7 Gut-Healing Foods

When your digestive system is acting up, identifying and avoiding problem foods is often a ­vital first step to relief. But all this attention to exclusion leaves a couple of key questions unanswered: What cana person eat during rough digestive times? And do certain foods help resolve issues while building gut health and resilience?

Here’s the good news: Food is not the enemy when digestive issues arise, even though it can feel that way. Whether you suffer from ulcers, acid reflux, leaky gut, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — or routinely encounter some undiagnosed gut distress — you can choose foods that promote healing, fortify digestive health, and support the entire gastrointestinal (GI) ecosystem.

It Starts With Goodbye

If you regularly experience bloating, reflux, stomach pain, or bowel irregularity, your gut likely does need some care. A healthcare practitioner literate in GI issues can help you identify the root causes of your distress and map out the first phase of your healing process. This will likely include an elimination diet.

“So many different foods trigger people, and there is so much confusion over what gives them digestive distress,” says Hilary Boynton, coauthor of The Heal Your Gut Cookbook. “That is what makes an elimination diet so valuable.”

Elimination diets often relieve symptoms, but most are not meant to last forever. “I do not see these protocols as lifelong ways of eating,” says clinical nutritionist Liz Lipski, PhD, author of Digestive Wellness. “Instead, it is a therapeutic trial to see if changing your diet makes you feel better, to allow the gut to heal, and to give you diagnostics.”

The exceptions, she says, are common allergens, such as gluten, dairy, and eggs. These are more likely to cause long-term trouble for those who can’t tolerate them. Giving up these foods can make people feel so much better that it’s worth the sacrifice.

Foods That Heal

If you’ve experienced a period of gut distress, your body may begin to associate food with discomfort. You may even notice yourself dreading eating. But once you’ve identified and eliminated trigger foods, an array of healing foods may help keep symptoms in check and support a more resilient gut over time.

An added bonus: These beneficial foods also support a more resilient mind. “The gut microbiome can have dramatic effects on mind and mood,” says integrative nutritionist Kathie Swift, MS, RDN, LDN. This is due to the strong connection between the gut and the brain through the vagal nerve and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis.

“We can shift the microbial messages to the brain using food,” she explains. “It’s food as psychological medicine.” (For more on this relation­ship, see “Healthy Gut, Healthy Brain”.)

Now let’s meet some of the foods that are most medicinal for the gut.

1. Dandelion Greens

Good for: Fat digestion

Dandelion greens enhance fat digestion in two ways: They’re both a choleretic, meaning they stimulate bile production, and a cholagogue, an agent that increases bile flow.

“If a person feels like they are not digesting fat well, a cholagogue can help,” says Lipski. Dandelion greens may also promote bowel regularity and improve blood-sugar balance. They are anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic, too.

How to Eat More: Dandelion is notoriously bitter, so if you’re keen on bitter flavors, try the greens in salads, as a base for pesto, or sautéed or braised with garlic.

You can also drink roasted-dandelion-root tea — its pleasant bitterness makes it an excellent coffee substitute. If you have a sweeter palate, try adding dandelion greens to a smoothie with berries, ginger, or green apples.

Cautions: Since dandelion stimulates bile production, those with gallstones or bile-duct issues should consult a healthcare practitioner before consuming large quantities.

2. Cabbage Juice

Good for: Peptic ulcers

In 1949, researcher Garnett Cheney, MD, wanted to see if cabbage juice could help heal ulcers; earlier animal studies had shown promise. So he asked study participants to drink a liter of cabbage juice daily and then tracked how long it took their ulcers to heal compared with people who tried conventional therapy.

The results were astounding: Those who drank cabbage juice saw their ulcers heal in an average of nine days. Earlier studies suggested that conventional treatment typically healed the ulcers in 42 days.

