Superfoods Part 6: Foods That Promote Gut Health

Superfoods Part 6: Foods That Promote Gut Health

woman with bag of groceries
This is the final installment of my first six-part series on superfoods, this time focussing on foods that promote gut health. I welcome you to read the other articles in the series, “What Is a Superfood and What Is So Super About Them?”, “Supercharge Your Diet with Superfoods for Weight Loss”, “Critical Superfoods for a Healthy Heart”, “Essential Superfoods for Diabetics and Pre-Diabetics”, and “Ten Essential Superfoods for Radiant Skin”.

The foods you feed your body play a big role in how well your body works and how healthy and well you feel. Some foods offer very little nutritional value, as you might have heard of “empty calories” while others contain high levels of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that boost health and help you tremendously . Eating these superfoods can play an important role in keeping your gut functioning at its best.

Your Digestive System

Your digestive system, also called your gastrointestinal system, or your gut, is important for turning food into fuel and helps keep you healthy. When you eat, food travels from your mouth, through your esophagus, to your stomach. From the stomach, food passes through your small intestine, large intestine or colon, and rectum, and passes out of your body through the anus when you go to the bathroom. Together, these organs form a tube stretching through your body that is about 30 feet long! Other organs, such as the gallbladder, liver, and pancreas also help with digestion by producing enzymes that break down food.

The primary role of the digestive system is breaking down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats into smaller pieces that the body’s cells can more easily absorb. However, the gut also performs several other jobs as well:

  • Absorbing vitamins and minerals
  • Soaking up water
  • Eliminating waste
  • Helping the immune system get rid of harmful germs
  • Communicating with the brain to control digestion, appetite, and emotions

Gut Bacteria

Another very important part of the digestive system is bacteria. Some bacteria, such as E. coli or Salmonella, can make you sick if you eat foods that are contaminated with them. However, other “good bacteria” live in our intestines and are very important for keeping us healthy. Their roles include:

  • Helping the body digest food
  • Crowding out more harmful bacteria
  • Keeping harmful substances from getting into the bloodstream
  • Helping form a barrier on the cells of the intestine
  • Boosting the immune system
  • Creating new vitamins that our bodies can use
  • Helping control appetite and how our body uses fat
  • Communicating with the brain in order to control moods and emotions
  • Helping the body fix damaged cells

The gut bacteria may also play a role in all sorts of different diseases, including cancer and asthma. Adopting habits that help gut bacteria thrive can help our bodies work properly and make us feel healthy.

Keeping Your Gut Healthy

Many different lifestyle habits, including the foods we regularly eat, have a big impact on how our digestive systems and gut bacteria function. The choices we make can help make our health better or worse. Certain eating habits can optimize our guts. Eating smaller meals can make it easier for our bodies to digest foods. Eating more slowly and chewing food for longer amounts of time before swallowing can also break down food more efficiently and helps us swallow less air. Additionally, creating an eating schedule and having meals at the same times each day may help our guts work better. Other measures to keep your gut working at its best include:

  • Exercising: Getting a lot of physical activity helps the muscles in the digestive system move properly, encourages the growth of more healthy bacteria, and causes lower levels of inflammation in the gut.
  • Sleep: When you get regular sleep on a consistent schedule, your gut gets time to rest and reset. Lack of sleep can cause digestive system inflammation. People who don’t get good quality sleep are also more likely to have gastrointestinal diseases.
  • Lowering stress: High stress levels can make the cells in the intestines more “leaky,” leading more harmful substances to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Some people may often get constipation, diarrhea, or other symptoms of gut diseases during times of stress, because the digestive system isn’t working at its best. See my article, “How Stress Affects the Gut and What You Can Do About It” for more.

One of the biggest factors in how your digestive system and your gut bacteria function is the foods that you eat. Proper nutrition keeps you at your healthiest. This is where superfoods come in. Eating foods that are easily broken down by your gut, that keep the cells of your digestive system working properly, and that keep your gut bacteria healthy can help you get the most nutrition out of your food and prevent disease.

