5 Simple Gut Supporters
5 Simple Gut Supporters
In partnership with our friends at Activia
Considering that the science of the microbiome is relatively new, we know a lot about how the gut affects our life. When it comes to supporting our microbiome, there are factors that science confirms make a difference—the composition of our diet, managing stress—and others we’re still just breaking ground on, such as the cleaning products we use and our vitamin D status.
Probiotics and fermented foods
What’s uncomplicated—and pretty much indisputable at this point—is that working live cultures into your diet can be an asset. That’s why fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi, among others, are a fad with staying power: Eating them regularly can actually help support a healthy gut. But not all fermented foods have probiotics, explicitly. Our friends at Activia have been making yogurt with a proprietary strain of Bifidobacteria for decades. (It makes getting billions of live and active probiotics something to look forward to.) Now Activia’s made things really uncomplicated for us with their new, aptly named probiotic yogurt line, Less Sugar* & More Good—it’s sweetened with honey and fruit.
*At least 40 percent less sugar than regular Activia Greek nonfat yogurt.
Vegetarianism and Other High-Fiber Diets
What you eat becomes you—that is, your diet has a direct effect on your microbiome, altering the microorganism community that inhabits your gut. You can support a healthy gut microbiome by feeding these microorganisms with prebiotics.
Prebiotics are soluble fibers that come from fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains. Your digestive enzymes can’t break down the fibers, so they move along the digestive tract to your large intestine. Here, the bacteria start to feast on the prebiotics, using them as energy so that they can grow and also provide support for intestinal health and gut barrier function.
Vegetarians and vegans tend to have high-fiber diets, and studies have shown that these diets may also confer a microbiome advantage: allowing the development of a more diverse population of gut microbes. Additionally, high-fiber diets among vegans and vegetarians encourage the growth of microbial species that ferment fiber into short-chain fatty acids. These SCFAs have many beneficial roles—among them, the ability to enhance immune function and regulate intestinal health.
Your microbiome and brain are connected by what scientists have named the gut-brain axis, in which the gut communicates with the brain. Recently, studies have started to show that this gut-brain pathway is implicated in multiple aspects of health and disease—with an unhealthy gut playing a role in cardiovascular disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and certain infections. Likewise, a healthy gut may contribute to positive mental health; a 2019 meta-analysis concluded that probiotics may yield significant improvements for people with depression and anxiety. And it works both ways: Poor mental health and stress may disrupt the microbiome’s delicate balance.
Keeping the interconnection between the gut microbiome, inflammation, stress, mental health, and physical health in mind, stress reduction is vital to maintaining a happy microbiome and good overall health. Some of the best research on stress reduction has focused on yoga and mindfulness. While it hasn’t yet been empirically shown whether stress reduction can directly impact the microbiome, we have a lead: One study followed patients with IBS through two months of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a technique developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, the founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It found that MBSR improved both the patients’ symptoms as well as their overall quality of life. This research suggests that stress may directly affect the gut after all, although more evidence is needed.
Yoga is another practice that has been shown to upregulate the parasympathetic nervous system, calming us down and effectively reducing stress. A 2017 meta-analysis found that yoga postures were associated with lower cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate. As with MBSR, research directly linking yoga to the gut is limited. But with strong evidence that stress impacts the gut and that mindfulness and yoga impact stress, neither is far to leap—both are subjects worth further investigation.
Nondisinfectant Soaps and Household Cleaners
Simple household activities, even seemingly innocuous ones like scrubbing down the kitchen after dinner, can impact gut health. The hygiene hypothesis is a scientific theory suggesting that exposure to diverse microbes and viruses as a child can bolster our immune system, making us less susceptible to infections and diseases as we age. One 2018 study found that infants whose family members used certain disinfectant cleaners in their home had altered gut microbiomes compared to infants whose parents used nondisinfectant, biodegradable cleaners. In households that used disinfectant cleaners most often, infants had higher levels of a certain bacteria called Lachnospiraceae in their gut, which was associated with higher odds of obesity. Infants from the households using nondisinfectant cleaning products had lower odds of obesity.
The big issue with these disinfectants is not that they kill everything in their path; it’s that they kill everything they’re able to kill. Meaning: The strongest bacteria survive. That, in addition to widespread use of antibiotic medication, can lead to something called antibiotic resistance, an enormous public health problem that has emerged in recent years, resulting in untreatable infectious diseases and a possible threat to the human microbiome.
Vitamin D, a hormone we call the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies produce it in response to sunlight exposure, has been implicated in various health conditions. We need vitamin D to absorb the calcium we eat and to maintain healthy bones, but it also is important in regulating the growth of breast, prostate, and colon cells, and it’s needed for healthy immunity. And in recent years, it’s also been associated with the health of the gut. Having healthy levels of vitamin D is known to promote intestinal health overall, and vitamin D deficiency has been linked to inflammation that disrupts the gut.
One new, small study has linked our exposure to sunlight, specifically ultraviolet B rays, to changes in the diversity of the gut microbiome of subjects with vitamin D deficiency. This effect was not demonstrated in subjects who had previously been taking vitamin D supplements. While the research on this is still limited—the same effect has not been shown in any large clinical trials—there is evidence that sunlight exposure and vitamin D influence our microbiome composition.