Read on to learn what a healthy gut looks like and get a list of the top 10 superfoods for digestion.
Digestive Issues Are on the Rise
According to a survey from 2018, approximately 61 percent of Americans experienced at least one adverse gastrointestinal symptom, such as heartburn, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation, in the previous week. (1) Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), characterized by recurring dysfunction of the GI system, is now the most common cause of missing work, affecting 10 to 15 percent of people worldwide. (2)
Digesting food shouldn’t be this taxing. But if your gut isn’t functioning optimally, your digestion won’t be either.
Are you experiencing digestive issues? These 10 superfoods could help heal your gut and reduce your symptoms. #optimalhealth #wellness #chriskresser
What Does a Healthy Gut Look Like?
A healthy gut is needed for proper digestion and nutrient absorption. Although we have a lot to learn about the gut and especially the gut microbiome, some key characteristics of a healthy gut include the following:
- Gut lining integrity: Tight gap junctions between epithelial cells prevent large protein molecules and other foreign substances from entering the bloodstream (3)
- Robust mucus layer: A viscous mucus layer teeming with microorganisms, enzymes, and immune cells prevents proteins from reaching the gut lining in the first place
- Microbial diversity: Diverse, abundant microbes help maintain GI motility, support the gut barrier integrity, synthesize essential vitamins like B12 and K2, and more. (4, 5)
- Adequate stomach acid: Stomach acid aids digestion and helps prevent pathogenic infection
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Top 10 Digestive Superfoods
I don’t generally ascribe to sensationalist terms like “superfoods.” Although their health claims can be based on some amount of truth, so-called superfoods tend to have one of three glaring problems:
- They’re powerful botanicals (herbal medicine) that can cause potentially serious side effects and complications when used improperly
- They’re made of highly processed and refined isolated nutrients that don’t share the beneficial qualities of the whole food they were extracted from
- They’re surrounded by misinformation and/or misconceptions
I think the superfood hype came into existence when we started eating processed “frankenfoods” and forgot what real food actually is. Real foods were the first superfoods—properly prepared, nutrient-dense, whole foods.
If you follow a Paleo diet template and eat a variety of foods, you’ll be consuming many nutrient-dense, beneficial whole foods. But, if you’re experiencing some digestive issues, you can consider intentionally including some of the following digestive superfoods into your diet.
1. Bone Broth
Bone broth was used as a medicinal food in almost every culture—including our own. Your grandparents or great grandparents probably served homemade chicken soup to nourish sick kids.
Bone broth is a Paleo diet staple and the foundation of the gut-healing GAPS protocol. It’s rich in glycine, an amino acid that balances out another amino acid, methionine, found in muscle meats and egg yolks. Glycine helps stimulate the production of stomach acid, protect against gastric ulcers, seal the gut lining, and reduce the overgrowth of harmful microbes. (6, 7) Glutamine, another amino acid in bone broth, helps maintain the integrity of the gut mucosa and the intestinal barrier. (8)
The gelatin in bone broth helps draw fluid into the intestine, which can improve gut motility and support healthy bowel movements. It also may reduce inflammation due to lipopolysaccharides (LPS), which are released when large proteins pass through a leaky gut into the bloodstream. (9, 10)
2. Meat on the Bone
Meat on the bone is a digestive superfood for the same reasons as bone broth. The connective tissues it contains are rich in collagen, glycine, and glutamine, which are good for digestive function, mood and joint health. (11, 12) As an added bonus, these cuts tend to be cheaper.
3. Sauerkraut and Kimchi
Naturally probiotic fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi, contain microorganisms that confer health benefits when consumed. Fermented foods originated as a way for our ancestors to preserve food before canning and refrigeration. (13) The fermentation process removes antinutrients like phytic acid that can lower the nutrient availability in many plant foods. (14)
The bacterial species found in fermented foods are often abundant and diverse. For example, scientists have found 28 different bacterial strains in sauerkraut. (15) The consumption of kimchi has been shown to increase certain healthy bacteria that produce anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). (16)
Kefir is a fermented, probiotic drink. To make probiotic kefir, a collection of fermenting yeasts, bacteria, proteins, lipids, and sugars, together called “kefir grains,” are added to milk, or even coconut milk or water, if dairy doesn’t agree with you.
