We’ve all heard the saying “You are what you eat.” Though true, a more accurate saying would be “You are what you digest and absorb.” The difference is in the gut. Gut health is essential to whole-body health. Over 50% percent of our immune cells reside in the intestines (a component of the gut), which means that the food and bacteria that enter that space have a huge impact on our immune system.
Before we discuss strategies to improve gut health, here’s a crash course on the gut:
The gut (gastrointestinal tract) is the long tube that starts at the mouth and ends at the rectum (see image). It is lined with millions of cells which act as a barrier between the food we ingest and our bloodstream. A weakened lining (intestinal permeability) allows food particles to enter the bloodstream, which can trigger an immune response, including an allergic reaction. This response is different from one triggered by a food intolerance, which instead affects the body’s ability to digest food.
The correlation between gut health and food allergies is still largely unknown. However, a growing body of research suggests that gut health and food allergies are closely intertwined.
What IS clear is that gut health plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system. Accordingly, below are four steps you can take to improve your gut health.
1. Add bone broth to your diet.
You can help maximize gut nutrient absorption and preserve the integrity of the gut barrier by consuming glutamine-rich foods like bone broth. There are many healing nutrients and anti-inflammatory properties in bone broth such as glutamine. Glutamine is an anti-inflammatory nutrient known for its role in gut healing. Bone broth also contains minerals in a form the body can easily absorb.
The thought of making bone broth is intimidating to many, but the process is surprisingly simple. Plus bones are not hard to find! Tips and recipe here.
2. Consume probiotic and prebiotic-rich foods.
The gut microbiome stores all bacteria in the large intestine. These bacteria feed off of the food and fiber we eat. Probiotics are the actual bacteria in the gut, whereas prebiotics are the foods that feed those bacteria.
How does bacteria relate to food allergies? Good bacteria help regulate inflammatory responses in the gut (like an allergic reaction). These bacteria teach our immune system how to tolerate dietary proteins and other allergens in the environment. For example, research has shown that certain strains of bacteria in the Clostridia family may desensitize individuals to food allergens.
Probiotic-rich foods include: sauerkraut, kimchee, kombucha, miso, tempeh, and dairy sources (kefir, yogurt, cottage cheese) that say “contains live cultures.”
Prebiotic-rich foods include: asparagus, garlic, legumes, flaxseed, onion, leeks, chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, leafy greens, oats, and potatoes (cooked with a slight crunch left).
3. Avoid microbe killers and digestion disruptors.
If you were walking barefoot and stepped on a sharp woodchip that got stuck in your foot, what is the first thing you would do? Would you remove the woodchip or would you add ointment and a bandage? No-brainer, right? You’d remove the woodchip. So, when it comes to gut health, we need to first start by removing those foods from our diet that harm the gut. This means different things for different people. Research has shown that for some individuals, gluten, dairy, eggs, or soy can trigger gut inflammation—even without symptoms. Others may experience symptoms after ingesting certain foods like citrus, chocolate, or MSG. Depending on the person, the process of identifying which foods may be harming your gut varies. Many people maintain a healthy gut simply by avoiding processed foods. The synthetic ingredients found in most processed foods are generally harmful to gut health. Beyond that, to identify which individual foods may be affecting your gut and immune system, it is helpful to get an individual assessment from a dietitian, nutritionist, or healthcare provider who practices integrative or functional medicine.
To keep the gut microbiome healthy, it also helps to avoid frequent antibiotic and antacid use. Though antibiotics kill bad bacteria, they also kill the good, leaving our gut ill-equipped to do its job. And make sure to always consume probiotics during and after antibiotic use.
4. Stick to real food!
Unfortunately, our modern diet tends to be packed with junk food. Processed foods, refined sugars, and artificial ingredients wreak havoc on our gut. By consuming whole foods on a daily basis (this is especially important for kids), the gut not only gets the fiber it needs to feed the good bacteria, but also gets a boatload of micronutrients to fuel the immune system.
This guest post was written by Robyn Johnson: MS, RDN, and LD—Integrative Dietitian Nutritionist.