Our digestive systems are the unsung workaholics of our bodies, toiling around the clock to break down and absorb nutrients from the food and fluids we consume.
Within this ongoing cycle, our large intestine – often referred to as our gut – is the office hero. Though perhaps we should say office heroes, because it is actually the populations of tiny organisms that live in our gut that keep us healthy.
These microorganisms are also known as the microbiota, gut flora or gut bacteria. And strange as it may seem, your gut is home to a lot of them – billions, in fact. There many different types of gut bacteria, with most of us having more than 1000 different species.
Even though we can't see them with the naked eye, we cannot underestimate the important role that our gut bacteria play in not only our digestive health, but our immune system and mental health. Part of their duties also involve the absorption of essential nutrients, protecting us from harmful bacteria and even influencing inflammation.
Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella explains how you can support your digestive system through eating everyday foods. Here are her five top foods to nourish your gut bacteria:
The nutrients in brown rice encourage the growth and activity of healthy gut bacteria. Red and black rice are also good options for the gut and, luckily, are becoming more available in some supermarkets. Wherever possible, opt for brown rice over white rice and get the benefits from this healthy wholegrain.
Oats contain a unique type of fibre that nourishes and restores healthy gut bacteria. This makes oats a great food to eat every day and they are especially suited to breakfast – porridges, muesli or a smoothie with oats.
These tiny brown, tan or golden-coloured seeds are high in fibre and can help to create an environment within the gut in which the healthy bacteria want to grow and live.
To ensure freshness and to get the most benefit from this food, Sandra recommends freshly grinding your linseeds at home in a coffee grinder or spice grinder, and storing the ground seeds for up to two weeks in an airtight container in the fridge. You can get more linseeds into your daily diet by trying out Sandra's recipe, Buckwheat porridge, or her Raw seed slice, or simply sprinkle a tablespoon or two of ground seeds over your porridge in the morning.
Prebiotics (note: not probiotics) are a type of nutrient that are very beneficial for promoting gut health. Essentially, prebiotics are fuel for healthy gut bacteria, so it's important to eat enough prebiotics to keep the populations alive and healthy.
Prebiotics occur naturally in a number of everyday foods, such as:
- garlic, onions, leeks and spring onions
- asparagus, artichokes and beetroot
- broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, watercress and kale
- legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and red kidney beans.
Yoghurt & kefir
Another way to help keep your populations of good bacteria healthy is by eating them! Yoghurts often contain healthy gut bacteria, but it's important to check the labels. Good products will not only specify the type of good bacteria, but also the quantity of good bacteria. Sandra recommends eating yoghurt that contain around one billion good bacteria per serve.
Kefir is another type of food, similar to yoghurt, containing even greater amounts of healthy bacteria. Kefir is available in some health food stores, or some people make it at home. It can be quite sour to taste, but many people enjoy it as part of their breakfast – added to smoothies or with fruit.
A gut-healthy recipe
We hope you can start including more of these foods in your daily diet. If you're still not sure where to start, Sandra has designed a delicious recipe filled with colourful whole foods and some of these ingredients to nourish and restore your healthy gut bacteria: Aduki bean salad. You could also try out her Bircher muesli recipe.
As a leaving thought, did you know that up to 60% of digestive health conditions are associated with stress? So while it's important to eat a balanced diet rich with gut-nourishing foods, it's also important to keep your stress levels in check – a balanced lifestyle, rest and happiness are just as essential to your digestive health.