More and more people are complaining about digestive problems and are self-prescribing gluten-free, allergy-free and other restrictive diets. In 2016 consumers spent approximately $10 billion on digestion-related dietary supplements. Popular medical news blames an uptick of digestive problems on the impairment of the gut microbiome.

The gut microbiome is a mix of about 100 trillion good and bad bacteria living throughout the digestive system, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, colon, rectum and anus. When bad bacteria outweigh good bacteria, digestive problems like bloating, constipation and diarrhea occur. Other medical issues including depression, colorectal cancer, metabolic diseases and immune problems have also been linked to an impaired gut microbiome.

The gut is known as the second brain of the body because what goes on in your gut affects your brain. The gut is connected to the brain through the vagus nerve.  “Gut feelings” are real! The gut signals the brain and vice versa, each producing many of the same neurotransmitters, including those that control mood. This is why stress causes an upset stomach. The stomach also tells the brain to stop eating when it’s full. The communication between the brain and the gut is far reaching and we are just beginning to understand the connectivity.

However, the gut microbiome is easily altered by exposure to chemicals, stress, poor lifestyle habits, overuse of antibiotics, ingestion of animal foods that contain residues of antibiotics and a poor diet that includes large amounts of unnatural (processed) foods.

What happens when the gut microbiome is altered?

  • Bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gas and other gastrointestinal symptoms.

  • A variety of chronic diseases including metabolic disorders, depression, allergies, immune disorders and certain cancers have been linked to an unhealthy gut.

What causes an unhealthy gut microbiome?

  • Antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin kill bacteria in the body and attack the good bacteria along with the disease-causing bacteria. Overuse of antibiotics can wipe out a healthy gut microbiome.

  • When slaughter animals are given antibiotics, residues remain in the tissues. When humans ingest the meat of these animals, they are also ingesting the antibiotics, which in turn can change gut flora.

  • Antibacterial and anti-fungal chemicals such as triclosan, found in certain brands of toothpaste, hand sanitizers, detergents, mouthwashes, deodorants and cleaning supplies destroy gut bacteria. A new animal study published in Science Translation Medicine suggests that triclosan could increase rates of colitis and colon cancer (reference) and decrease lifespan. In this study, mice were fed a small amount of toothpaste containing triclosan equal to the amount a human would ingest after using this type of toothpaste for two weeks. All of the mice experienced serious gut problems. In 2016, the FDA banned this chemical in hand soaps and body washes. However, it is still widely used in other products and finds its way into the body. Hospitals are starting to ban it.

  • Processed foods (like soda, cookies, candy, gum, sweetened drinks), which are typically high in sugar, fat, salt and/or chemicals.

  • Stress

  • Poor lifestyle habits (lack of exercise, smoking, excess alcohol and caffeine, lack of sleep, etc.)

What foods promote a healthy gut microbiome?

  • Fiber found in plant foods (whole grains, legumes. fruits and vegetables) help regulate bowel function. The recommended daily intake of fiber for women is 25 grams while men require 38 grams. Fiber works with water so it’s important to drink plenty throughout the day. Increasing high fiber foods in the diet should be done gradually.

  • Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms that are created through fermentation. Foods containing probiotics such as kimchi, miso (made from fermented soybeans), sourdough bread, cultured yogurt and kefir can improve bacterial balance in the gut and reduce constipation.

  • Prebiotics are food for probiotics. Naturally occurring non-digestible carbohydrates (certain types of fiber) and other substrates help the good bacteria (probiotics) in the gut to flourish. Prebiotics include whole grains (like oats, barley, corn, wheat and brown rice), legumes (like lentils, chickpeas, split peas, kidney beans), fruits, vegetables and dairy protein. Asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, garlic, onions, chicory root and soybeans are a few examples that are known to be especially beneficial.

Is a probiotic supplement beneficial?

  • Since the supplement industry is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, there is no way to confirm that what’s on the label is what’s inside the pill.

  • If your doctor or dietitian recommends a probiotic supplement choose a brand that is refrigerated and advertises third party testing.

The bottom line: To improve gut health, avoid exposure to antibacterial chemicals and take antibiotics only when you need them. Eat a well-balanced high-fiber diet that includes a daily intake of probiotic and prebiotic foods. Develop a healthy lifestyle that incorporates exercise, rest and stress management.

For more information about gut health, longevity, weight control and overall health, read my award-winning lifestyle cookbook Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy, available on Amazon and sold worldwide.