9 Best Gut Healing Foods
If you’re struggling with gut issues, you’re not alone. In fact, many people suffer from some form of gut issue, whether it’s IBS, SIBO, candida, or something else. The good news is that there are certain foods that can help heal your gut. In this blog post, I share some of the best gut-healing foods to include in your diet.
Overview of gut issues
If you’re like many people, you may suffer from a variety of gut issues that make it hard to feel your best. From constipation to Crohn’s disease, gut problems can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating.
The good news is that there are changes in your diet and lifestyle that can help. Let’s review the most common gut issues.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome is a very common digestive condition, affecting around 11% of the world’s population.
Also known as irritable colon, spastic colon, or nervous stomach, it causes the muscle of the colon to contract either too frequently or too little. The result is discomfort, which can sometimes be significant.
Although IBS can be triggered by emotional issues and some medications, specific foods can often the culprit.
The symptoms of IBS include:
- changes in bowel habits (such as unusual constipation or diarrhea)
- pain or cramping in the abdomen
Symptoms may come and go but usually occur at least several times a month.
Diverticular disease (also known as Diverticulitis)
Another common condition, diverticular disease particularly affects those over age 60, with as many as 50% of people in this age group being diagnosed.
Believed to be triggered by too little dietary fiber, it is a condition where small pouches develop and then push out through weakened areas in the colon wall.
If the pouches don’t cause any symptoms, the condition is known as diverticulosis. But if one or more become infected or inflamed, diverticulitis may develop. This can lead to constipation, fever, and nausea.
Mild cases can be treated with antibiotics and a clear diet, to give the colon the chance to heal. But extreme cases can require surgery to resolve.
Ulcerative colitis is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Closely linked to the western lifestyle and environment, it is most common in North America and Northern Europe.
It is believed to be an autoimmune condition, caused by the body mistakenly identifying food or helpful gut bacteria as harmful substances. The body’s defenses then attack the tissues of the colon, causing ulcers or sores to develop in the lining.
This can lead to urgent bowel movements, blood in the stool, painful diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
Although medication is sometimes suggested to calm the inflammation, avoiding certain foods can help control symptoms too.
Crohn’s disease is another inflammatory bowel disease. Its symptoms are quite similar to those of ulcerative colitis. The big difference, however, is that ulcerative colitis only affects the colon, whereas Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract.
In 2015, an estimated 3 million US adults reported being diagnosed with either Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
Symptoms of Chrohn’s disease include:
- abdominal pain
- weight loss
- rectal bleeding
Sometimes these symptoms can be severe and treatment varies from one person to another, depending on which part of the gastrointestinal tract is involved. But avoiding certain foods can also help.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
This condition occurs when the bacterial population of the small intestine is too high, especially when some of the bacteria are types that are not normally found in that part of the digestive tract. Instead, they may have migrated there from the large intestine.
Sometimes known as blind loop syndrome, SIBO can be caused when abdominal surgery or disease causes the passage of food and waste products in the digestive tract to slow down. This creates an environment in which bacteria thrive, causing an excess that can trigger diarrhea, potentially leading to weight loss and even malnutrition.
Leaky gut syndrome
It may not yet be recognized by all doctors as a diagnosable condition, but there is growing evidence that leaky gut syndrome may be linked to a range of medical conditions.
In leaky gut syndrome, gaps appear in the intestinal walls through which bacteria, food particles, and toxins may pass into the bloodstream. This is believed to be caused by an imbalance in the “good” gut bacteria that protect the intestinal wall from damage.
This imbalance may also cause the body to trigger an immune response, leading to inflammation.
Leaky gut syndrome can lead to a wide range of symptoms, including fatigue, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, skin problems, and joint pain.
The good news is that the right foods can rebalance the bacteria in the gut, helping combat the condition.
Candida is a kind of yeast found throughout the body. It doesn’t cause any problems at normal levels, but once it starts to grow uncontrollably in the gut, it can contribute to diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. These include ulcerative colitis, gastric ulcers, and Crohn’s disease.
High levels of Candida may also cause inflammation to take longer to heal. Increased inflammation leads to further growth of Candida, creating a vicious cycle.
Although there is little scientific evidence to support claims, some people find that cutting out certain dietary elements like sugar, alcohol, and some dairy products can be helpful.
