How junk food kills gut health — and your immunity!

Most men only think about their gut when they lose the six-pack they once (may) have had. But a healthy gut means much more than abs of steel. In fact, a healthy bacterial population in the gut is essential for overall health and immunity, and eating junk food is a quick way to destroy the microbiota neighborhood.

According to the European Society of Neurogastroenterology and Motility (yes, there is a society called that!), there are tens of trillions of microorganisms in the gut, including at least 1,000 different species of known bacteria with in excess of 3 million genes. This microbiota actually serves as a type of fingerprint: while one third of gut bacteria is common to most people, the remainder is specific to each individual.

Among the microorganisms in the gut are beneficial bacteria, especially those belonging to the genus Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. These are the primary beneficial bacteria you want living in your gut. Beneficial bacteria help maintain an acidic intestinal environment, and they work at keeping harmful bacteria, parasites, and yeasts at bay, meaning they’re an essential part of your immune system.

Why else should you care about these trillions of microorganisms? When the balance of bacteria is disturbed, various essential functions are affected as well, throwing physical and mental health out of whack. For example, gut bacteria

  • Help with digestion in the stomach and small intestine;
  • Assist with the production of vitamins B and K;
  • Have a role in fighting harmful microorganisms, which in turn helps maintain the balance of the gut bacterial neighborhood;
  • Support the immune system by providing a barrier against pathogens;
  • Have an impact on the brain as well via the gut-brain axis, which means they can influence mood and emotions

For example, if you don’t have enough of these good neighbors, the colon becomes more alkaline and the bad bacteria run rampant. Fatigue and brain fog can results, as well as a condition called leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut syndrome occurs when the colon allows pieces of bacteria to enter the bloodstream.

This leads to low-grade inflammation, a factor involved in obesity, heart disease, and many other serious health challenges.

Diet and gut health

Your diet is the most significant influence on your gut bacteria and its health. For many men, that means the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is rich in processed and junk foods such as fast food, chips, candy, donuts, and sodas, and lacking in whole, natural selections. The end result is a diet that fails to provide adequate nutrients and fiber, thus offering little nourishment for gut bacteria and general health.

According to Professor Colin Hill, of the APC Microbiome Institute, University College Cork, the best diet for a healthy, balanced gut microbiota is one that consists of a diverse variety of foods—but not just any foods.

Among the desired choices are prebiotics, which are foods rich in fiber and polysaccharides such as vegetables. These prebiotics pass through the digestive tract and nourish the beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg of Stanford University has a recipe for maintaining a healthy gut neighborhood: “Eat as many high-fiber fruits and vegetables and legumes as you can.” Without enough plant fibers, your gut bacteria are weakened. He also recommends vegetables like garlic, celery, and onions, which contain inulin, a favorite “food” of Bifidobacterium.

How to promote gut health

To promote and maintain gut health, you need to provide your microbiota neighborhood with the types of food that support beneficial bacteria. This includes whole, natural fruits and vegetables, legumes, and other unprocessed choices that provide fiber as well as other nutrients.

The other way to support gut health is to get plenty of live beneficial bacteria in the form of probiotics. One approach is to eat foods that provide these microorganisms, such as yogurt, kefir, tempeh, and fermented vegetables.

However, I also tell everyone who will listen that they should take a high-quality probiotic supplement to help ensure a healthy gut microbiota.

Taking a probiotic supplement that provides at least five but preferably more different beneficial bacteria is best because different probiotics are better at different tasks. By supplementing with many probiotics, you give your gut more opportunities to fight the harmful bacteria and any problems they may cause.

Even if your diet is healthy, it’s still important to take a high-quality probiotic to replenish the loss of beneficial bacteria due to illness, stress, the use of medications, and exposure to environmental toxins. Probiotics also can help with weight loss, boost the immune and system, reduce the risk of colds and flu, and help relieve symptoms of ulcers, diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Don’t let junk food kill your gut health. Stick to a healthful diet, include foods with live bacteria, and take a high-quality probiotic supplement to help ensure a safe bacterial neighborhood.

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Craig Cooper

By Craig Cooper

Craig Cooper is a serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, author, and TV host of CNBC's "Adventure Capitalists". He is an “Ambassador” for both the global men’s health foundation “Movember” and 2XU, the performance sportswear company. He is the author of the Harper Collins book “Your New Prime: 30 Days to Better Sex, Eternal Strength, and a Kick-Ass Life After 40“. Follow Craig on Instagram @craigcooperrrr and Facebook.