Digestive Wellness: Understanding Good and Bad Gut Bacteria

Known as the “second brain”, our digestive system communicates with every other cell in our body. In fact, the small brain in our guts, in connection with the big one in our skulls, affects our mental state and plays a key part in the development of diseases.

Everything we consume travels down the “river” to our digestive tract. If the river isn’t flowing with healthy food and drink, we end up with a nutrient drought. Conversely, an excess of alcohol or drugs can create a runoff of pollution.

When we don’t listen to our gut and prioritize our digestive wellness, it can lead to poor food choices or trouble digesting nutrients. From which we may start feeling the consequences like tiredness and not being able to think clearly, bouts of anxiety or depression, or we may even start to develop symptoms of illness and health issues. From migraines, depression and foggy thinking, to autoimmune illnesses, arthritis, and chronic fatigue.

The digestive system breaks down nutrients and delivers them throughout our bodies, keeping us alive and thriving. It’s time to prioritize and balance your gut — because, ultimately, we eat food to nourish our cells and you are what you eat.

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Fun fact:
You have three and a half to four and a half pounds of bacteria in your digestive system that help you survive.

Good gut bacteria foods

The good bacteria in your gut want to create a harmony of health with you. These friendly communities are called your microbiome, a bacterial fingerprint that is unique to you. They help synthesize vitamins, protect you against infections, and run your metabolism. The health and happiness of these bacteria determine your overall and digestive wellness, including how fast you age and how much fat you store.

The number of healthy bacteria in our bodies is determined by our family and ancestors, our climate and environment, whether or not we were breastfed, our stress level, medication, and what we eat. Adding probiotic-rich foods to your diet will recruit more healthy bacteria soldiers to help your body fight the good fight.

Fun fact:
There are over 1,000 types of bacteria in your digestive system with hundreds of strains, but the most common ones are from two families: Bacteriodetes and Firmicutes.

Probiotics

Probiotics balance your “good” and “bad” gut bacteria to keep your body working the way it should. They help us in many ways:

  • Improve digestion
  • Improve immune function
  • Increase nutrient absorption and produce vitamins
  • Normalize cholesterol
  • Promote healthy metabolism and weight
  • Encourage regular bathroom times
  • Help break down excess hormones such as estrogen
Fun fact:
There are 10 times more bacteria in your gut than cells in your body.
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When looking for probiotic foods, you’re safe with anything that is cultured or fermented. Here are some healthy swaps that will get your troops fit and healthy:

  • Cottage cheese and yogurt instead of milk
  • Sauerkraut instead of cabbage
  • Tofu or tempeh instead of soybeans
  • Wine instead of grapes (in moderation)
  • Fermented vegetables instead of regular

Some more specific probiotic foods:

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Prebiotics

But just as important as probiotics (the bacteria themselves), prebiotics stimulate the growth of good bacteria. Think of them like fertilizer or food that helps the healthy bacteria grow. The bacteria get so happy to eat these non-digestible fibers, that they sometimes produce gas and bloating.

So, go slow as you start to include these prebiotic fiber-rich foods to your diet: asparagus, banana, garlic, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, and legumes.

Probiotic supplements

When it comes to probiotics, food is your best option. But if you need an extra boost, probiotic supplements could be of help – just be sure to choose the right one.

According to Dr. Liz Lipski in her book Digestive Wellness, aim for ones with Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. They can make the environment of your gut inhospitable to invading and disease-causing microbes. These can be particularly helpful when you’re traveling to a foreign country with different foods. If you have chronic diarrhea, aim for Saccharomyces Boulardii.

The number of organisms in your probiotic can vary, but what matters more is if the bacteria are still alive. Consumer Lab tested 25 probiotic products and eight of them contained less than 1 percent of the number of probiotics indicated on their label.

Tips for choosing probiotics

  • Ask your doctor or dietitian for a brand they trust
  • Aim to use the probiotic well before the expiration date and store it as directed
  • Always check the ingredient list
  • If you are lactose intolerant avoid dairy-based versions

Fun fact:
Good bacteria help manufacture vitamins, meaning they actually give your body nutrients including B vitamins and vitamin K.

How to get rid of bad gut bacteria

The balance of bacteria in the body can be easily thrown out of whack. If you don’t address the imbalance, you may experience an array of symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, and longer-term conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

When you eat a spoiled food or ingest water that contains microbes you are not used to, such as with travel, you can get an acute illness. Your body says, “get this out of me fast!” And this also results in symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting.

The best way to get rid of bad gut bacteria is to prevent them from overpopulating in the first place. The following can disrupt the bacterial balance:

  • Bacterial infection
  • Antibiotic use
  • High stress levels
  • Excessive alcohol
  • Poor diet

When the bad bacteria have tipped to dangerous levels, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.  Always follow their recommendations and take the entire course of medication.

To help restore the balance of good to bad bacteria in your body on your own, try the following:

  • Limit sugar, alcohol
  • Limit processed food
  • Avoid poor-quality or damaged fats and oils
  • Increase whole fibrous foods including whole grain, fruits and vegetables
  • Increase probiotic rich foods

Inflamed gut lining

An inflamed gut lining can be caused by chronic stress, cigarette smoking, infections, toxins, medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs), alcohol, and excessive caffeine consumption.

When the lining is constantly damaged, it gets permeable, in a condition called leaky gut syndrome. The bad bacteria can dangerously make their way into your bloodstream. And undigested food particles can cause your body to develop food sensitivities and allergies.

Foods that heal the gut lining

The following nutrients will help you maintain a healthier gut barrier to pathogens and other substances that cause illness:

  • Short-chain-fatty acids: Produced by the healthy bacteria, SCFA protects your gut lining and decrease your risk of cancer. Simply add the prebiotic fiber we mentioned.
  • Glutamine: An amino acid that helps gut function and integrity. It can be naturally found in eggs, milk, beef, and soy.
  • Liquorice root: As a soothing herb, it can help as a natural remedy for ulcers and leaky gut. Just think root rather than candy liquorice.
  • Essential fatty acids: Including omega-3 such as salmon, walnuts and flax, and omega-6 which you can find in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. These may increase microbial diversity, and help maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall.

The gut brain

As we discussed previously, the digestive system is often called the second brain, and also has the capability of producing 80-90% of serotonin, the happy neurotransmitter. And since your digestive wellness and mental health are so closely related, with your gut being equally susceptible to your mood and stress levels, lifestyle is just as important as a healthy diet. So go with your gut feeling; assess and address your stress levels and quality of sleep as an integral part of your gut health regime.

Scarfing down your meals? Many digestive issues come from not properly digesting or absorbing food. When you eat mindlessly or in a hurry, you don’t fully chew your food, which is the first step of digesting. Take a breath before eating, put your fork down in between bites, taste and chew your food.

Try 8fit’s nutritious recipes today for overall digestive wellness.