How the gut heals
Balancing the bacteria in the gut by consuming the right kinds of foods – particularly those rich in prebiotics and probiotics – is key to good digestive health.
In some cases rebalancing the gut bacteria can avoid the conditions listed here, or at least minimize their symptoms. When the gut microbiome is healthy, you can digest foods more effectively and better absorb their nutrients. A healthy gut also helps your body eliminate waste products more efficiently.
Additionally, avoiding certain foods and increasing your consumption of others can boost your immune system, help strengthen and repair the lining of your gut, and control inflammation. These are all important factors in preventing many of the common gut issues mentioned above.
As always, you’ll need to contact a healthcare provider to get an appropriate diagnosis and treatment plan.
Foods to avoid
1. Raw vegetables
Recent research has shown that eating cooked food can improve your gut health – but that eating raw vegetables may have the opposite effect. This is because they contain compounds that kill microorganisms which can ultimately destroy the bacteria in our intestines.
Raw vegetables are also very hard to digest because they tend to contain lots of insoluble fiber. This means they can aggravate symptoms in conditions like IBS.
For this reason, I recommend eating only cooked vegetables while you are healing your gut. For example, try steaming your greens before adding them to green smoothies (check out my Kale Berry Smoothie with steamed kale) or cooking vegetables like carrots and tomatoes instead of eating them raw.
Gluten is the protein found in cereal grains like wheat, rye, and barley. It acts as a binder and helps give bread its texture. In some cases, though, gluten may trigger or worsen gut problems.
Not everyone needs to avoid gluten. Indeed, some studies show a gluten-free diet could actually be harmful to some people as it can change the human gut microbiome (microorganisms present in the gut) in unhelpful ways.
But people with celiac disease will need to avoid gluten altogether. It is also best avoided by people with non-celiac gluten intolerance, who tend to experience symptoms such as bloating, gas, and abdominal pain after consuming it.
What’s more, there is research that shows that gluten increases the release of a substance called zonulin, which has been linked to leaky gut syndrome and the conditions associated with it.
Too much sugar in the diet is another likely culprit for poor gut health. It is believed to reduce the good bacteria in the gut, potentially leading to leaky gut syndrome and other problems. It is also linked to increased inflammation.
What can make matters worse is that the imbalance of bacteria in the gut can trigger sugar cravings, leading to even higher consumption and compounding the problem!
4. Artificial sweeteners
In the effort to avoid refined sugar, more people are turning toward artificial sweeteners. But recent research has suggested that sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame – often found in processed foods and sugar-free drinks – can make “good” bacteria in the gut become pathogenic (disease-causing).
This may eventually lead to damage to the intestinal walls, either triggering gut issues or making the symptoms of existing conditions worse.
I’ve also made a list of the best natural sugar substitutes if you need some help getting through the cravings without turning to artificial sweeteners that can hurt the gut flora and good gut bacteria.
9 Best Gut Healing Foods
1. Bone broth
Made by simmering bones and connective tissue over an extended period, bone broth is super nutritious!
Although the exact content will vary depending on the ingredients used, bone broth is generally packed with a variety of minerals and compounds known to help promote gut health. These include collagen and gelatin, along with three amino acids – glutamine, proline, and arginine.
When making bone broth, try to use a mixture of bones for maximum nutrition. And don’t forget to add vinegar to the bones as they simmer, because this is what draws the nutrients from the bones and into the water.
The only caveat to consuming bone broth is that it is high in histamines. Bone broth and other fermented foods are considered high histamine foods and are not part of a low histamine diet.
2. Dandelion greens or bitter greens
“Bitters” like dandelion greens and other bitter leaves have been used throughout history to aid digestion. This is because they may increase the production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes.
Although no studies on humans have been carried out, research using animals has shown that dandelion greens may also be useful in reducing inflammation.
What’s more, they contain a prebiotic fiber called inulin, which has been shown to help food move smoothly through the digestive system and reduce the risk of constipation.
Aside from increasing their digestibility, cooking dandelion greens reduces their bitterness. Try boiling them for a few minutes, then sauteing them in a hot pan with garlic and olive oil for 3 minutes more. Serve as a side dish, or try stirring the cooked greens into scrambled eggs.
See my list of the best green vegetables.
3. Probiotic foods
You’ll quite often see the words “contains probiotics” on yogurts and yogurt drinks. But what does that actually mean?
