Food & Fitness After 50: Foods for a Healthy Gut: Part 1

onion_home_graphicWe hear a lot about gut health, probiotics, prebiotics and foods that contain them, but it seems like there are more questions than answers on what it means to have a healthy gut. When I talk to older adults, gut health is bound to come up. I sat down with a gut health expert, Jo Ann Hattner, to ask some questions and seek clarity. Jo Ann has over thirty years of experience as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist in clinical academic settings primarily at Stanford University Medical Center where she focused on gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently, she is the owner of Hattner Nutrition in San Francisco, CA. She is author of the book Gut Insight: Probiotics and Prebiotics for Digestive Health and Well-Being.

We covered so much content in our interview, that this will be a two-part post so that you have time to “digest” all the material! The first post will discuss gut health and the gut microbiome,  and stay tuned next week for information about pre-and probiotic foods, and fermented foods, and dispel some myths about pre-and probiotics.

We hear a lot about a “healthy gut.” What makes a gut healthy?

Let’s start with the function of the gut. Basically, the gut is responsible for three big things: digestion, absorption, and elimination. So, your gut takes the foods and fluids you eat or drink and breaks them down into smaller pieces (digestion) so that we can transfer those smaller units into the blood stream (absorption) where they can travel to various parts of the body that need them. Then, the leftover parts that don’t get digested and absorbed get passed through the large intestine, the colon, where the fibers are fermented and the waste products are excreted (elimination.) A healthy gut tolerates a wide of foods and eliminates waste with ease. And, a healthy gut makes a healthy body. So, our gut nurtures our body, and to nurture our gut we need to eat foods that are rich in prebiotics and probiotics.

We also hear a lot about the human microbiome? What is the human microbiome and is it the same thing as the gut microbiome?

When you hear the words “human microbiome” it refers to all the microbial communities that live in and on our bodies. Scientists study the role they play in human health and disease. The gut microbiome or gut microbiota is the microbial communities that live in the gastrointestinal tract or the gut.

Many researchers and scientists consider the gut microbiome as the regulator or the control center of our biology. The gut microbiome has been shown to have an effect on immunity, obesity, inflammatory bowel diseases, and even central nervous system function. Emerging research tells us that our gut microbiome communicates with our brain (called the “gut-brain connection”). So, the phrase “gut instinct” may describe how our gut talks to our brain!

Can we change our gut microbiome by the foods we eat?

The basic pattern of our gut microbiome is established at birth and in early life. Babies delivered by C-section are exposed to different microflora than those delivered through the birth canal. And, breast milk contains important pre- and probiotics that help establish an infant’s gut microbiome. Even a parent’s caress and kiss transmit bacteria to the baby, as well as touches from friends and the family pet. Researchers believe that not only is the number of bacteria in our gut important, but also the diversity or having many different strains of bacteria, are best for good health. Currently, scientists don’t know if we can permanently change our gut microbiome or if the changes seen with eating probiotic foods just create a temporary change.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of this post, when we answer questions about specific foods that are rich in pre-and probiotics, fermented foods, and dispel some myths.

Jo Ann Hattner is one of the experts we interviewed for Food & Fitness After 50, available at Amazon.