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The good gut guide

Naturopathic medical doctor, Dr Mark Stengler, outlines his natural approach to gut health

When I am helping patients to heal, especially from chronic disease, I make sure that gut health is a priority for other parts of the body to heal.

Gut health should always be on the mind of both the health practitioner and the patient, when creating an environment of healing.

The good news is that the right diet changes can quickly provide the environment for gut healing. I have seen the gut heal in thousands of patients. According to Gut Pathogens, “A slight change in the diet can quickly change the gut flora, which in turn can affect the physical and mental wellbeing of a person.” How quick, you ask? Research has shown changes in the microbiota within 48 hours of diet alteration.

Gut-healing foods

I recommend consuming a diet of foods in their natural state. The more you eat whole foods and restrict processed foods, the better the nutritional composition for gut health. This means eating out less, especially in fast-food restaurants.

In many studies, the Mediterranean diet showed tremendous health benefits for the cardiovascular system, immune system, and brain, as well as reductions in obesity and type 2 diabetes, cancer, inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, onset of Crohn’s disease, and mortality. Research has revealed that the Mediterranean diet promotes healthy gut microbiota that has a protective effect against type 2 diabetes. One study reviewed 82 healthy people whose BMI classified them as “overweight” or “obese,” and who consumed a low intake of fruit and vegetables and led a sedentary lifestyle. It found that when 43 of the participants switched to a Mediterranean diet for eight weeks, markers of microbiome health improved. The researchers in the study noted that the Mediterranean diet “dynamically modulates the intestinal microbiome composition and that the microbiome variations are proportional to the increase in MD adherence rates.”

Researchers conducted a one-year study of more than 600 older people and measured the effects of the Mediterranean diet on the microbiome and other markers. The results of the study found that the Mediterranean diet modulated the gut microbiota in a way that reduced the risk of frailty, improved cognitive function, and reduced inflammation (as measured by inflammation markers like C-reactive protein). I use this diet with many patients because it’s a fantastic choice for a lot of people (although everyone is genetically unique and needs to find which diet works best for them).

Prebiotic foods

You can radically improve your gut health by consuming foods that feed your gut microbiota. Prebiotics refer to nondigestible compounds (mainly nondigestible carbohydrates) metabolized by microorganisms in the gut. Prebiotic foods provide nutrition (energy) for the growth of friendly bacteria in the gut.

The health of your gut microbiota depends on the prebiotic foods that you consume. There are a number of different prebiotic foods which include:

Functions of prebiotics

Probiotic foods

The National Institute of Health division known as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health defines probiotics as “live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits when consumed or applied to the body.” The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics notes that probiotic health benefits go beyond the digestive tract, including oral (mouth and throat), liver, skin, vaginal, and urinary health.

Examples of probiotic-rich foods include:

There are several ways that probiotics confer beneficial effects in the gastrointestinal tract. The NIH Office of Dietary Supplements outlines the following gut-healing mechanisms of probiotics:

Probiotics are measured in what is known as colony-forming units (CFUs). CFU refers to the viable number of cells. Most probiotic supplements contain at least one billion or more CFUs per serving. Depending on the patient and their health situation, I normally use human-studied strains of probiotics in the range of 5 billion to 100 billion CFUs per serving.

Fermented foods

Fermented foods have a long history – their original use was to extend preservation to prevent spoilage. The most common examples are yogurt and cheese. Other common fermented foods include kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, natto, miso, kimchi, wine, beer, cider, and sourdough bread.

The consumption of fermented foods has a modulating or balancing effect on the gut microbiome. Fermented foods themselves contain a large and diverse microbiome. Several studies have been conducted that demonstrate a healthier microbiome diversity in people who consume fermented foods as compared to people who do not. Many but not all of these studies were done with fermented dairy products. I recommend consuming two or more of the fermented food products listed (with the exception of alcohol) on a regular basis. If you are dairy-sensitive, there are numerous non-dairy fermented products available on the market.

Fantastic fibre

Fibre provides the substrate for good bacteria to thrive. There are two types of fibre – soluble and insoluble – and a healthy diet will include both. Soluble fibre dissolves in water while insoluble does not. Examples of soluble fibre include apples (apple skin), barley, carrots, citrus fruits, oats, beans, and psyllium. When soluble fibre is combined with water, it creates a gel that can improve digestion and bind and reduce cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Insoluble fibre bulks the stool and helps promote regularity. It also binds toxins for excretion from the stool. Examples include wheat, beans, cauliflower, and many vegetables, such as leafy greens. Most plants have a combination of the two types of fibre but vary in their amounts.

Adapted from The Holistic Guide to Gut Health: Discover the Truth About Leaky Gut, Balancing Your Microbiome and Restoring Whole-Body Health by Dr Mark Stengler (£15.99, Hay House).

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