Well, probiotics are “good” live bacteria that you can consume to boost the number and variety of bacteria in your gut to improve your digestive health. Probiotics have other benefits, too, as they help our bodies absorb nutrients and give our immune systems a boost.
When it comes to probiotic foods, you have lots to choose from. Besides yogurt and yogurt-based drinks like kefir, you could try:
- fermented vegetables, like kimchi or sauerkraut, both of which are made with cabbage
- miso (fermented soybeans)
- pu-erh tea – a fermented tea from the Yunnan Province of China
- kombucha – a fermented tea drink from Manchuria
- some cheeses (look for the words “live cultures” or “active cultures” on the packaging)
You can also check out my full list of the best foods with natural probiotics.
4. Fatty fish
Research has shown that the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) found in fatty fish are great for your digestive health!
They can help balance the bacteria in your gut and support the production of the compounds your body needs to fight inflammation. They can also boost the immune system and repair damage to the intestinal wall which could trigger leaky gut syndrome.
Examples of fatty fish high in omega 3s include salmon, sardines, Atlantic mackerel, herrings, and albacore tuna. If you don’t like eating fish, then you can enjoy similar benefits from taking omega-3 supplements.
5. Raw dairy products
Raw dairy products like raw butter, raw cheese, raw milk, and raw cream contain living bacteria that act as prebiotics, boosting the number and diversity of “good” bacteria in the gut.
Raw dairy products are those that have not gone through the pasteurization process developed to kill any harmful organisms they may contain. For this reason, raw milk is banned in some countries and states, as it is seen that the risk from these pathogens may outweigh any benefits.
But, for many people, raw milk and raw milk products can be healing to the gut and maybe be worth the risk of consuming them raw.
For those of us on dairy-free diets, consuming dairy may not be an option. But, unless you have a dairy allergy or your doctor has told you to avoid dairy, it may be worth trying to re-introduce dairy into your diet as a gut healing food.
6. Coconut milk
Coconut milk – made by mixing coconut flesh with water – has several gut-healing benefits!
It is rich in medium-chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs), around 50% of which are a type called lauric acid. Your body converts this into a compound called monolaurin, which studies have shown can reduce stomach ulcers. It is also believed to reduce inflammation and protect the lining of the stomach.
You can use coconut milk in everything from your daily coffee to smoothies. For the healthiest milk, make your own by blending 1 cup of unsweetened shredded coconut with 2 cups of hot water, then straining through muslin or cheesecloth. See my Coconut Milk recipe.
7. Probiotic supplements
Food sources of probiotics are the most beneficial for your health. But if cultured milk or fermented foods do not appeal to you, then taking probiotic supplements is a great way to still enjoy their benefits.
It’s a good idea to discuss this with your healthcare provider before deciding which supplement to take. Whereas probiotic foods tend to contain a range of bacterial strains, supplements are usually more specific.
If you take one containing a strain that hasn’t been studied for your particular condition, you may find that it doesn’t help relieve your symptoms at all!
Make sure you store probiotic supplements carefully, follow the dosage instructions, and use a resource like Consumer Lab to make sure the ingredients have been independently verified.
8. Prebiotic foods
Prebiotic foods are essentially those containing dietary fibers that feed the probiotics (beneficial bacteria) in your gut, stimulating their growth and increasing their activity.
Although prebiotics can be manufactured in supplemental form, the best sources are natural. Fruits and vegetables are rich in prebiotics, with particularly good sources being:
- leafy greens
- kiwi fruit
A diet rich in prebiotics isn’t good for all gut issues, however.
Some prebiotics are FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols). These are carbohydrates that the body can’t easily digest, so they may worsen the symptoms of conditions like IBS. You might want to speak to your healthcare provider to see if prebiotics are right for you.
It can be particularly useful for people with inflammatory bowel disorders and has been shown to reduce gut inflammation in conditions like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
It depends. Some people may not be able to reverse their digestive issues once they are diagnosed. On the other hand, some people may get relief from symptoms quickly. It’s best to work with a qualified healthcare practitioner to resolve gut and digestive issues.
A healthy digestive system has benefits for your whole body! It helps support your immune system, contributes to good sleep, protects against chronic diseases, and can even improve your mood. The gut-healing foods included in this article are easy to incorporate into your everyday diet, giving you the power to improve your digestive health and your general well-being.
Note: this post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider for recommendations related to your individual situation.