Digestive Disorders

When the organs of the digestive system stop working properly, several different diseases and conditions can occur. A couple of the most common are:

All of these conditions may have more specific treatments that help with specific symptoms. However, the food you eat also plays a big role in when and how often these symptoms come up. Eating some hard-to-digest or less nutritious foods can lead to frequent digestive issues. On the other hand, regularly eating nutrient-packed superfoods helps your gut work the way it’s supposed to.


Probiotic Food picture
You now know that healthy bacteria is one of the keys to a healthy gut. But where do these “good germs” come from? While babies pick up their first gut bacteria during or immediately after birth, adults can introduce more healthy bacteria into their systems using probiotics. Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that boost health. Eating foods that contain probiotics helps maintain a good balance of healthy bacteria in your system. These foods have been linked to a lower risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. Probiotics may also help treat IBS symptoms, such as diarrhea.

What Foods Have Probiotics?

You can buy probiotics in supplement form, or you can get them from fermented superfoods. These include:

  • Cultured dairy products such as yogurt and kefir
  • Sourdough bread
  • Fermented cabbage like kimchi and sauerkraut (choose unpasteurized products in order to get probiotics)
  • Fermented soybean products like tempeh, miso, and natto
  • Kombucha (fermented tea)

Yogurt is one of the most widely available fermented superfoods. It is jam-packed with healthy bacteria. Choose yogurt brands that are labeled as having “live active cultures”. These cultures may include LactobacillusL. acidophilusL. bulgaricus, or S. thermophilus. Yogurt makes for a great breakfast or afternoon snack. It can also be used in a sauce or a dip as a substitute for mayonnaise or sour cream. In addition to eating probiotic foods, you can also eat prebiotic foods to support gut health. While probiotics contain actual live bacteria, prebiotic foods help feed those bacteria. They can also help the body absorb nutrients such as calcium, decrease the risk of allergies, and improve the immune system. Some items that help good bacteria grow are oats, barley, cereals, dairy products, asparagus, artichokes, onions, garlic, bananas, beans, and honey.


healthy produce and fish
Fiber is material that can’t be digested by the body. While it might seem odd to eat something that your body can’t absorb, fiber serves other important purposes. Fiber allows the digestive system to soak up more nutrients, feeds gut bacteria, and helps prevent constipation. Fiber has other benefits, too – it can help the body control cholesterol and blood sugar levels and reduce a person’s risk of conditions like diabetes and heart disease. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, and both are important for good health. Foods that come from plants that have a lot of fiber can also help build up a layer of mucus in the intestines. This is a good thing – it’s where the healthy bacteria live and work to digest food. Fibrous foods help build up this layer, while foods that are processed or have a lot of sugar wear down this layer. There is one caveat to eating a lot of fiber. Many high-fiber superfoods fall into a category called FODMAPs. FODMAPs are molecules found in certain fruits (apples, blackberries, cherries, dates, pears), certain vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, garlic, mushrooms, onion, peas), dairy products, beans, wheat, and some types of sweeteners (honey, high fructose corn syrup, sorbitol). FODMAPs are perfectly fine for most people to eat. However, some people, such as those with IBS, may be more sensitive to these foods and should eat them in lower amounts. If you want to avoid these foods, try to find other ways to get a lot of fiber into your diet.

Fiber-Filled Foods

Whole grains have large quantities of both soluble and insoluble fiber, in addition to B vitamins, phytonutrients, and iron. Whole grains use the entire kernel of the grain. Refined grains are more processed, which removes a lot of the fiber as well as vitamins and minerals. To get more whole grains into your diet, substitute them for refined grains – for example, use brown rice instead of white rice, or wheat bread or pasta instead of the regular variety. Or try reaching for oatmeal for breakfast, or popcorn for a snack. You can also try cooking up some new grains as a side dish, such as quinoa, bulgur, or wheat berries. Nuts, seeds, and legumes also have high levels of fiber. Legumes include foods like beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, and soybeans, and are often thought of as superfoods because of all the health benefits they provide. Many legumes can be easily incorporated into side dishes. Nuts and seeds also make for great salad toppers, or a filling snack in between meals. Fresh produce also contains a lot of fiber. Some high-fiber fruit and vegetable superfoods include:

