The Best Digestive Superfoods for Gut Health

What to Eat to Feed Healthy Gut Bacteria and Improve Digestive Wellness 

digestive superfoods: natural probiotic food in bowls surrounding a drawing of the intestines

Your diet is one of the most important things that can make or break your digestive health. 

Aside from consuming a diet that’s rich in whole anti-inflammatory foods, a handful of digestive superfoods may be able to help optimize gut health even further. It’s worth noting that exotic superfoods are essentially an empty promise. But there are a few core principles to keep in mind, and some common tripwires to avoid.

For example, probiotic foods and prebiotic foods have a direct impact on the gut microbiome by populating and feeding good gut bacteria. But it’s also worth noting that eating lots of these foods can be problematic if you have a bacterial overgrowth or imbalance.

In this article, we’ll walk you through which foods you can include in your diet to improve the health of your microbiome, enhance the strength of your gut lining, and reduce gut inflammation — and when to use them.

We’ll also cover the key principles of choosing a well-rounded diet that supports your gut health, keeping in mind that while digestive superfoods may be able to give you a boost, it’s the big picture of your diet that makes the real difference.

Supercharging Gut Health Through Diet

digestive superfoods: Four Principles of a Healthy Diet infographic by Dr. Ruscio

By far, the most impactful thing you can do to improve gut health and gastrointestinal issues is adjust your diet. What you eat directly impacts your gut environment and, therefore, can make a significant difference in your digestion and absorption. 

The trick is to figure out what type of diet is right for you. Optimizing your gut environment should be a very individualized process. You must consider your current digestive health and digestive issues along with your personal needs and preferences. 

For instance, it can in many cases be beneficial to increase your dietary fiber intake in order to enhance the amount of beneficial bacteria in your gut. 

However, if you’re suffering from SIBO or IBS, this may make symptoms worse, and research supports a diet that restricts bacteria-feeding fiber and carbohydrates to improve these conditions [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 4].

Therefore, one person’s “digestive superfood” may be another’s digestive downfall.  

So how do you determine what kind of diet is right for you? 

The four principles of a healthy diet are

  1. Eat to control inflammation. 
  2. Eat to control and balance blood sugar. 
  3. Find your ideal intake of carbohydrates and prebiotics. 
  4. Identify your food allergies and intolerances. 

A well-rounded diet, like the Paleo diet, that satisfies these principles and includes a wide variety of whole foods provides the real superpower. 

In general, an anti-inflammatory and gut bacteria-balancing diet will enhance your gut health. Similarly, a balanced gut microbiome will reduce inflammation and promote digestion [5]. 

Beyond that, there are two key categories of foods that can have a significant impact on your microbiome: prebiotics and probiotics. 

In addition, a handful of foods can enhance the health of your gut by promoting the repair of the lining of your digestive tract.

So, without further ado, let’s explore the best digestive superfoods. 

Prebiotics 

digestive superfoods: a few pieces of garlic on a wooden table

Prebiotics are plant fibers that feed the bacteria in your gut and support the formation of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).

SCFAs may help with the integrity of your gut lining and keep pro-inflammatory chemicals out of your internal circulation. They may also play a role in regulating metabolism and immunity and may help with fat reduction [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. 

What’s more, research suggests that SCFAs play a role in the gut-brain connection and may impact neurological health — although more thorough research is needed [7].

Prebiotics, in general, seem to enhance the abundance of healthy bacterial strains like Bifidobacterium in your gut [8 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Therefore, consuming foods that are rich in prebiotics can enhance gut health by increasing good bacteria while combating leaky gut (a condition where your intestinal lining is weak and inflamed). As a result, you may see improvements in areas of health such as metabolism, immunity, and neurological health [9].

Some examples of foods that are rich in prebiotics include:

Jerusalem Artichoke 

digestive superfoods: Jerusalem artichokes on a chopping board

Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunroots or sunchokes, are not your typical artichokes. In fact, they’re not related to the artichoke you’re likely imagining– they’re actually the roots of a type of sunflower. 

Jerusalem artichokes are rich in inulin, which is a type of dietary fiber and prebiotic.

Garlic

Garlic is known for a variety of health benefits, in addition to being a source of the prebiotic fiber fructan. 

Research shows that adding garlic to your meals may enhance the growth of beneficial Bifidobacteria in your gut due to its fructan content, while reducing oxidative stress and inflammation [10]. 

Chicory root

You likely won’t find chicory root in your grocery store produce department, but this source of the prebiotic fiber inulin is often added to protein or fiber bars and coffee-replacement beverages.

Onions

Onions contain both inulin and fructans as sources of prebiotics, which may help to support immunity and boost healthy gut bacteria. 

Oats

Oats are rich in a type of prebiotic fiber known as beta-glucan. 

Research shows that the beta-glucan in oats may promote healthy gut bacteria while also enhancing glucose control and reducing LDL cholesterol. In fact, some research suggests that beta-glucans may have a role in the treatment of metabolic syndrome — but further research is required [11, 12, 13 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Other Prebiotic Foods 

Other prebiotic foods include apples, asparagus, dandelion greens, bananas, flax seeds, chia seeds, and jicama. 

Prebiotic Foods, IBS, and SIBO

person clutching their stomach

Despite all of the potential benefits of prebiotic foods, there are some cases where these types of fiber may actually cause more harm than good, specifically if you suffer from SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) [2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

SIBO is a condition where there is bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. SIBO has been linked to IBS, and both are marked by digestive symptoms including abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. 

Many people with SIBO and/or IBS actually feel best when they stay away from foods that are rich in prebiotic fibers and fermentable carbohydrates. This is the essence of the low FODMAP diet. 

