Why healthy intestinal flora is so important
The gut is the cradle of good health and the basis for your general well-being.1 Its large surface area makes it a very important organ in our bodies with its own ecosystem. Healthy intestinal flora contains 80% of all our immune cells, making it a significant protective shield against bacteria and other pathogens2.
It’s important to bear in mind that our gastrointestinal tract is a reflection of our overall health – it’s therefore important you give it the support and care it needs so that you can be your best self. If it’s good for the gut, it’s good for you: intestinal health and general well-being are two sides of the same coin. Having a range of healthy gut bacteria helps support your immune system. The best support we can give these bacteria is by regularly eating probiotic and prebiotic foods.
The difference between probiotics and prebiotics
The terms probiotic and prebiotic often arise in discussions about gut health. That’s why we want to make you a little more familiar with what they mean. Prebiotics are plant-based food components that the human body is unable to digest – known as fibre. They are particularly important for nourishing gut bacteria and therefore play an automatic role in improving intestinal flora. A typical example of this is pulses, which we will discuss in more detail below.
Probiotics are living microorganisms that support our natural intestinal function in the digestive tract by adhering to local intestinal flora. To ensure a balanced, healthy digestive organ, you should make sure you consume prebiotics and probiotics regularly – this will help regulate bowel function and prevent both constipation and diarrhoea. The good news is that this can be achieved using conventional food products.
What do the intestines do?
The gastrointestinal tract as a whole is divided into several components. The most important parts for our immune system are the large and small intestines. The large intestine focuses mainly on immune defence, and it is also important for maintaining the water and mineral balance. The small intestine, on the other hand, is where most digestion takes place and is responsible for absorbing nutrients. It filters nutrients from all kinds of food and continuously absorbs them.
All in all, the intestines work hard for our general health: They ensure the absorption of nutrients and simultaneously fight off bacteria, fungi and other pathogens. What’s more, alongside continuous immunosurveillance, a healthy intestinal mucosa also identifies toxins and channels them out of the body by the quickest route.
The human microbiome
Alongside pro- and prebiotics, there is another term which you are sure to encounter when looking at the topic of gut health – the human microbiome. Below, our expert Dr Stefan Feidt explains what it is exactly and how it can influence your life.
“The microbiome is the total of all microorganisms living on and in the human body, around 100 trillion in total”
What is the microbiome?
The human microbiome comprises a large number of microorganisms. These primarily include bacteria, viruses and fungi – as well as other single-celled organisms. The intestinal microbiome is extremely important for our digestive organ. It doesn’t just ensure that the food we consume is processed properly, it also helps to keep our gut and body healthy in other ways.
What does the microbiome do?
Dr Feidt sums up the microbiome’s many functions as follows:
“The job of the microbiome is to form the essential vitamins B1, B2, B12 and vitamin K as well as short-chain fatty acids such as acetic and butyric acids, which serve as an energy source for intestinal mucosa cells and promote the mobility of the intestines. The intestinal microbiome also helps fight inflammation, detoxifies harmful substances and supports the immune system.”
So this little helper doesn’t just support our immune response to fight diseases, it also carries out essential work for our body.
How do I help my microbiome protect the intestinal flora?
A healthy diet is the most significant way we can support the intestinal microbiome. Fermented vegetables in particular are easy to prepare and provide the intestines with a good basis for a diet that can have a positive effect on the body. Anyone who wants to support their intestinal flora should start here.
What can I do to boost my gut health?
Anyone who wants to give their gut health a boost should focus on the following: Incorporate exercise into your everyday life, get enough sleep and, most importantly, eat a good, healthy diet. A gut-friendly diet is the most important aspect and is easier to achieve than most people think. To give you an idea what this might look like, we take a closer look at a healthy diet below. There is one additional rule though: If you want to get your gut in tip-top shape, you should avoid stress, cigarettes and certain medication.
Improve intestinal flora in your everyday life
You can have a positive impact on your intestinal health with just a few everyday habits. Getting enough sleep is great for all aspects of your physical health, but just how important is a good night’s sleep really? If you are always tired, the body can’t relax properly, making it more susceptible to stress. That gives pathogens a significantly higher chance of getting a foothold where you don’t want them to. To stimulate the gastrointestinal tract, it is also advisable to massage your stomach every now and then in order to promote digestion. This doesn’t just prevent constipation, it also relaxes the gut in a targeted way and reduces stress. Regular physical activity and stress relief in the form of exercise should be a part of your everyday life, and is also an important factor when it comes to improving your intestinal flora. Conversely, some medications, such as certain antibiotics, can damage the intestinal flora. They promote resistance and – because they target the “good” intestinal bacteria along with the “bad” ones – can easily cause inflammations or illnesses such as diarrhoea. Cigarettes and excessive alcohol consumption should also be avoided, along with stress and other factors, to reduce your chances of suffering from conditions like irritable bowel syndrome3.
