Lifestyle factors such as exercising regularly, reducing stress and avoiding unhealthy habits such as smoking, all have a positive impact on your belly bacteria. However, food should be your top priority and is the best first-line treatment to boost the health of your microbiome and, in turn, strengthen your immunity.
Eat resistant starch: “This kind of fibre resists digestion and when it reaches the colon it is fermented by the bacteria there to produce by-products called short chain fatty acids,” says Dr Jane Muir, head of Translational Nutrition Science in the Department of Gastroenterology at Monash University. “In particular, it increases the production of a short chain fatty acid called butyrate, which is very important to keeping the lining of the gut healthy. Butyrate also has a range of other effects, which indicate that it may help to prevent inflammation and reduce the risk of colon cancer.” Foods high in resistant starch include oats, lentils, bananas, cashews and potato that has been cooked and cooled.
Plate up with plant foods: Bad bacteria can multiply super fast. In fact, after just two days of eating an animal-based diet of meat and dairy including bacon, ribs and cheese, people show a growth in potentially problematic bacteria in their gut, shows Harvard research. They also experience higher colonisation of fungi and viruses, and more microorganisms that can trigger inflammatory bowel disease within 24 hours of eating excessive meat and diary. By contrast, the levels of good belly bacteria rapidly improve when individuals are placed on a vegetable-only diet for several days. The take-home? Opt for the broccoli.
Enjoy natural prebiotics: Think foods such as asparagus, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory, onions, leek and garlic. “Prebiotics are fibre compounds that pass undigested through the stomach and small intestine,” says Muir. “When prebiotics arrive in the large intestine, they promote the growth and activity of beneficial (probiotic) bacteria that live there. Having a healthy balance of gut bacteria benefits your digestion, absorption of minerals and immune system function. In short, it’s a win-win for your health.”
Serve a little sauerkraut: Fermented foods are high in probiotics – live bacteria that can help prevent harmful bacteria from attaching to your gut lining and growing there. They can also destroy toxins released by certain ‘bad’ bacteria that can make you sick. If that’s not enough, probiotics send signals to your cells to nourish the mucus in your intestine, helping it act as a barrier against infection.
Fermented foods can also help to trigger proteins that protect the lining of your gut, shows research from Yale University. “But make sure you listen to your body – if you get symptoms of belly discomfort in relation to certain fermented foods, they may be upsetting your microbiome,” says naturopath and natural health consultant with Doctor Earth in Sydney, Sarah Luck. “Rotating your ferments can ensure a good balance. So during the week on different days, include sauerkraut, lacto-fermented cucumbers, miso (if you tolerate soy), kefir (a probiotic milk drink) and kimchi (a fermented Korean vegetable side dish) in your diet.”
You might also want to take probiotic supplements. “The improvements for digestive complaints usually start to become evident after a week or two of taking probiotics,” Luck explains. “Benefits to skin, mood and general health take a bit longer but usually kick in after a few weeks.”
Eat less carbs: Carbs are the preferred source of fuel for unhealthy bacteria, so loading up on sugars or refined carbs such as white bread and sweet biscuits can compromise your gut health. Instead, opt for wholegrains, and when you eat bread go for a rye sourdough, which is high in fibre and also contains beneficial bacteria from its starter culture.
Cut the chardonnays and coffees: Alcohol can increase the levels of gram-negative bacteria in your belly, which are notorious for causing immune system reactions. This family of bacteria causes an increase in endotoxins, which can be absorbed via the intestine into your bloodstream, then taxied via the portal vein to your liver. Once there, endotoxins can overload the Kupffer cells that help your liver do its filtering work. This can lead the Kupffer cells to activate inflammation in the liver too. Just one episode of binge drinking can cause enough damage to trigger leaky gut, shows research from the Massachusetts Medical School.
On the other hand, your morning espresso can increase acid production in your gut (even if it’s decaffeinated) and also irritate the lining of your stomach, getting in the way of leaky gut repair. The good news is that once you cut the coffee, the mucosal lining of your gut can start to repair and regenerate in as little as 48 hours, shows research from Charles University.