Unless you’ve spent the last few years hibernating on a deserted island, you’ve most probably heard about how much of our overall health depends on the health of our gut. If not, today’s blog post is especially for you! Since 70-80 percent of our immune system is located in our gut microbiome, a complex community of trillions of bacteria, parasites, fungi and yeasts that live in our digestive tracts, it’s no coincidence that a long list of health conditions start there and why gut health is such a hot topic these days.As a certified Integrative Nutrition health coach, one of the questions people always ask me most is how to deal with uncomfortable bloating, flatulence, food allergies and constipation. The answer is often to start with an elimination diet and replace inflammatory trigger foods with gut-friendly cleaner options.
I base this answer on my own experience having struggled with on and off bouts of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) Since I was 20 and experienced a family tragedy and from my nutrition studies. Over the years, I’ve received all sorts of conflicting advice from the various health practitioners about what to eat and what not to eat. I’ve tried some ridiculously restrictive diets which, ultimately, were not sustainable in the long-term. I want my clients to be eating a diet rich in diversity, nutrients and flavour – not to be avoiding a list of ‘bad’ foods as long as the Thames!Thankfully there’s a handful of beneficial foods to eat on a gut-healing protocol, foods that nourish our gut flora, help to maintain balance of good and bad bacteria and reduce inflammation of the gut lining.
Having successfully healed my gut (after a time-consuming, costly and confusing battle), I present to you the Top 5 gut-healing foods everyone – whether or not you struggle with digestion – needs in their life:
Bone broth – Boil down organic, grass-fed, free-range beef or chicken bones for at least 24 hours (time to dust off that slow-cooker!) and the result is a delicious, healing elixir that will help to repair the most damaged leakiest guts. Bone broth is an ancient remedy not only for weakened digestive systems, but also run-down immune systems (there’s a reason Grandma’s chicken soup hits the spot) and general wellbeing. Packing a nutrient-dense punch of collagen, amino acids, calcium, gelatine, glucosamine, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium, this soothing remedy can be sipped on through the day or used in recipes which call for liquid stock or water (think hearty soups, stews, casseroles). How does it work you ask? Well all the collagen and protein help to repair that leaky, porous gut lining we talked about earlier. Collagen and gelatin in particular help to nourish the gut lining, fight food sensitivities such as gluten and dairy, and help to promote the growth of probiotics in the gut (the good bacteria).
Probiotics and prebiotics – To restore our gut microbiome, we want to be eating both probiotic and prebiotic foods daily. Probiotic-rich food sources include fermented and cultured foods: sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, yoghurt, kimchi, olives, apple cider vinegar and kombucha. Dr Liz Lipski, Academic director of Nutrition and Integrative Health from Maryland University of Integrative Health, says it is fine to take a daily probiotic supplement at the same time as consuming a probiotic-rich diet. Now, for our prebiotics. Think of these as your fertiliser: once you’ve added in all these gut-loving probiotic foods, we need to feed and nourish them, and that’s where prebiotics come in! Prebiotics are non-digestible starches that we can’t digest, but our bacteria can – they stimulate growth of intestinal flora and promote general health and wellbeing. Sounds like a win-win situation, especially when they are found in some of the most delicious and nutritious plants: onions, garlic, leeks, bananas, green tea, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, peas, aubergine and legumes. Teff, an ancient and gluten-free seed, is also high in prebiotic fiber and can be used in both its whole form and also as a flour in baking. The thing to remember is, when introducing these foods, do it slowly as initially they can cause some gas and bloating. The same goes for probiotic foods – one teaspoon of sauerkraut or fermented veggies is plenty when starting any gut-healing protocol. Slow and steady does it with probiotics and prebiotics, so add in gradually and as always monitor how you feel and keep a food diary to help you track your symptoms.
Bitter foods – Think some of the greenest and most nutrient-dense foods on the planet: kale, arugula or rocket, dandelion greens and tea, mustard greens, chicory, endive, radicchio and watercress. These plants pack a gut-healing punch! That’s because eating bitter foods first activates the tastebuds which stimulates enzyme production and bile flow, which in turn get our digestive juices flowing. And the better our foods are digested, the more vitamins and minerals we absorb from our foods. Bitter greens are bursting with fiber too, which helps to keep us regular and enhance our elimination if you know what I mean. So if you’re ever feeling bloated or ‘backed up’, just munch on some of these leafy greens and you’ll be back to vibrant health stat. Added bonus: these greens are extremely detoxifying and literally bind themselves to heavy metals and toxins in the body which are then excreted in our waste. You can also take a liquid bitters supplement which you drink 30 minutes before your meal, this is particularly useful when you’re travelling and access to fresh produce is limited. Personally I prefer to treat with whole foods, so time to whip up a delicious arugula, mint and pineapple smoothie with a dandelion tea on the side!
Mucilaginous foods – You may be scratching your head wondering what this strange and long word means. I only recently learnt about mucilaginous foods after attending a lecture by the brilliant David Wolfe. These foods, which include chia, psyllium, aloe vera, kelp and flaxseeds, have a gelatinous, gel-like consistency and expand in the stomach when consumed, absorbing excess water and fluids. You may be wondering how this relates to gut health? Well my friends, these are exactly the kinds of foods we need to be eating to help clean and flush out our digestive tract. Think of these substances as little brooms that go into our intestines (which are about 7.5 meters long!) and sweep away all the toxins and build-up of waste, and who doesn’t want that?! They are also known as nature’s laxatives, so for anyone struggling with constipation and bloating, you know what to do. Enjoy my delicious chia pudding with a mug of chamomile tea the side. Which brings me to my next point…
Anti-inflammatory herbs and spices – Whenever my clients and I struggle with digestive issues and flare ups, my go-to first line of defence is always nature’s medicine cabinet: herbs and spices. Here are my essential herbs and spices everyone needs in their kitchen, why and how to use them:
Cinnamon is a natural sweetener and is delicious sprinkled on top of your nut milk lattes, porridge and chia puddings. My favourite warming bevvy for the cooler months is a turmeric latte or ‘golden mylk’ made with almond milk and a generous sprinkling of this warming spice. Cinnamon is a natural digestion aid and particularly helpful for loss of appetite, bloating and flatulence.
Fennel is one of the best spices for digestive disturbances and can help lessen bloating, flatulence, nausea, abdominal discomfort and pains. Fennel’s natural antioxidant compounds also make it a great lymphatic mover, according to Dr John Douillard. I like to sip on a homemade brew of fennel seeds, dandelion, chamomile and cinnamon to receive maximum gut-soothing and liver-cleansing benefits.
Ginger has been shown to support healthy cells of the gut lining and increase the production of good bacteria in the gut. Ginger is an incredibly warming and healing spice which increases our digestive fire, and this is important so that we can break down our foods more effectively and in turn increase nutrient absorption. Try to include plenty of ginger in your soups, stir fries, curries and smoothies in these coldest months as not only will it keep your gut happy, it will also warm you up and boost your immune system.
Chamomile is a natural relaxant known as nature’s Prozac because of its calming, stress-melting properties. And this is important because of the gut-brain connection: a calm mind = less symptoms of IBS and leaky gut, and a general improvement in digestive disorders. Sip on chamomile tea before your meals and in the evenings for optimum healing and relaxing benefits. You can also brew a mug the night before and then add to your smoothie the next morning along with some ginger and cinnamon.
Here's to a happy, healthy gut.
Note: the opinions and advice contained here are my own, from my own experience, the results from my clients, my studies as an integrative health coach, and my personal research. If you are ever in doubt about any health concerns, or about coming off your medications, please consult a doctor.