For a long time, gut health was considered pretty simple: You eat food, preferably lots of fiber, and it moves through the intestinal tract to be absorbed and excreted. But more recently, the tone has changed. Gut health is now synonymous with overall health, and numerous studies have shown links between the health and diversity of the trillions of bacteria living in your gut (also called microbiome, microbiota, and gut flora) and immune health, mood, mental health, autoimmune disease, endocrine disorders, skin conditions, and even cancer.
The health and diversity of this microbial population is not only central to digestive system functioning but also how your body responds to countless physiological processes. After all, if you’re not absorbing nutrients, what good are they really doing?
Believe it or not, you have some control over this population. Although it is influenced by genetics, what you eat can play a role in the diversity and quality of your gut bacteria. High-fiber, prebiotic-rich, and probiotic-rich items can all help promote better intestinal tract health and ultimately reduce the risk for, or help treat, digestive system diseases and a number of other conditions.
On the other hand, eating processed foods or too few fruits, vegetables, and other gut-friendly foods, can promote poor gut health and leave you susceptible to illness.
What’s in Your Gastrointestinal Tract?
The gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) anatomy is made up of a series of organs all joined by one long, twisting connective tube running from the mouth to the anus. Its various organs include:
- Mouth: You chew food to break it down into small pieces and it begins to move through your GI tract.
- Espohagus: Peristalsis begins, which is an automatic function to move food and liquid through the GI tract.
- Lower Esophageal Sphincter: Before passing into the stomach, food must go through a small, ring-like muscle called the esophageal sphincter. Its purpose is to let food into the stomach and prevent what’s in your stomach from coming back up.
- Stomach: Where food and liquid are mixed with digestive juices and then released into the small intestine.
- Small Intestine: The duodenum receives the mixture from the stomach, known as chyme, as the first stage of digestion in the small intestine. This is where initial digestion occurs. Further broken-down nutrients then move into the jejunum where they start to be absorbed. By the time the food and liquid have reached the end of the small intestine, hopefully all nutrients have been absorbed and waste is all that moves, via peristalsis, into the large intestine.
- Large Intestine: Waste products like undigested parts of food, liquid, and older, dead GI tract cells make their way to the large intestine. This is where water is absorbed to turn waste into stool, where it is then moved via peristalsisinto the rectum. The rectum is the lower end of the large intestine, where stool is stored until it’s pushed out the anus during a bowel movement.
Gut flora reside in your intestinal tract as well, and they participate in the digestion and absorption process.
Top 11 Foods for a Healthy Intestinal Tract
Anybody can experience gut troubles from time to time. We’ve all experienced gastrointestinal symptoms like gas, bloating, or cramps. If you experience these symptoms occasionally, you probably don’t need to focus on a healthy gut diet plan, especially if your overall nutrition is pretty good.
If you’re wondering how to get rid of bad gut bacteria, you’ll want to take a good look at your diet. Food plays a big role in creating a healthy and diverse microbiota by making sure that healthy bacteria are introduced and fed accordingly. In other words, if you’re going to introduce probiotics, you’ll want to feed and grow them with prebiotics.
You can use food to both silence occasional symptoms and improve overall gut health. Here is a selection of the less common but tasty gut-friendly foods.
Fennel tea may help to settle the stomach and relieve short-term gastrointestinal discomfort. It may help promote healthy digestion by relaxing the intestinal tract to reduce bloating, gas, and stomach cramps.
It’s also possible that tinctures and fennel seed teas may help to ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and more by helping to quell stomach muscle spasms.
2. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds may aid gut health by acting as a dense source of dietary fiber that’s easy to add to any meal. Fiber is required to help pass stool through the lower intestines and improve overall digestive health. Fiber also helps feed gut bacteria and promotes a healthy and diverse microbiome.
Chia seeds are a great natural source of prebiotics to help stimulate the digestive system and improve gut flora populations. They can be added to salads, protein shakes, and smoothies, or sprinkled onto oats or yogurt.
Kefir is one of the best widely-available natural probiotic food sources. The fermented milk drink can introduce “good” bacteria into your microbiome to help limit inflammation, promote digestion, improve immune function, and promote the other benefits of probiotics.
Although a glass or two of kefir per day won’t repopulate your gut bacteria overnight, eating other probiotic and prebiotic foods can help you begin to cultivate a healthier population of gut flora.
Kombucha is a fermented, slightly effervescent tea drink that gets its probiotic kick from a bacterial culture called a SCOBY. SCOBY stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts.” Like other probiotic foods, kombucha can promote a healthier and diverse microbiome.
It should be noted that, like many other commercially available manufactured probiotic foods, store-bought kombucha tends to offer very small servings of probiotics. You can always try making your own to ensure the highest quality of ingredients. When used as part of a healthy, balanced diet including other pre-and probiotic foods, kombucha may be a useful tool.