  • Berries: In addition to fiber, berries often have other health-boosting nutrients like vitamin C and antioxidants. They can be easily added to any meal. Try topping yogurt, cereal, or oatmeal with blueberries or strawberries. Or blend frozen berries with other superfoods like yogurt, almond milk, or coconut water to make an extra nutritious smoothie. Add them to other meals by throwing them on top of salads or into desserts.
  • Leafy greens: Superfoods like spinach, kale, and collard greens have a lot of vitamins A, C, E, and K, B vitamins, calcium, iron, and magnesium. Make up a salad with some greens, sauté them in olive oil, or toss some in a soup for an easy superfood boost.
  • Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and bok choy are a part of the cruciferous vegetable family. Some leafy greens like kale also fall into this category. Cruciferous vegetables contain immune-boosting phytochemicals as well as vitamins like folate and vitamin K. Try steaming, roasting, or stir-frying cruciferous vegetables as a side dish.


Many plant-based superfoods contain polyphenols, antioxidants that repair damage and heal cells. When we eat these molecules, the cells of our intestines can’t absorb them very well, so they start piling up in the large intestine, where our gut bacteria use them as food and break them down so that our bodies can benefit from them. Polyphenols can help the digestive system in several ways. They can:

  • Help keep bad bacteria from growing
  • Encourage good bacteria to grow
  • Help bacteria form a stronger barrier in order to protect the intestines from damage
  • Boost metabolism and help fight diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Improve the immune system
  • Protect against colon cancer

Coffee and tea both contain different types of polyphenols. Many fruits also contain these molecules, especially blueberries, kiwis, apples, and reddish-colored fruits like strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and blackberries. Other foods with polyphenols are onions, soy, red wine, and dark chocolate.


model of a body
The health of your gut plays a role in the health of other systems of the body. A digestive system that works well can help fight off germs and prevent diseases. One great way to stay healthy is to eat a variety of different superfoods, including probiotics and foods that contain fiber and polyphenols. Making these foods part of your regular meals can help treat digestive disorders such as IBS and prevent other chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.

If you would like to discuss any digestive issues you may be experiencing with Dr. Connor, please make an appointment.

What Is Sensitive Gut and Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

What Is Sensitive Gut and Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

When you eat food, it travels a long distance through your body. It passes through your mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus. Each of these organs plays a different role in breaking down food into the energy and nutrients that your body uses in order to function. This process is known as digestion. Other organs such as the gallbladder and pancreas also help digestion by producing chemicals that break down food.

Unfortunately, any of these organs can stop working optimally, which may lead to pain or discomfort. Problems with organs in the digestive system are one of the main reasons people visit their doctor and I see patients with these conditions almost daily. Two very common conditions related to digestive troubles are known as sensitive gut and irritable bowel syndrome. The causes of these conditions are often unclear, but science is increasingly uncovering new ways to help relieve symptoms.

Digestive Troubles

Problems with the digestive system can be a big deal. Stomach or intestinal issues can disrupt a person’s sleep, and they can interfere with a person’s normal daily routine. For example, some people have unpredictable symptoms, and need to plan their day around having access to a bathroom. Additionally, digestive troubles can cause a person to miss work, school, or social events. There are many different disorders and conditions that can result in these sorts of problems.

Sensitive Gut

The term “sensitive gut” isn’t an official medical diagnosis. It’s a general name that can be used when someone frequently gets an upset stomach or experiences other digestive issues. While everyone experiences stomach or intestinal problems occasionally, some people’s digestive systems are more sensitive to certain foods or habits, leading to pain, discomfort, or other symptoms on a regular basis.

Digestive symptoms can include many things, such as:

  • Stomach cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Indigestion or upset stomach
  • Vomiting
  • Feeling uncomfortably full during or after a meal
  • Bloating
  • A burning feeling in the chest or stomach
  • Excess gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

People with a sensitive gut experience one or more of these symptoms on a regular basis. If you have some of these issues, it may be helpful to spend some time trying to figure out if certain foods or actions make these symptoms worse, as we’ll explore further below.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

This disorder, also known as IBS, is one example of a “functional gastrointestinal disorder.” When people have disorders in this category, they experience stomach or intestinal symptoms, but their digestive systems look normal on tests like x-rays or endoscopies. Doctors think that the brain plays a role in these disorders. However, this is not to say that your stomach troubles are all in your head – there is a very real, physical connection between your mind and your gut.