The gut and digestive benefits of kefir are pretty well studied. The bacterial and yeast species it contains have been shown to have antifungal and antibacterial properties. (17, 18) Several of these bacterial strains may regulate the inflammatory response of intestinal cells, with potential for treating colitis. (19) A randomized controlled trial demonstrated that daily kefir consumption helped eradicate H. pylori, the pathogen responsible for stomach ulcers, in two weeks. (20) In rat and non-randomized human studies, kefir was shown to help ease constipation. (21, 22)
Kombucha, another fermented beverage, is made by adding a starter culture of bacteria and yeast (together called a SCOBY) to black or green tea with sugar, and allowing it to ferment. Although no controlled human studies have demonstrated digestive benefits, kombucha has antimicrobial properties and has been shown to heal stomach ulcers in mice. (23, 24, 25)
A Note about Probiotic Supplements/Pills
Most of the scientific evidence indicates that taking probiotics over the longer term doesn’t actually increase the levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut. (26) As long as you keep taking them, you’ll have a transient increase in “good” bacteria, but considering your body has a hundred trillion microorganisms in the gut, and the strongest probiotics contain billions or hundreds of billions, a probiotic pill is a mere drop in the bucket.
However, that’s not to say that probiotics don’t have a role in managing digestion and gut health. (27) The mechanism by which probiotics confer benefits is thought to be more of an immunomodulatory role, which is still important and can be significant. (28, 29) Second, some evidence indicates that it’s the fermentation-derived metabolites rather than the bacterial species themselves that may be driving positive results.
Probiotics have helped many of my patients, especially those with digestive issues. When I do recommend a probiotic supplement, I suggest the Daily Synbiotic by Seed. To find out more about how probiotics affect the gut microbiome, check out my recent podcast with Raja Dhir, microbiome expert and founder of Seed.
6. A Mix of Non-Starchy and Starchy Plants
Eating a wide variety of non-starchy and starchy plants (and legumes, if they’re properly prepared and well tolerated) can be beneficial for the gut flora. Starchy plants like plantains, tubers, carrots, and squash are rich in soluble fiber, which feeds your gut flora and can have anti-inflammatory effects. (30)
Some non-starchy vegetables, like leafy greens, are high in insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water and acts as a bulking agent to promote healthy bowel movements. Eating foods that contain insoluble fiber can help keep you regular, but there is one caveat: While soluble fiber can be soothing for the gut, I don’t recommend consuming large amounts of insoluble fiber when your gut is inflamed. If you have these issues, only eat foods that contain large amounts of insoluble fiber cooked, mashed up, or chopped, and with stems and peels removed—and never eat them on an empty stomach.
7. Cooked and Cooled Potatoes
Cooked and cooled potatoes are full of resistant starch, a specific type of insoluble fiber that passes through the small intestine to be readily and easily fermented in the large intestine and colon. (31) Specifically, resistant starch feeds the types of bacteria that produce SCFAs like butyrate, the “preferred” energy source for the cells lining the colon. SCFAs also stimulate the production of immune cells. (32)
If you can’t have nightshades like potatoes, potato starch, starting in very small amounts, often can be tolerated. Other sources of resistant starch include green plantains and cooked and cooled white rice.
8. Raw Honey
Raw honey can reduce gastrointestinal inflammation (among several other impressive health benefits). In animal models, honey has been shown to:
- Prevent and heal gastric ulcers (33)
- Reduce inflammation related to colitis as effectively as steroids (34)
Honey appears to lower the blood levels of prostaglandins, which play an important role in the body’s inflammatory response. (35, 36) For more on honey and other bee products, check out my recent podcast with Carly Stein, founder of Beekeeper’s Naturals.
Eastern medicine has been using ginger for digestion and nausea for centuries. Like others in the family of bitter herbs, ginger helps gastric emptying by stimulating stomach acid production. (37, 38) Ginger may also help prevent gastric ulcers. (39)
A word of caution: herbal medicines, including ginger, can be very potent and should not be consumed in excess.
10. Coffee and Tea
Chlorogenic acid found in coffee feeds SCFA-producing bacteria in the colon. (40) Coffee also helps keep you regular by increasing colon motility. (41) In one small study, coffee helped to reestablish bowel function after colorectal surgery. (42)
If you’re super sensitive to caffeine, like me, or if you just don’t like coffee, tea has digestive benefits too. Several phytochemicals in tea have antibacterial and antifungal properties that help prevent pathogens from inhabiting the gut. (43)
More Tips on Eating for Gut Health
If you want to improve your gut health, I recommend avoiding or limiting:
- Refined sugar and flour
- Industrial seed oils
- Excess alcohol
Whether you’re trying to alleviate a digestive problem or prevent one from occurring, customizing your diet based on your health goals can be a complicated process. A Functional Medicine practitioner is a good option for support, as is a health coach who’s trained in the Functional and ancestral perspective.
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