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How to Make Your Belly Happy

Terry Passano, RDN, LDN, CLT – University Dietitian

What is the microbiome, and why does it matter? We are carriers of bacteria and other microbes that live symbiotically with us. The environments in our eyes, skin, gut, etc., each have their unique mix of microbes, known as our microbiota. The most heavily populated and perhaps most crucial population resides in our large intestine. These microbes aid us in magnificent ways. They influence our health in the areas of nutrition, immunity, behavior and disease. Our gut bacteria manufacture B complex vitamins and vitamin K, create short chain fatty acids. They are the soldiers of our immune system, help us fight acute and chronic diseases and effect our mood and feelings such as anxiety and depression. Needless to say, we want to take care of our microbiome.

Its strengths come from diversity and balance. Our day-to-day lives significantly affect our microbiome. Here are five ways to better your biome.

Change Up That Typical Western Diet
The western diet is known for its high amounts of processed foods, refined fats, sugars, salt and animal proteins, all of which contribute to chronic disease and inflammation. The American Gut Project has found that the more plant foods we eat, the greater our gut’s microbe diversity. Collectively, studies show that alterations made in diet can have a significant and meaningful effect on the gut microbiota, primarily influenced by fiber from fruits, vegetables and other plant foods.

One simple step to take is to have half your plate vegetables and fruits and half the grains you eat be whole grains. This will shift your diet to include the beneficial plant foods your microbiota crave. Plants provide fiber and phytonutrients such as polyphenols, which help our body prevent inflammation. Aim for 20-30 grams of fiber a day and obtain a wide range of polyphenols by eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Think yellow peppers, red grapes, blueberries, orange squash.

Enjoy Fermented Foods
Eating fermented foods helps populate the gut with beneficial bacteria and balances our gut bacteria population in our favor. The fermentation process creates a nourishing food that is easier to digest and may contain more notable nutrients such as zinc, B vitamins, vitamin K and some amino acids. Fermenting foods also increase the number of beneficial bacteria known as probiotics and prebiotics. A balanced gut environment helps us manage our weight, fight illness and build immunity.

Fermented vs. Pickling: What’s the difference?
Fermentation and pickling are ancient methods of food preservation. They both create a similar characteristic flavor that is acidic or vinegary. Many commercially prepared pickled products use heat and vinegar in processing, which inhibits fermentation, making them void of any of the helpful bacteria fermentation provides. Look for foods that say “lacto-fermented” or “cultured” to be certain pre and probiotics are present.

Probiotics and Prebiotic
Probiotics are cultured or fermented foods that contain beneficial bacteria, such as yogurt, cultured milk, cheese or butter, tempeh, sauerkraut, kombucha and miso. Prebiotics are foods that contain fibers that your gut microbes use for fuel. Yes, that’s right, we need to feed our gut microbes; they are alive after all. Prebiotic foods include artichoke, asparagus, banana, garlic, jicama, leeks, onions, whole wheat and fermented foods. Include a variety of both prebiotics and probiotics to support your gut microbiome.

Exercise Builds Diversity and Balance
Regular exercise has long been encouraged as a way to support health. It builds muscle, improves our mood and reduces inflammation. It has also been shown to support positive changes in our gut microbiota. A recent study, titled FITGUT, showed enriched microbe diversity with just six weeks of exercise, independent of the participants’ diet. Beneficial microbes increased, and less beneficial ones decreased during the six weeks of exercise. Unfortunately, just like with muscles, when exercise was stopped the changes did not hold. Regular endurance exercise is our best bet. Further research may be needed to determine how much exercise is beneficial. Listen to the lead researcher discuss his findings here.

Stress and Your Gut
Stress is associated with changes in gut bacteria, which can negatively affect mood and cause food cravings. Stress comes from work, school, relationships, events, much of which is unpredictable and not in our control. Our lifestyle, attitude and environment all influence our stress level. Look to balance those stress-producing areas of your life with stress reduction and management approaches. But stress management is not just another box to check off on your to-do list. Stress relief comes from doing things you enjoy. Activities like meditation and yoga help to relieve stress in the moment and help us manage stressful events in general, but they may not be for everyone. Aim for a balance of activities you enjoy – sports, scrapbooking, reading, bubble baths, walks, hiking, time with friends – with activities that soothe your being and quiet your mind. This is where meditation and yoga come in. Time spent in nature, spiritual practice and having quiet time alone to reflect are more options.

Find activities that work for you, which can be a part of your life with ease and pleasure
Practice gratitude and appreciation of the world. Much of the stress we feel comes from how we talk to ourselves. Be mindful of your thoughts and practice kindness and optimism with yourself and others.

Our gut microbiota significantly influences our physical and mental health. It affects nutrition, immunity, behavior and disease. Our lifestyle influences the balance of bacteria in our gut through what we eat and do daily. What will you do for your microbiota today?