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Why So Many Doctors Are Gut-Obsessed Right Now

How to eat your way to better digestive health.

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Woman with a rainbow bowl of fruits and veggies between two hands will flatware.
Margeaux Walter
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Back in the day, trusting your gut meant believing in your intuition. Now, it turns out, you can trust your gut to keep you healthy, too.

To be clear, when I say ‘gut’ I don’t mean those few extra pounds around the middle (that’s a whole other post-menopausal story!). I’m talking about the microbiome that lives across your digestive tract. Yes, that sounds like something out of Star Trek, but stay with me here.

There’s good reason doctors and scientists are gut-obsessed at the moment. A healthy gut microbiome not only helps you digest food, but it is increasingly being touted for its ability to help protect against inflammation, reduce the risk of certain cancers and prevent autoimmune disorders.

Why? According to the Cleveland Clinic, your gut contains a whopping 80 percent of your immune cells. If that’s not enough to get your attention (it certainly got mine), there is a strong connection between your gut and brain health, including your mood. That’s because 95 percent of serotonin (the happy hormone) is produced in your gut.

Your gut microbiome consists of trillions of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites. That sounds yucky, but in fact, the more the merrier. The more diverse your microbiome is, the better its ability to safeguard against inflammation, a root cause of numerous diseases.

The makeup of everyone’s microbiome is different and is affected by age, diet, genetics as well as environmental factors. The good news is that what you eat can go a long way to increasing the diversity of your microbiome and strengthening its barriers. That’s important because when the barrier weakens it can result in a "leaky gut," which allows bacteria and toxins to infiltrate the bloodstream.

This can lead to bloating, cramps, inflammatory bowel disease and an increase in the risk of autoimmune diseases along with mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. (No, thank you.)

While probiotic supplements are an option, (talk to your doctor first), food truly is medicine when it comes to optimizing gut health. To function at its best, your body needs both probiotics (which contain healthy bacteria) and prebiotics, usually in the form of fiber, to feed the organisms. Rest assured, you don’t have to drink weird concoctions that you can’t even pronounce, much less get down. (I’m looking at you, kombucha!) I mean, if you want to, go right ahead and gulp some down. However, there are other things you can do in your daily life. Here are some of my favorites.

Eat more fiber.

Fiber plays a crucial role in maintaining the diversity of your microbiome and protecting against leaky gut. Here’s why: As part of the digestion process, your gut breaks down fiber into short-chain fatty acids. These acids help your body absorb minerals, protect against pathogens that can cause viruses and other illnesses, and boost your immune function.

The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that women aim for 25 grams of fiber a day. That may sound like a lot but one-half cup of raw oats has approximately 8 grams of fiber, while a cup of raspberries has approximately 6 grams. Other good sources include whole grains, beans, apples, bananas and flax seeds. A bonus: Because fiber takes longer to digest than other foods, it can keep you full longer. It may even help lower your cholesterol. Just be sure to drink plenty of water.

To try: One of my favorite breakfasts is oatmeal with sliced apples (I microwave the apples in with the oatmeal for added flavor) and a sprinkling of flax seeds.

Say yes to yogurt.

Fermented foods, including yogurt with probiotics, help to increase the good bacteria in your gut. Other great options for fermented food include sauerkraut, kefir (a yogurt-like drink) and tempeh, which is made from fermented soybeans.

To try: Make your own yogurt parfait with plain Greek yogurt, berries and walnuts. Don’t worry if berries aren’t in season: Frozen berries are just as good as long as they don’t have added sugar.

Take mushrooms.

Mushrooms are rich in prebiotics that can help you maintain a healthy gut to fight inflammation. Plus, they are flush with vitamins and minerals and are low in calories. Numerous studies have shown that mushrooms may also help prevent chronic illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity,

To try: Okay, I’ll ‘fess up, I love mushrooms on pizza but I’m not sure that’s the healthiest recommendation. What I also love is simply sautéing slices of mushrooms in a little olive oil. It takes no time and tastes sinfully rich.

Go technicolor.

There’s a reason "eat the rainbow" has become popular advice. Colorful foods like blueberries, cherries, red pepper and spinach are rich in polyphenols which can help support your gut lining and aid the immune response. Aim for as many different colored foods as possible in any given week.

To try: A spinach salad with sliced red peppers, carrots and other veggies is a great lunch. Add the protein of your choice. Oh, and be sure to have a friend who’ll tell you if there is spinach stuck between your teeth.

Cut back on sugar.

Sorry, folks, but I’d be remiss not to add this in. Sugar can boost the bad bacteria in your gut and weaken your immune response. (It doesn’t do much for weight, either.) When cutting back, pay attention to highly processed foods along with alcohol, which tend to be high in sugar.

To try: One of my favorite ways to satisfy a sweet tooth is to slice a ripe banana, sprinkle it with cinnamon and microwave it for a minute. Voila! You have a soothing, healthy banana pudding.

How's your digestive health? Have you cut back on sugar or started to eat more fiber? Let us know in the comments below.

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