conference was the consensus among all the presenting physicians that much of healthy diet advice boils down to this: ditch the processed foods, refined carbs and sugars.  It really doesn't have to be harder than that.  The "bad" bacteria and yeasts in our gut love sugar so the less you eat, the less you'll encourage them to eat and be merry.  If you aren't interested in going sugar-free, try switching to natural sweeteners and whole foods desserts to get used to a less sweet sweet.
Recipe to try: Black Bean Brownies

If you are looking for more microbiome-friendly recipes, just keep in mind these healthy gut principles when you are looking for dinner inspiration: fermented foods, insoluble plant fiber, fresh produce from healthy soil, and low sugar and refined carbs.  Scan my recipes page for more ideas!