Health & Fitness

The sweet and not-so-sweet gut check

Mehmet Oz, M.D., and Michael Roizen, M.D.
Mehmet Oz, M.D., and Michael Roizen, M.D.

As the saying goes, “You gotta have guts!” Well, not quite. You gotta have good, happy guts! That’s essential for optimal functioning, mentally and physically. But it’s easier said than done in today’s gut-banging, processed-food culture. Turns out lots of things in -- and taken out of -- the foods you eat can upset your guts and the trillions of microbes that live there, making you susceptible to a wide range of diseases and conditions, from weight gain and diabetes to irritable bowel.

Gut Check

There are over 100 trillion microbes living in your digestive tract (or gut biome), and they work together to keep you healthy -- unless you throw them out of balance by eating red and processed meats and other processed foods, loading up on added sugars and sat fats, skimping on fresh veggies and fruits, and overlooking the goodness of 100 percent whole grains.

When in balance, your biome helps protect you from food poisoning, strengthens your immune system, wards off allergies and colds, eases eczema, stops diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome, prevents colitis-related colon cancer and even protects against elevated glucose and heart attacks.

But not all gut bacteria are health-promoting, and you need to keep your harmful gut bacteria in check by having a strong and thriving population of beneficial gut bacteria. So what knocks your biome out of balance?

Sweet and Artificially Sweet Biome Disruptors

We need sugar to function, but you can get what you need by eating gut-loving, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, in the U.S., the average person consumes 150-170 pounds of processed sugar annually (it was just 7.5 pounds back in 1700) and 50 percent of that comes from high fructose corn syrup in fat-free foods like salad dressings and soft drinks. Researchers at Oregon State University conducted a study and found that the typical high-sugar diet causes changes in the mix of the gut biome that interferes with the formation of both long- and short-term memories, and reduces cognitive flexibility. And Israeli researchers found that artificial sweeteners alter the gut biome in ways that trigger glucose intolerance and raise glucose levels! Or, as the National Institutes of Health put it: Some zero-calorie artificial sweeteners “functionally alter” the gut microbiome and can “promote metabolic derangements” in certain groups of people.

Lack of Fiber

Most Americans eat fruit just once a day and veggies twice a day, which means only about 10 percent get the minimum recommended amount daily! That’s gut-bashing 101. Research indicates that eating foods that provide a wide range of both soluble and insoluble fiber -- like veggies and fruit -- may be the No. 1 one way to keep your biome in balance. (A lack of diversity in the biome has been linked to weight gain and obesity.) So, make sure you eat 5-9 servings of fruits and veggies, and get at least two servings of 100 percent whole grains every day.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Taking megadoses of some vitamins can cause imbalance in your gut. For example, researchers have found that having too much of the B vitamin-like substance choline in your system can keep biome-bugs from doing their good works. So stick with half a multivitamin morning and evening, with levels close to the recommended daily intake, and the same for minerals.

Balancing the 100 Trillion

Some believe probiotics are another way to help restore balance to your gut biome if you’ve gone off track. (You may be out of balance if you’re overweight, have problems with constipation, diarrhea or gas, are prone to colds or have elevated blood glucose levels.) We favor daily supplements that can make it through the stomach acid to your guts: the hard-shelled Digestive Advantage (contains bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086) and Culturelle (lactobacillus GG), which are activated by stomach acid. And don’t forget to enjoy no-sugar-added low-fat yogurt and other cultured foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi, that deliver billions of bifidobacterium, streptococcus thermophiles and lactobacillus (particularly acidophilus).

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic.

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