Maintaining a healthy gut isn’t as easy as popping a magic pill. “If you’re going to use probiotics, then drink, smoke and eat badly, that’s not going to cut it,” says Georgianna Donadio, PhD, nutritionist and founder of the National Institute of Whole Health. “The entire system must be in sync; the flora is just the tip of the iceberg.” To take a big-picture approach to your gut, consider these steps:
Eat several small meals during the day instead of pigging out at dinner. “Cramming in all your food at the end of the day stresses the gut by giving it too much food at once,” says Leslie Bonci, a registered dietitian and director of the Sports Nutrition Center at the University of Pittsburgh. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water to keep the food moving.
Prioritize whole foods. That means stocking up on vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes. If the food on your plate looks like food in the wild (e.g., grapes, not grape roll-ups), you’re off to a good start.
Eat probiotic foods. Shoot for at least one daily serving of a food with probiotic or “live” cultures. Try yogurt, kefir (a fermented dairy drink), miso or tempeh. Look for the phrase “contains live cultures” or “active cultures” on the label.
Bulk up on fiber. The more fiber you have in your diet, the more diversity you’ll have in your ecosystem. Aim for 25 to 38 grams of fiber a day, says Bonci. “Most people are still shy of their fiber intake.”
Cut back on sugar. Refined sugars acidify the system and prompt the body to make more bile — and some types of bad bacteria feast on sugar and bile acids. Therefore, too much sugar may tip the bacterial balance toward the dark side. “With all the sugar we throw down these days, its no wonder our bacteria colonies are out of whack,” says Bonci.
Relax. In a 1999 study published in the international journal Gut, people in gastrointestinal clinics cited severe life stress as a precursor to their gastrointestinal problems. Although the connection isn’t clear, scientists do know that stress breeds inflammation and also upsets the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the contractions of the intestine, thereby changing the speed at which food moves through you. Stress affects our biochemistry at many levels.
Get seven to eight hours of sleep every night. Sleep not only regulates hormones in the gut that contribute to feelings of hunger and satiety, it also shores up the immune system. When the body is deprived of sleep, even for one night, the immune system suffers, says Bonci.
Like tending a vegetable patch, maintaining a balanced microflora environment requires daily attention. Need more good reasons to give your bacteria the respect they deserve? Consider this: “If a freeze, flood or nuclear explosion destroyed all the humans on Earth, bacteria would survive,” says Gregor Reid, PhD. “They are definitely going to have the last laugh.”