The link between your gut health and overall health
If you’ve been with Primary Beans long enough, you’ve likely heard us talk about gut health and all the wonderful things beans do for your gut. But as more and more science emerges linking gut health to overall health and vitality, we wanted to expand on what we’ve covered and share the nuances to keep in mind as you think about your own gut health.
What is gut health anyway and why is it important?
Inside the length of our massive digestive system (our “gut”) are trillions of bacterial cells and hundreds if not thousands of species of them. These bacteria make up our gut microbiome, which is extremely complex and endlessly fascinating – with various types of bacteria thriving in different micro-environments, all with their own tasks and preferences for fuel.
What adds to the intrigue is that we all have our own unique microbial ecosystem that develops over our first years of life. After that, it adapts to our diets as well as environmental factors. Human genetic adaptations also come into play, like the fact that many Southeast Asians have the ability to metabolize a healthy carbohydrate in seaweed, but most Americans do not (crazy!).
Why is a healthy gut important?
From regulating metabolism, inflammation, immune function, hormones, weight management, mood, and mental health, there’s no shortage of linkages between a healthy gut and overall mental and physical health. The healthy bacteria in our gut make important chemicals (aka short-chain fatty acids) that impact how the rest of our body functions. Microbial imbalances (too many bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria) are associated with obesity, metabolism issues, and autoimmune diseases.
In short, a healthy gut is key to overall health, but the science is still unfolding. We won’t pretend to fully understand all the mechanics, but to learn more, here are some of our favorite resources:
- The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health by Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg
- How to Optimize Your Brain-Body Function & Health from The Huberman Lab podcast
- The Gut Doctor
- The Anti-Viral Gut: Tackling Pathogens from the Inside Out by Robynne Chutkan M.D.
What should I do to improve my gut health?
A healthy microbiome means thriving and diverse bacteria, so if you’re looking to maintain and even improve your own, you’ll need to regularly incorporate diverse plant-based fiber (prebiotics) and high-quality fermented foods (probiotics). You may have heard of prebiotics and probiotics before – but let’s break down the difference together:
Complex carbohydrates, particularly soluble fiber, serve as important fuel for our gut bacteria (why they’re known as a prebiotic) helping them thrive. These bacteria help us digest and reap the nutritional benefits of food, but also break up soluble fiber into short chain fatty acids, which are reabsorbed and have loads of benefits in the body (as mentioned above).
Unfortunately most of us fall short in getting an adequate amount of dietary fiber. For context, a study looking at the microbiome of a traditional hunter-gatherer population in Africa shows that they eat upwards of 100-150 grams of dietary fiber per day, while the average American eats around 10-15 grams.
But there are tons of great sources of soluble fiber: oats, nuts, seeds, some fruits and veggies, and of course, beans. Beans offer an incredibly easy way to incorporate diverse plant-based fiber into our diets at a whopping 16 grams per cup, with 5 grams being bacteria-loving soluble fiber.
We’ve already talked about the importance of diversity in bacteria, and probiotics help us build that diversity.
Studies are showing that fermented foods are critical for those looking to actually change the makeup of their microbiome. This is where daily intake of fermented foods like yogurt, miso, unfiltered vinegar, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, or other fermented veggies come in.
If you’re eager to get started incorporating both pre and probiotic fiber, here’s a quick little hack we suggest: enjoy your next bowl of brothy beans with a little miso or a dash of vinegar, and top with Greek yogurt and pickled veggies.
As always, what’s right for someone else may not be what’s right for you – so take internet advice with a grain of salt, and consult an expert for in-depth nutritional advice.
There you have it – our take on what the heck is going on with all the bacteria in our body in the first place, why it’s so important to maintain a healthy mix of bacteria, and how you can actually improve the makeup. The information doesn’t stop here, keep your eye out for more groundbreaking research that is coming out all the time.
For more reading:
- Unique Hammond on The Bean Protocol™ covers why incorporating beans in your diet leads to a natural detox to help prevent and heal issues with food allergies, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, and more.
- Our Primer on bean nutrition where we get into the nutritional benefits of beans from - plant protein, fiber, and nutrients - so you have a basic idea what you’re nourishing your body with every time you enjoy beans.
- Why beans are essential for a healthy gut (by Chelsea Didinger, PhD candidate specializing in beans) dives into the nitty gritty of the bean and gut health connection: what different types of legumes do to the microbiome, how much would really make a difference, and whether fiber supplements work.
- Ancient Wisdom on Gut & Overall Health: For all the modern science that’s coming out, it’s also important to look at ancient wisdom and practices that have been passed on for generations. Ayurveda, known as “the mother of all healing” is a science that’s been practiced and passed down in India and around the world for 5,000 years.