Throughout your digestive system, there are millions of nerve cells, called neurons. The neurons communicate with each other and with the brain in order to control how your digestive system works. The brain sends signals to the digestive system to help it function correctly, and the digestive system in turn sends signals back to the brain so that the brain can control things like appetite, mood, and sleep. There is thought to be a disruption in this process in functional gastrointestinal disorders. The neurons connected to the intestines may be too sensitive, the intestines or stomach may not move properly, or the brain’s ability to control digestion may not be working right.

A recent study found that as many as 40% of people around the world may have some type of functional gastrointestinal disorder. IBS is one of the most common conditions in this category. People with IBS have several of the digestive symptoms listed above, which persist over a long period of time. The most common symptoms are abdominal pain and changes in bowel habits. There are a couple of different types of IBS. People with IBS-C tend to have constipation and hard, lumpy stool. Those with IBS-D frequently have diarrhea and loose, watery stool. Some people have problems with both constipation and diarrhea. Other symptoms like bloating and whitish mucus in the stool are also typical.

Other Digestive Disorders

Some other diseases or conditions may cause some of the same symptoms as sensitive gut and IBS. For example:

  • Gallstones are clumps of hardened material that form in your gallbladder and can cause pain and cramping.
  • Gastritis is inflammation of the stomach lining that may be caused by an infection and can lead to pain and nausea.
  • Infections of the stomach or intestines can occur when certain types of bacteria become overgrown.
  • Ulcers are sores that develop in the stomach that can be caused by infection or overuse of certain pain medications.
  • Pancreatitis occurs when your pancreas becomes inflamed and causes abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Taking medications like antibiotics, aspirin, or ibuprofen may sometimes have side effects that mimic indigestion.

In many cases, discomfort and irregular bowel habits aren’t a severe health problem. However, if your symptoms are frequent or last longer than a couple of weeks, talk to your healthcare provider to check whether there is something more serious going on. Warning signs of a more serious condition include blood in your vomit or stool, difficulty swallowing, weight loss, severe abdominal pain, shortness of breath, yellow-tinged eyes or skin, or pain in your chest, neck, or arm. If you experience any of these symptoms, contact a doctor right away.

Potential Causes and Treatments

Knowing how to make your digestive issues better first starts with better understanding the root of the problem. It can be difficult to determine the exact culprit, and you may have to try several strategies before pinpointing problem foods or behaviors.

Change Your Eating Habits

Eating your meals in a different way may help your body more easily digest your food. Strategies like the following may help:

  • Eat multiple small meals rather than a couple of large ones
  • Chew slowly
  • Make sure your food is properly chewed before swallowing
  • Drink liquids slowly
  • Don’t eat within two hours of going to sleep

Avoid Harder-to-Digest Foods

Certain types of food or drink can make indigestion, stomach pain, and intestinal symptoms worse. Try avoiding common problem foods for a few weeks to see if your symptoms improve. Things to stay away from include:

  • Acidic foods like tomatoes and oranges
  • Spicy foods
  • Greasy or fried foods
  • Foods with high levels of fat
  • Caffeinated drinks such as coffee and tea
  • Alcohol
  • Carbonated drinks such as soda and seltzer water

Eating a bland diet for a couple of weeks or months may help digestive problems go away. Bland foods are easier for your stomach and intestines to digest, and include things like cooked and canned vegetables, eggs, soup, pudding, breads and crackers made with white flour, and baked poultry and fish. Ask your healthcare provider for recommendations regarding when you can start adding other foods back into your diet.

Food Intolerances

Some people have food allergies, which can cause serious reactions involving rashes and breathing difficulties. On the other hand, food intolerances are typically less severe and lead to digestive symptoms. Some of the most common food intolerances involve gluten, dairy, and molecules called FODMAPs.

Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. People who have gluten intolerance, also known as gluten sensitivity, experience digestive symptoms when they eat products that contain these grains. Gluten intolerance may also lead to symptoms like tiredness or muscle cramps. A related disorder is celiac disease, a more severe condition in which eating gluten leads to damage to the small intestine.

People who have lactose intolerance have symptoms like gas and diarrhea when they eat dairy products such as milk, cheese, and butter. All of these milk products contain a type of sugar called lactose. Over a third of people in the United States may have trouble digesting and absorbing lactose. People who have lactose intolerance may be able to get rid of their digestive symptoms by limiting or completely avoiding consuming milk and dairy products.

Another common source of digestive distress is FODMAPs. These molecules are a type of carbohydrate that may be more difficult for the body to digest, especially for people with a sensitive gut. FODMAPs are found in:

  • Fruits like apples, blackberries, cherries, pears, and watermelon
  • Vegetables like artichokes, asparagus, cabbage, garlic, and onions
  • Beans and lentils
  • Milk-based foods like cheese, yogurt, and ice cream
  • Wheat and wheat-containing foods like bread and pasta
  • Foods and drinks containing artificial sweeteners

If you think you have a food intolerance, you can try avoiding that food for several weeks to see if your symptoms improve. A low FODMAP diet might work for you. If you aren’t sure which foods you may be intolerant to, you can try an elimination diet in which you avoid all potential problem foods for several weeks and then gradually add them back into your regular diet. Adding foods back one at a time can help you determine which foods are likely to trigger your symptoms. Talk to your healthcare provider or a registered dietician for further guidance in setting up an elimination diet that meets your needs.


Because disorders like IBS involve communication between the brain and the gut, stress and anxiety can often cause these disorders or make them worse. People with IBS are also more likely to have anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

Stress can be particularly tricky to address for people with a sensitive gut or IBS. Digestive problems are often themselves a main source of stress. Worrying about rushing to a bathroom or losing sleep because of abdominal troubles can make people feel more stressed, and this extra stress may in turn make their digestive problems worse. It can be a vicious cycle. However, learning how to better reduce stress can help make IBS symptoms better.

Certain mental health treatments have been shown to help with IBS. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help people change their thoughts and behaviors and teach people how to better manage stress and anxiety. Learning deep breathing or relaxation skills can also help people with IBS. Finally, gut-directed hypnotherapy, in which a person is guided into a hypnotic state, can help restore better communication between the brain and the gut and can provide long-term relief from IBS symptoms. Building other healthy habits into a daily routine, such as getting more sleep and exercising more, can also help treat IBS.


We all have lots of different types of healthy bacteria in our intestines that help us digest food. Some people with IBS have too many bacteria, or have high numbers of harmful bacteria. Giving your body more of the “good” types of bacteria may help.

Bacteria and other microorganisms that are good for you are known as probiotics. Yogurt is one popular source of helpful bacteria. People can also get probiotics from unpasteurized fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso soup, kefir, kimchi, pickles, and komboucha. Additionally, probiotic supplements are available over-the-counter in the form of capsules or gummies. Several studies have found that taking probiotics can reduce IBS symptoms.


Different herbs have long been used as traditional treatments to help with digestive problems. For example, peppermint oil is known to help with IBS symptoms, especially when taken in the form of a coated capsule. Clinical trials have found that other herbal supplements can also be effective at reducing pain and symptoms in IBS patients, including bitter candytuft, chamomile, caraway, licorice root, and lemon balm.

Herbal and other non-prescriptions supplements can be helpful in treatment but they can also have interactions with other supplements and medications so please don’t start taking any supplements without a consultation with your doctor to ensure they are appropriate for you.


If changes in diet or lifestyle don’t help reduce IBS symptoms, doctors may prescribe medication. Different medicines can be used to treat diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain.


If you feel like you are having a lot of problems with an upset stomach, pain, or irregular bowel habits, the first step is talking to your doctor, who can help you make sure there’s nothing serious going on. Changing your diet to avoid irritating foods and include more easily digestible foods is another helpful step. Many people suffer from digestive problems, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do to help ease your symptoms.

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