How to Restore Healthy Gut Flora
8 min read
By Wing Joo Loong Team
- Stomach bloating, constipation, acid reflux, sugar cravings, mood disorders, poor sleep quality, skin issues and food intolerances are common signs of an unhealthy gut.
- Plant-based enzymes, prebiotics and probiotics function in very different ways but complement one another in improving gut bacteria and absorption of nutrients.
- Chronic high levels of stress, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation and foods that are highly processed, high-sugar, high-salt and high-fat can lead to loss of gut flora (microbial) diversity.
Good gut health is not just about having good digestion. It covers the health of our entire digestive system, from the oesophagus to the bowels. Did you know? Trillions of tiny organisms—microbes—reside in our gastrointestinal tract. Some are beneficial to our health, while others are not. Ensuring a healthy balance of gut bacteria helps:
- Break down and extract energy from foods
- Absorb and synthesise vitamins and amino acids
- Protect against pathogenic bacteria
What Are the Signs of an Unhealthy Gut?
Abdominal pain, stomach bloating, too much gas, constipation, diarrhoea, acid reflux and heartburn are symptoms of an unhealthy gut. Gas is a natural byproduct of healthy gut activity and it is normal to pass gas 10-20 times a day. In addition, a healthy gut should have less difficulty in digesting foods and eliminating remaining waste from the body.
Unintentional Weight Changes
Gaining or losing weight without changing your diet, exercise routine or lifestyle are common signs of an imbalanced gut. When your gut is not working properly, it affects how your body absorbs nutrients, stores fats, balances blood sugar levels and responds to hormones that make you feel hungry or full.
A poor diet rich in highly processed foods and added sugars can destroy good gut bacteria. In addition, the resulting imbalance can lead to increased sugar cravings, which will further damage the gut.
Mood or Sleep Disorders
Your digestive system contains over 100 million nerve cells lining the walls of your gastrointestinal tract, from the oesophagus to the rectum. 95% of the body’s serotonin—often known as the body’s natural “feel good” chemical—is produced in the intestines.  It helps regulate mood as well as influence sleep-wake cycles. Therefore, mood disorders, depression, anxiety and poor sleep quality could be signs of an unhealthy gut.
Research studies suggest that an imbalance of gut bacteria can contribute to skin conditions such as acne, atopic dermatitis, rosacea, psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis. 
Food allergies and food intolerances are often confused together as they share similar symptoms. Food allergies can cause an immune system response and even a tiny amount of the offending food can cause a range of symptoms from itchy red rashes to life-threatening ones like anaphylaxis. Food intolerances are less severe and usually affect only the digestive system, leading to diarrhoea, stomach pain, bloating, nausea, gas and cramps. These are generally due to enzyme deficiencies, as in the case of lactose intolerance.
More than 70% of immune cells are present in our gut. A poor diet rich in high-fat, high-sugar and highly processed foods, overuse of antibiotics and even more hygienic living conditions can reduce the abundance of beneficial gut bacteria in our body. An imbalance in the gut can contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, Type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. [3,4,5]
5 Ways to Improve Your Gut Health
Eating nutrient-dense foods does not mean your body will absorb all the good nutrients effectively — this is why enzymes are essential. Each of us has thousands of enzymes in our bodies. They are essential for all life-supporting activities such as digestion, metabolism, breathing, muscle and nerve function, among thousands of other roles. Unfortunately, with age, the digestive enzymes produced by our pancreas naturally slows down.  This can lead to nutritional deficiencies, poor digestion, food allergies or sensitivity, bloating, gas, diarrhoea and cramps.
Enzymes are generally categorised into three types: digestive, metabolic and food or plant enzymes. Digestive enzymes help break down food into nutrients that our digestive tract can absorb, while metabolic enzymes carry out a variety of cellular functions necessary for life activities. Food and plant enzymes are naturally found in fresh, raw and uncooked foods — the best sources being plants and fungi due to their ability to survive within the pH range of the stomach. They can be found in raw fruits and vegetables, mushrooms and fungal enzymes produced during the preparation of foods like sake, soy sauce, miso, blue cheeses etc.
While probiotics and enzymes aid the digestive process, they function in very different ways. Unlike enzymes, probiotics cannot break down or digest food. Instead, they complement each other and can be taken together to keep the digestive tract healthy and boost nutrition.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that make up the good bacteria inside your gut and play a significant role in digestion, immunity and the absorbance of nutrients. You can consume them through probiotic supplements but they are also available in fermented foods like yoghurt, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, miso, sourdough and tempeh.
Probiotics help repopulate healthy bacteria and promote a microbial balance in the gastrointestinal tract. They are beneficial for conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, urinary tract infection, constipation and antibiotics-associated diarrhoea. [7,8]
Prebiotics are made up of dietary fibre or carbohydrates which are resistant to digestion or cannot be digested by the body. They feed the “friendly” probiotic bacteria in our intestines and help stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the gut. When the intestinal microbiota ferments the prebiotics, they produce short-chain fatty acids, which are food for our gut lining and help lower inflammation. 
You can use prebiotics and probiotics together to support a more diverse microbiome. Foods that provide a great source of prebiotics include apples, bananas, barley, oats, wheat bread, konjac root, kelp, kombu, mushrooms, asparagus, onions, garlic, kidney beans, chickpeas and flaxseeds.
Change Your Diet
Ultra-processed foods such as soft drinks, chips, cookies, hot dogs, frozen meals, ice cream and meal replacement powder have a low nutritional profile. High consumption of such foods can change our gut microbiota and lead to inflammation.  To improve your gut ecosystem, you should reduce highly processed foods, high-sugar, high-salt and high-fat foods. Instead, choose a balanced diet filled with lots of minimally processed plant-based foods, lean proteins, and fibre.
To grow the “good” gut bacteria and reduce the “bad” ones, aim to consume around 30 different plant foods weekly and “eat the rainbow” by incorporating a variety of different coloured fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains in your meals. 
Find the Balance
Chronic high levels of stress, lack of exercise and sleep deprivation can negatively impact your gut health, leading to more sleep issues too. [12,13] It is recommended to get at least 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. Find the time to de-stress through exercise, meditation, yoga or spending time with friends and family.
The information above serves as a general guide only. Please consult a certified TCM practitioner for a more accurate diagnosis and treatment.
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