A good, balanced diet provides the cornerstone for a healthy gut and is therefore an indispensable aspect of maintaining intestinal health. With this in mind, we would like to take a more detailed look at foods that are particularly beneficial for the gut. Your choice of healthy food is extremely important and also has an impact on your overall well-being – so the health benefits of gut-friendly food go far beyond the gut alone. Read on and be inspired to try out some new dishes.
Which foods are good for the gut?
Certain foods are especially beneficial to our intestinal health. As emphasised above, increasing the consumption of probiotics and prebiotics in our diet plays a big role for the gut. Both are necessary for giving the gut’s ecosystem the best possible support. Fermented foods in particular are very helpful. Whatever you choose to eat though, try to do so in peace so that the body isn’t put under any stress. This includes slow, thorough chewing.
What is fermentation?
What actually happens when we ferment food? When foods ferment, they undergo a metabolic change caused by the activity of cellular and fungal cultures (microorganisms). This process is referred to as fermentation. Fermented food should be enjoyed soon after it is made if possible, because the good bacteria it contains die after a certain period. Fermented food is great for a gut-friendly diet and can be enjoyed in various forms. There is plenty of choice when it comes to fermented foods.
Yoghurt and kefir
“Nutrition is the basic starting point when it comes to doing something good for our microbiome. Some foods are particularly helpful in this regard – kefir and yoghurt for instance…”
As Dr Feidt already mentioned in his video, yoghurt and kefir are excellent for supporting our microbiome. Dr Feidt explains that these fermented milk products contain lactic acid bacteria, which support the microbiome, contribute to the general reinforcement of the immune system and help build up healthy intestinal flora. Yoghurt and kefir are classic examples of probiotic foods.
Pulses are a source of dietary fibre, which is important for both gut health and a balanced, healthy body in general. These probiotic foods stimulate digestion4 and should therefore be consumed only in small quantities5. Foods of this type absorb harmful substances and transport them quickly out of the body6, thereby preventing illnesses.
Fruit and vegetables
Many types of vegetables fall into the prebiotic food category. They “feed” the bacteria in the intestines and promote good health.7 People are often encouraged to eat more fruit and vegetables in accordance with the widespread “five a day” rule. This rule states that you should eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day8 in order to support a healthy gut and immune system. Potatoes in particular can promote intestinal health because the potato starch they contain can act as a nutritional basis for healthy gut bacteria. The bacteria then work more effectively in the digestive organ and provide a quick solution for keeping the intestines healthy.9
Linseeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids.10 Like pulses, they also contain fibre11, which removes pathogens in the colon.12 To ensure linseeds take full effect in the body, you can either leave them to soak or just grind them up. Alongside linseeds, there are also other alternatives which are good for the gut, such as chia seeds. They are usually a little more expensive though, and have a similarly beneficial ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both types of seeds are easy to mix into smoothies or salad dressings.
Fatty cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines or fresh-water fish such as eel, bass and carp provide an extraordinary amount of unsaturated fatty acids on your plate.
Liver is a true superfood when it comes to immune defence. In addition to being loaded with vitamins, it also contains other healthy minerals13. The vitamin A it contains can particularly contribute to the normal functioning of the immune system.
Sauerkraut, and other types of fermented vegetable for that matter, delivers a number of important lactic acid bacteria in a similar way to yoghurt and kefir.14 It contains vitamin C, selenium and iron, which can all contribute to normal functioning of the immune system. Sauerkraut also contains vitamin E, which helps protect cells against oxidative stress. If you buy fermented vegetables to keep your gut healthy, you should always make sure to get good quality products which are already sufficiently fermented. Tinned sauerkraut is not recommended, as it no longer contains lactic acid bacteria due to the pasteurisation or sterilisation process15. You should therefore ideally opt for raw sauerkraut.
Sufficient hydration is essential to good intestinal health. As such, everyone looking to keep their gut healthy should put special importance on fluid intake and make sure to drink enough water throughout the day.
Dr Stefan Feidt has already mentioned the positive effect of kimchi on intestinal health. Kimchi essentially works on the same principle as sauerkraut. It can have an amazing effect on your well-being, but you should check to see if you can tolerate it first. If you feel unwell the first time you try this fermented food, it is possible that you can’t tolerate it and your intestinal bacteria are fighting it off. You should therefore start with a small portion and increase your consumption gradually based on how well you tolerate it.
