Nowadays we hear a lot about a healthy gut or healthy microbiome, so what does that even mean? Our gastrointestinal tract (aka “gut”) has flora that lives in there; some are healthy bugs and some are more insidious and can overgrow and negatively impact our health. There has been more and more research about what impacts this and what an unhealthy gut can do to our health. There’s a lot of information out there, so I will focus on some of the more common questions that come up in my integrative medicine clinic in San Jose, CA.

Question: What foods help our gut flora and what hurts it?

Traditionally, a diet high in vegetables and low in processed sugars tend to be healthiest for our gut flora. When you eat a lot of sugars or processed carbohydrates, the excess sugars can cause bad gut flora to overgrow. There’s also been some indication that a diet high in just meats or proteins can also lend a hand in contributing to an unhealthy flora. So the solution is to eat a diet mostly based on vegetables and have whole grains and a moderate amount of protein…but the key phrase is ‘diet high in vegetables.’

Question: What does an unhealthy gut flora do to our health?

Our gastrointestinal tract is a key player in regulating our immune system. When you have an unhealthy gut flora, there’s a higher tendency for inflammation and dysregulation of immune function; or in other words, inflammatory and immune confusion.

There’s been some very interesting data that suggests certain diseases are hugely impacted by our gut health such as, but are not limited to, parkinson’s disease, autoimmune diseases, skin disorders, absorption issues, and even some forms of cancer. There were even studies suggesting that there’s a possible impact on the health of a baby if the mother’s gut health isn’t optimal. Basically, a healthy gut means a healthy body so it’s worth the effort in making sure what goes into your body is healthy and good for you.

Question: Should everyone eat fermented foods?

Fermented foods are great for gut flora support…for those without severe gut issues or immune function issues. The reason for this level of caution is that while fermented foods help with variety and gut flora support, since Mother Nature ferments with her own mind, we can’t always control the species growing in the fermentation process. Therefore, if you already have significant gut flora dysregulation or overgrowth or you are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed, be very wary about consuming fermented foods and the potential for worsening or starting overgrowth issues of various species that are harder to control or could be detrimental to health. For example, for those who are immunosuppressing medications or have cancer or HIV types of issues, we usually recommend and monitor with a lot of caution whether those patients get probiotics and if so, how much and which species. So if you have these health issues, please check with your doctor before consuming fermented foods and also before starting probiotics.

There are clearly so many more questions about our gut health but for the sake of not writing a book here, I’ll leave you with this thought. If you are someone who has issues with his/her gut, you should see your doctor. Do not just blow it off because we now know that a happy gut is a healthier body. So, if there are issues going on, ask your doctor for a full evaluation and ask for testing like the H.pylori test, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) test, stool tests, endoscopy, colonoscopy, etc. You likely won’t need all of these tests, but you should have the discussion with your trusted doctor about which ones you might need, or if you need any of them at all. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of removing a problem food that you are allergic or sensitive to…but you’ll get more guidance and answers if you have your doctor help you figure out what you need instead of just ignoring your gut issues.