Why is this the case? Well, remember that prebiotic foods are feeding gut bacteria. This is a positive thing if your gut microbiome is balanced, and you’re feeding healthy microorganisms. But if you have an overgrowth of bacteria, then prebiotic foods might literally be feeding the problem. 

Research shows that a low FODMAP diet can improve symptoms of both SIBO and IBS [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 4]. For example, one literature review found that when participants went on a low FODMAP diet, it led to improved symptoms in 50%-80% of patients with IBS symptoms [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. The low FODMAP diet has also been shown to help improve inflammation and gut dysbiosis [15 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

This clearly illustrates the third principle of a healthy diet, which is finding your ideal intake of carbohydrates (and prebiotics). Remember that more is not always better — and that your approach to prebiotic intake doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Listen to your body to help determine the balance that’s best for you. 

Fermented Foods (Probiotics)

assorted fermented food in bowls

Fermented foods are a natural source of probiotics, providing diversity in the gut with a small increase in healthy bacteria. 

Probiotics have been shown to be useful in a range of digestive disorders and symptoms, including IBS, IBD, heartburn, nausea, constipation, and indigestion [16, 17]. 

For example, in the case of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), research shows that probiotics can significantly improve symptoms such as abdominal pain, gas, and bowel urgency [16].

If you suffer from GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), otherwise known as acid reflux, probiotics may also be the answer to your uncomfortable symptoms. A recent systematic review found that 79% of reviewed studies reported positive outcomes when GERD was treated with probiotics. Symptoms such as reflux, heartburn, indigestion, nausea, and burping all showed significant improvement with the treatment of probiotics [17].

Probiotics may also improve bowel transit if you suffer from constipation. In a 2020 systematic review of 17 randomized control trials, researchers concluded that probiotics significantly increased stool frequency by an average of 1.29 bowel movements per week. In addition, when compared to a placebo group, probiotic users experienced shorter gut transit time by an average of 12.36 hours [18 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

In general, probiotics have been shown to: 

  • Improve your gut microbiome balance [19, 20]
  • Reduce intestinal inflammation [19]
  • Promote a healthy immune response in the gut [20, 21]
  • Reduce leaky gut damage [22, 23, 24]

Different types of fermented foods will offer a variety of beneficial strains of probiotics. Some of the most popular fermented foods include:

Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage that’s pickled typically using lactic acid fermentation. Most people think of the traditional dish from Germany, bratwurst and sauerkraut, as the quintessential way to consume fermented cabbage. However, you can add a side of sauerkraut to any savory dish. 

Yogurt

Yogurt is the most popular fermented food in the U.S., and it contains numerous probiotic strains [25, 26]. Note that highly processed yogurt that is loaded with sugar will contain fewer probiotics (and the downsides likely outweigh the benefits). 

Fermented Pickles

Fermented pickles are a popular option and can easily be used in place of traditional pickles for a probiotic boost [3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. They may have a slightly more tangy taste, but they work great as an accompaniment to burgers, in chicken salad, or in tuna salad. You can also just enjoy them as-is for a light snack.

Fermented pickles contain the probiotic strains Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus Plantarum, and Lactobacillus Brevis at around 1.3 billion CFU per pickle [3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Kefir

Kefir is a fermented milk drink that contains many probiotic strains [27 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. It has a similar consistency to yogurt but is much thinner. Kefir is made by combining milk with kefir grains and allowing it to ferment. You can find kefir at most health food stores, but watch for added sugars.

Kimchi

Kimchi is a staple Korean side dish of fermented and salted vegetables traditionally made with napa cabbage and Korean radish. This fermented dish can be very spicy, often including ginger, garlic, and onion. You can add kimchi to rice dishes or enjoy it on the side of any savory meal for a dose of probiotics [28].

Can Probiotic Foods Replace Probiotic Supplements? 

Probiotic foods can give your gut microbiome a boost, but they’re not an equal replacement for probiotic supplements. 

The concentration of probiotics found in supplements is significantly higher than that found in any fermented food. So, for those who are using probiotics therapeutically, it may be best to think of probiotic foods as more of an added support. 

Are Fermented Foods Right For You?

As with most things, fermented foods may not be right for everyone. Fermentation increases the level of histamine in foods, so for those who are sensitive to histamine, fermented foods are not the best choice. 

Keep in mind that for those with histamine intolerance, probiotic supplements are still likely to be helpful (although there is some debate here) [29].

Other Digestive Superfoods

bone broth in mason jars

Aside from prebiotic and probiotic foods, a handful of other foods deserve a place in the digestive superfoods spotlight. These include:

Collagen 

Collagen is a structural protein found in your connective tissue. At this point, the data is still preliminary on collagen and gut health. However, we can infer from cell and animal studies that due to its ability to support skin health and its abundance of amino acids, collagen may help the health of your gut lining [30 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Collagen is particularly abundant in the amino acids glutamine and glycine, which have been shown to benefit the intestinal lining and mucus production in animals [31, 32 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Bone Broth 

Bone broth has attained a reputation for being gut-supportive, despite a lack of clinical research. The beneficial effects of bone broth on gut health are likely due to its rich mineral content along with its L-glutamine content — both of which may benefit the gut lining. 

The Bottom Line

Having an unhealthy gut can lead to a host of other issues. As the famous physician Hippocrates said thousands of years ago, “all disease starts in the gut.”

Keeping your digestive system functioning optimally not only impacts physical health but also your emotional and mental health. The trick is to figure out where you’re at right now and feed your body what it needs to get back into balance. 

To learn more, check out my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You. Or, for an even more personalized approach, request a consultation at my functional medicine center

➕ References
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