Foods to avoid for your intestinal health
It goes without saying that there are also foods which can, under some circumstances, be damaging for your intestinal flora. It helps to know what these are so that you can make the best possible decisions relating to your gut health. Lectins, primarily gluten and easily absorbable carbohydrates such as sugar, are best avoided. Gluten can be hard to digest, because the composition of the individual protein components is very compact. Sugar promotes the growth of fungi and yeasts as well as “bad” intestinal bacteria and, in some cases, can cause inflammation. Hardened and heavily processed fats, as well as sausages and smoked or cured meats, are not beneficial for gut health. Some ready meals and heavily processed foods should likewise be avoided – primarily due to the additives they contain. To round off the topic, it is worth knowing that a body with a good immune system can tolerate coffee and alcohol in moderation. However, these products have a highly laxative effect and can result in diarrhoea when consumed in excessive amounts16. Try to limit your intake of alcohol and coffee – your gut will thank you for it.
Cooking for a healthy gut
Following on from the previous information about a gut-friendly diet, we would now like to give you a few take-home tips on the topic of balanced, healthy cooking:
Don’t eat meat more than twice a week. Why not try out a flexitarian diet?
If possible, use only unprocessed meat (steak, offal) and avoid sausage products in particular.
Reduce your intake of grains. Wheat, spelt, barley and oats all contain a large amount of gluten.
If at all possible, buy eggs, meat and other products from the producer directly and avoid factory-farmed produce, which can contain too many inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids17.
Use coconut oil, olive oil or rapeseed oil for cooking and frying and use butter instead of margarine.
Eat mostly natural foods and avoid frequently eating ready meals and highly processed food.
Eat cheese and quark in moderation. You will have to judge for yourself what the right amount is based on your individual tolerance.
Cook lots of vegetable dishes – experiment to your heart’s desire, there are no limitations here.
Include plenty of whole-grain ingredients in your diet to provide you with lots of good dietary fibre.
If you have a sensitive stomach, you should pay special attention to what you eat in general. If you eat animal products, you should place extra importance on top quality. Try and buy your food straight from the producer and support a local farmer who doesn’t use factory farming methods. Always consider allergies and intolerances to ensure you are giving your body the best possible diet. Making the right choice for a healthy diet might seem more complicated than it actually is. Of course, we know that it is difficult to make all the right decisions in our day-to-day lives, but as long as you pay attention to the health of your body and incorporate some of our suggestions into your lifestyle, you will already be well on the way.
Building up healthy intestinal flora through physical activity
As mentioned above, sufficient physical activity also plays a big role when it comes to building up healthy intestinal flora. This is best achieved through daily exercise, which will keep your digestive system in tip-top shape. Some sports that are good for a healthy gut include cycling, swimming and running.
Getting enough exercise prevents constipation and bloating and promotes circulation in the intestine, letting it work faster. Intestinal health can even boost your sporting success – if your gut is healthy, your body will be able to perform better.
Dr Stefan Feidt’s tips will get you on the right track towards optimal gut health
“In recent years, studies have shown that certain diseases are associated with changes in the intestinal microbiome18. Alongside inflammatory bowel diseases, these include joint inflammation, obesity, diabetes mellitus, certain types of autism, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.”
For these reasons if nothing else, it is important to place special emphasis on a healthy diet for the gut and a balanced lifestyle. With our tips from Dr Feidt, you now have all the basic information you need for a gut-friendly lifestyle.
Take care of your gut – for the good of your health
To sum up: A healthy gut needs daily maintenance. The main points you should bear in mind for the future are:
- a gut-friendly diet
- a balanced exercise routine
- getting a healthy amount of sleep
- reducing stress
- limiting the amount of cigarettes, alcohol and caffeine that you consume
Your gut’s ecosystem will thank you for adopting a healthy diet high in pre- and probiotics, and reward you with an enhanced immune system. However, you shouldn’t put yourself under any pressure to reach this goal. Support your wellbeing by allowing yourself a treat every now and then – because a gut-friendly lifestyle doesn’t automatically mean that you have to miss out on everything. A good balance of personal happiness and the right care for your digestive organ provides an excellent basis for a healthy, satisfied life. Your state of mind can be just as influential on your gut health as a proper diet. You can find out more about this topic using the term “nutritional psychiatry“.
Dr Stefan Feidt has extensive medical experience since beginning his career in conventional medicine. In 1983 he became practising doctor of his own general medical practice in Oberkirchen / Saar specialising in general medicine. From 1997 his practice began focusing on diabetes. Alongside diabetology his additional qualifications include sports medicine, environmental medicine and acupuncture. His current focus is on the human microbiome.
2„Darmgesundheit und Immunsystem“. DAP Dialog 43 (Feb 2018) (https://www.deutschesapothekenportal.de/fileadmin/user_upload/download/dialog/schwerpunktthemen/dap_dialog_43_otc-schwerpunktthema.pdf)
4Mathias D. (2018) Ballaststoffe. In: Fit und gesund von 1 bis Hundert. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-662-56307-6_26
6Mathias D. (2018) Ballaststoffe. In: Fit und gesund von 1 bis Hundert. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-662-56307-6_26
18The microbiome and neurodegenerative diseases from C. Frahm & O.W. Witte in Der Gastroenterologe, volume 14, pages 166-171 (2019).