Did you know that the key to overall health and wellness lies in your stomach? Having a healthy population of bacteria in your gut doesn't just help digestion, it also boosts immunity and improves mental health.
Gut health is paramount during winter, when our immune systems are more vulnerable. And it’s especially important during a pandemic where many are struggling with seasonal affect disorder and feelings of isolation brought on by social distancing.
The good news is that your diet can make a big impact on your gut health, and quickly. That means that eating the right foods can not only help your body, but your mood, too!
What Do We Mean When We Say “Gut Health”?
Some of you may be thinking “hang on—bacteria live inside my stomach??” In fact, there are about 40 trillion bacterial cells inside the average human body, which is about equal to the number of human cells. Some even say that all the cells in your gut’s microbiome weigh more than your brain.
We rely on these gut bacteria for essential nutrients. We humans and our microbiotic friends have evolved together over millennia, building a powerful symbiotic relationship. They’re capable of breaking things down that human digestive cells can’t, like fiber, fatty acids, and antioxidants. Since this includes pretty much all of our favorite foods—from leafy greens and hearty grains to olive oil and even chocolate—it’s easy to see just how much we need the flora and fauna that live in our intestines.
How Does Digestive Health Impact Mental Health?
The relationship between what goes on in your gut and what goes on in the rest of your body doesn’t stop at digestion. Different foods and types of bacterial colonies stimulate different responses and signals in the cells that line our digestive tract. These reactions have a surprising range of effects on our health, mood, sleep, and physical recovery—they can even dictate our personality.
Neuro-Gastroenterologists at Johns Hopkins are dedicated to studying the 100 million nerve cells that line the human intestinal tract. They call this collection of nerve endings the enteric nervous system, or ENS. The job of the ENS is to send messages from the digestive tract to the brain, meaning that what happens in your stomach can have a direct impact on your mental state.
Scientists have found that most serotonin is released from cells in the gut, and that depression and anxiety can therefore be closely linked to diet and digestive health. Science Magazine says that a healthy microbiome helps regulate your mood, prevent inflammation in the body, and that “gut bacteria are key to proper immune system development and maintenance.” A lack or imbalance of gut bacteria, otherwise known as an unhealthy gut, can lead to mental health issues, reduced energy, painful digestion, and even chronic illness.
How to Improve Your Gut Health with Food and Simple Self-Care
While an unhealthy gut sounds scary, it’s important to remember that you can always improve your health and heal your gut with simple self-care practices that support overall wellness. Adopting a regular workout routine, drinking plenty of water, and reducing stress are all attainable lifestyle shifts that support your gut and general health.
But the most powerful tool we have for maintaining a healthy microbiome is as simple as the food we eat. Choosing whole foods that feed friendly bacteria and avoiding ingredients that harm them can go a long way towards improving both your physical and mental health. Thankfully, winter is the perfect time to cozy up and try out some new recipes for gut health!
9 of our Favorite Winter Foods to Boost Gut Health, Digestion, Immunity, and Mental Wellness
Winter squashes like butternut, acorn, delicata, and pumpkins all contain high amounts of soluble fiber, which our gut bacteria love to eat. Packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals, butternut squash helps keep digestion moving along while providing vital nutrients to the body. Our favorite way to eat this butternut squash is simply roasted and served over greens, but squash also makes an excellent vegetarian addition to hearty winter soups and stews.
Oatmeal is highly nutritious and makes for a perfectly balanced breakfast. High in fiber and packing about 6 grams of protein per cup, oats not only act as a “prebiotic” that feeds the hungry bacteria in your gut, they also help stabilize blood sugar, reduce inflammation, improve digestion, and keep you feeling full for longer. And there’s no need to worry about forcing down a bland bowl of mush when there are so many different ways to dress up your oatmeal experience!
This bubbly brew has gained popularity in recent years not only for its fun flavors, but also for its health benefits. Kombucha is made from a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, known as a SCOBY. Infused from the start with live bacteria, kombucha is a probiotic that can help feed and grow the beneficial colonies in your gut. This fizzy flavored drink can be found in most grocery stores, or easily brewed at home.
Another beneficial probiotic, kimchi is one of the world’s most well-known and well-loved fermented flavors. Made from cabbage, chili paste, and various spices and flavorings, kimchi develops its flavor through the fermentation process, which is made possible by—you guessed it—bacteria. You can eat kimchi on its own or experiment by adding it to tacos, fried rice, or Korean kimchi stew.
This unique rhizomal root contains the antioxidant gingerol, which helps stimulate digestion, calm nausea and stomach cramps, and improve immune function. Ginger brings a delightful zing to drinks and dishes and it’s powerful medicinal properties have been utilized by various cultures for thousands of years. We love to enjoy a simple ginger tea, or if we’re on the go, we’ll just stir a recover STIK into our water bottle for an anti-inflammatory and soothing boost!
This green grows all year long, but it makes for the ideal winter ingredient. Like most leafy greens, kale is packed with fiber and water, which are both great for our gut health. Kale also has sulfuric mineral compounds and different vitamins that are “prebiotic” foods for our microbiome and help boost our immune system health. Our current obsession is this kale and delicata squash salad by Alison Wu, but these lovely leafy greens can also be delicious in stir fry, soup, or even in your breakfast!
This rich green oil is packed with omega fatty acids that is great for digestion and overall health. There’s one special ingredient in olive oil that our gut bacteria go wild for; polyphenols (aka antioxidants). Polyphenols are “prebiotics” that gut bacteria love to eat, causing them to stimulate a variety of positive responses from the gastrointestinal system throughout the whole body. In order to get the most of olive oil’s health benefits, be sure to look for extra-virgin cold-pressed oil and to enjoy it unheated as heating denatures the oil and can counteract its benefits.
Beans and Lentils
Among the food world’s most humble yet powerful ingredients, beans and legumes can do wonders for your gut health. Full of fiber and protein, these little bursts of goodness help keep your gut bacteria happy and digestion moving smoothly along. Beans and lentils are the ideal vegan protein option not only for their numerous health benefits, but also for their salty, rich, and savory flavor that adds depth to winter dishes like curries, soups, and stews.
Last but not least, dark chocolate is an unexpected and delicious food that can be good for gut health. Like olive oil, dark chocolate contains antioxidant polyphenols that gut bacteria love to eat. Just be sure to stick to the pure stuff as much as possible, because excessive sugar can be detrimental to gut health. Some of our favorite fair trade chocolates are Tony’s Chocolonely, Beyond Good (formerly Madecasse), and Alter Eco.