Cheney didn’t know what we know ­today — that most ulcers are triggered by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori — but he discovered something that research confirmed some 60 years later. In one ­animal study, cabbage juice showed “significant inhibitory effects” on H. pylori. Plus, cabbage, like all crucifers, has a vast array of health-promoting properties, including supporting the liver’s detox ­efforts and helping to guard against cancer.

How to Get More: Cabbage juice is surprisingly palatable when it’s combined with juice from other vegetables and fruits, like beets, parsley, and lemons. It may be hard to drink a liter a day, Lipsky notes, “but if you get in a little bit every day, you will end up with some benefit.”

Eating cabbage is easier and also offers plenty of gut-healing benefits: Add it to soups and stir-fries, sauté it in butter and spices, or roast it in the oven — cooking softens cabbage’s astringent flavor. And sauerkraut offers double benefits as a fermented food with probiotics.

Cautions: If you suffer frequent bloating and gas, cabbage may exacerbate those symptoms, especially if it’s eaten raw. If this is true for you, test to see if cooking cabbage makes it more digestible.

3. Fermented Foods

Good for: Gut dysbiosis, leaky gut, constipation, diarrhea, maintaining long-term gut health, building digestive resilience

Sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and other fermented fare are rich in probiotics, which support the health of the gut microbiome. Probiotics have also been shown to help correct gut dysbiosis (an unhealthy ratio of bad bacteria to good bacteria in the GI tract); protect the delicate gut lining; improve transit time, regularity, and stool consistency; and treat and prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea.

In other words, the gut-healing potential of fermented foods is both broad and significant.

Some research suggests they may also ease IBS symptoms and prevent diverticulitis (inflammation or infection of the pouches that can form in your intestines), but results are inconclusive. Use your body’s response as a guide when deciding whether or not to eat fermented foods. If they trigger problems, avoid them (at least for now). If not, enjoy them to your heart’s content; their probiotics make them a boon for gut health.

How to Eat More: Ferments such as sauerkraut and kimchi are great counterpoints to anything rich or starchy. They also add bright flavor to sandwiches and stir-fries — especially those with a creamy sauce like peanut or coconut.

For breakfast, plain yogurt can be topped with berries and nuts; for lunch or dinner, it can be used as a garnish for curries and other spicy dishes.

Those who love tangy flavors can enjoy drinks like kvass and kombucha. Just be on the lookout for added sugars, which can negate some of the benefits of fermentation.

Cautions: Some functional-medicine practitioners argue that gut conditions like SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) don’t need more microbes introduced into the ecosystem. The way to tell if that’s true in your case is to track symptoms: If you notice an uptick in bloating after consuming fermented foods or drinks, ease off.

No eating protocol is healthy for all people, all the time. “I have patients who get so wrapped up in something that they’ve read is healthy that they can’t give up eating it even if it is making them miserable,” says Michael Ruscio, DC, author of Healthy Gut, Healthy You.

He cautions that “these things are very individual” and if you feel worse when you eat a specific food — even a gut-friendly superstar — avoid it for now.

4. Bone Broth

Good for: Leaky-gut syndrome, long-term gut health

Sipping bone broth can be soothing when your gut is overactivated; it may also be healing. “We know that bone broth is high in collagen, minerals, glucosamine, and chondroitin — compounds that alkalize and nourish the body,” says Lipski. “They seem to be really healing for the gut.”

When your digestion isn’t optimal, adding some broth to your diet is a great way to get more vitamins and minerals — and make the most of them. Research on collagen is mixed, but some experts suggest it may improve tight junctions in the gut by helping to rebuild damaged tissue.

How to Eat More: Drink it like tea, use it as a base for soups and stews, add it to chili, use it as a cooking liquid for grains or as the base for a risotto.

Cautions: If your body overproduces histamine (a condition known as mast cell activation syndrome), steer clear of bone broth. “Bone broth can trigger a histamine response,” says Lipski. (For more on histamines, visit “What You Need to Know About Histamine Intolerance”.)

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