Tempeh is a traditional soy product originating in Indonesia that’s known for its probiotic qualities. It is made by a natural culturing and fermentation process ideal for bacterial growth. After it’s fermented, it is typically pressed into a compact cake. Tempeh can be used as a meat alternative for vegetarians or those looking to increase their intake of probiotic foods.
Kimchi is a popular spicy Korean side dish that is easily added to salads, rice, sandwiches, or served on its own. Its fermented vegetables, particularly napa cabbage, daikon radishes, scallions, and garlic, are rich in probiotics, fiber, and antioxidants to add value to your diet and promote gut, and overall, health.
Germany’s answer to kimchi, sauerkraut is another common food known to be a rich source of probiotics. Aside from being an excellent source of probiotics, this fermented cabbage also has plenty of fiber to fight against bloating and indigestion. You can add sauerkraut to many foods (hot dogs, carrot slaw, potato salad, etc.), but when using it, try to opt for fresh options instead of canned.
Miso is a little bit like tempeh in the sense that it uses fermented soybeans. In fact, “miso” actually means “fermented beans” in Japanese. The main difference is that miso is a seasoning that uses the fermented soybeans in myriad combinations and different fermenting processes.
The seasoning is often added to soups, used as a paste, or mixed in with marinades, sauces, and vegetable dishes. Like other probiotic foods, miso can help with digestion, support a more efficient and healthier intestinal tract, and other health benefits.
Jicama is a spherical root vegetable with golden-brown skin and a starchy, white inside. Jicama contains plenty of inulin, which is a prebiotic fiber. Inulin may also improve bowel movements and help to move stool through the large intestine.
Eating prebiotic foods not only promotes digestion, but aids in overall gut health by promoting the growth of healthy, probiotic bacteria populations. Therefore, jicama may play a role in lowering the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and more.
Eating flaxseeds is another great way to add fiber to your diet and promote gut health. One tablespoon of flaxseeds offers three grams of fiber, which provides eight percent to 12% of the daily recommended intake for men and women, respectively. It provides both soluble and insoluble fiber to help with digestion and bowel movements, working to prevent constipation and symptoms of indigestion.
11. Bone Broth
Bone broth can work to promote gut health by helping to heal the gut lining (GI lining), limit inflammation, and support healthy immune function. The benefits from bone broth don’t come from prebiotics, probiotics, or fiber, but rather healing compounds like collagen and gelatin, in addition to other valuable nutrients. These compounds help to repair and maintain the integrity of the intestinal tract so it functions at a high level.
What You Eat: How to Improve Gut Health Naturally
Promoting a diverse and healthy microbiome is one of the best ways to fight against digestive troubles and a host of diseases. By no means are you limited to the 11 foods listed above. You can start by attempting to restrict your intake of processed and high-sugar foods while boosting your intake of fruits of vegetables.
Including oats or probiotic yogurt can also help, as can introducing a high-dosage probiotic supplement. But focus on eating more fruits and veggies before adding any supplements to your diet regimen.
If you’re eating healthy and still experiencing trouble, try using foods like ginger tea, fennel, and bone broth to help with specific conditions. And as always, talk to your doctor about any particular ailments, symptoms, or concerns you’re experiencing.
Dix, M., “What’s an Unhealthy Gut? How Gut Health Affects You” Healthline, July 2, 2018; https://www.healthline.com/health/gut-health, last accessed February 26, 2019.
“Your Digestive System & How it Works” National Institutes of Health, December 2017; https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/digestive-system-how-it-works, last accessed February 26, 2019.
Rhone, N., “10 Super Gut-Soothing Foods This Nutritionist Eats” Healthline, September 5, 2018; https://www.healthline.com/health/10-gut-foods#2, last accessed February 26, 2019.
Dresden, D., “Five benefits of fennel tea” Medical News Today, October 9, 2017; https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319651.php, last accessed February 26, 2019.
Gunnars, K., “11 Proven Health Benefits of Chia Seeds” Healthline, August 8, 2018; https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-health-benefits-of-chia-seeds#section1, last accessed February 26, 2019.
Link, R., “Why Tempeh Is Incredibly Healthy and Nutritious” Healthline, May 11, 2017; https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/tempeh, last accessed February 26, 2019.
Lewin. J., “The health benefits of miso” BBC, https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/health-benefits-miso, last accessed February 26, 2019.
Groves, M., “8 Health and Nutrition Benefits of Jicama” Healthline, May 30, 2018; https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/jicama-nutrition-benefits, last accessed February 26, 2019.
Tan, V., “Top 10 Health Benefits of Flax Seeds” Healthline, April 26, 2017; https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-flaxseeds, last accessed February 26, 2019.