Gut health has implications ranging from improved mood, to better sleep, to feeling comfortable in your pants. It’s one of the most fascinating areas of health and nutrition research. But just like any nutrition science, there is a lot of over-simplified elimination diet recommendations that the research doesn’t support. You can choose foods to improve gut health without cutting everything out of your diet.
If you’re dealing with any type of hormone issues, disordered eating, or have a history of an eating disorder, please consider ways to improve your gut health without eliminating anything first. Follow these steps to improve your digestion and feel great. If you need individualized guidance with this, I can help. Set up a discovery call today.
5 Steps to Improve Gut Health With Food
Eat Plenty of Fiber-Rich Starch
Refined carbohydrates like white pasta, pizza dough, white bread, pastries, and some cereals are totally fine, but since fiber is important, it’s smart to get whole grains in your diet also. Whole grains and starchy vegetables contain resistant starches which are fermented by probiotics (more on those in a minute) in the gut to create a more acidic (aka happier) environment. Refined carbohydrates and sugar are metabolized completely by the cells that line the intestines, leaving nothing for the microbiota to enjoy.
There’s nothing wrong with ordering your favorite pasta bolognese on a nice dinner out with your honey or having pasta be on regular rotation in your house. Some ways to increase those good fibers are to also include fiber-rich starches like farro, barley, buckwheat (soba noodles are amazing – go buy them now!) beans, and sweet potatoes. Eat fruit on the regular, if you like it.
Add Probiotics From Food
Probiotic foods add a magical bonus to your microbiome and have been eaten for this purpose for centuries. They regulate digestion, prevent infections, support the gut barrier, and even regulate appetite. The live bacteria in these foods munch on the prebiotics from resistant fiber. You really do need both. Getting these microbes in your diet regularly should cause improvement in bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. I’ve written a lot about fermented foods. Here’s an article I wrote a while back.
Need some ideas on what foods with probiotics can improve your gut health?
- Have a morning smoothie with a cup of kefir and a prebiotic like a banana (recipe: 1 banana, 1 cup whole milk kefir, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 tablespoon almond butter)
- Enjoy a weekend breakfast of scrambled eggs with kimchi (a personal favorite)
- Add sauerkraut to your sandwich – I really like Hat Creek Provisions and Wildbrine brands. Or make your own!
Add Prebiotic Foods
We covered this pretty well up in #1. By eating plenty of fiber-rich whole grains, you’re providing the food the probiotics need. Really, you want to eat a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables every week. The more random types of fiber in there, the better. Help them help themselves. Prebiotic foods include:
- allium vegetables – onion, leeks, garlic, scallions (best when eaten raw)
- legumes of all kinds
- whole grains
- human breast milk! (just FYI)
Focus On Sleep
Eating certain foods to improve your gut health is a great idea, but food is not the only area to look at. Many body processes are mediated by melatonin and circadian rhythm. Metabolism slows at night and appetite is suppressed. Melatonin is the hormone that controls the sleep-wake cycle and some is found in the gastrointestinal track. When the circadian rhythm is disrupted, we see increased rates of IBS. There is much research suggesting that light pollution and our modern dependence on electronics in the evening could be disrupting our natural melatonin production. This study gave melatonin to people with IBS are saw promising results. Interesting!
Getting adequate sleep is so important, and so difficult for some people. Some suggestions to help you get your eight hours:
- Turn the lights out indoors at night or use gentle lamps instead of overhead lights
- Turn off the electronics an hour before bed a few nights a week. Or at the very least, put them on night mode
- Go for a walk after dinner – it’s useful for our bodies to experience natural light both during the day and at night
- Eat lunch outdoors! Bonus – you’ll be getting that elusive vitamin D
- Practice cooling and relaxing activities at night such as restorative yoga. DC-based yoga teacher, Reiki master, and all around great gal, Jessica Mahler (we met during our yoga teacher training in Brooklyn), teaches a wonderful restorative class and is an advocate for the style and for an overall ‘love yourself and take deep breaths’ approach to health. Reading what she has to stay always allows me to take a big exhale. You can find her on instagram at @live_your_light
Deal With Your Stress
There are direct nerve connections between the gut and the brain. Chronic stress leads to inflammation in the body, which can influence mood and lead to chronic disease. The same way a diverse and healthy microbiota support digestive function, a healthy gut supports a healthy connection to the brain.
You must find ways to deal with your stress. Find a counselor or incorporate daily mindfulness activities into your life. Spend time in nature. Get better sleep. Eat dinner with friends and family. Exercise. Volunteer for causes that are important for you. The APA has some tips on emotional health also. Restorative yoga anyone?
I cannot stress enough how much better you’ll feel if you take care of your gut. This is an area I specialize in with my private practice. I guide my clients off the processed foods they’re eating by finding space for self-care. Organized shopping and meal-prepping are key to make sure you have the foods available to you when you need them. I’d be happy to help you find gut health. You can read about my services here.
There are a lot of things to consider when trying to improve your gut health with food, not just cutting out things from your diet. Remember that anything causing more stress to your life is not having an overall positive benefit. always, I’d love to hear your thoughts below. If you are ready to get support with healing your gut and your relationship with food, I’d love to help. Set up a discovery call with me today and we’ll talk about how to get started.
Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in intuitive eating, mindfulness-based eating practices, embodiment with food and movement, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps womxn find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her here.