Medically Reviewed by Ana Reisdorf MS, RD on January 30, 2020.
The discussion on human disease has centered on gut health for thousands of years. In fact, according to Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, all disease begins in the gut.
Not to forget, Ayurveda – the traditional Indian medicine system – considers gut health as the top determinant of health and well-being.
Modern medicine has witnessed a paradigm shift in its focus on disease causation in the last few decades. One of the most intriguing findings of recent scientific studies points towards gut health as a key player in health and disease.
Bacteria in the human gut have been linked to various diseases. These include obesity, chronic inflammatory diseases of the intestines, liver disorders, and metabolic syndrome.
Besides, several studies suggest a potential link between impaired gut health and mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.
Interestingly, many scientists consider intestinal microbes as a new organ in the human body.
Two factors play a critical role in keeping your gut healthy. They are – diet and fasting.
In this article, we take a closer look at the science-backed benefits of intermittent fasting on your gut health. Also, you will learn the gut health diet and certain foods that help maintain gut balance.
What is Gut Health? Why is It Important?
Typically, gut health refers to a state of absence of any disease of the digestive tract. In addition, it also covers several aspects of digestive health. For example, the effective digestion of food and absorption of nutrients, optimal balance of microbes, and healthy immune functions.
When your gut health is compromised – either due to disruption of the intestinal barrier or a microbial imbalance – the risk of physical and mental health problems rises significantly.
How Does IF Benefit Gut Health?
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a popular method of fasting that involves cycles of fasting and feeding periods.
IF not only promotes weight loss but also offers a myriad of other health benefits. For example, improved general health, lower risk of diabetes and heart disease, and delayed aging.
Below are the benefits of IF on your gut health, based on science.
1. IF could help reduce gut permeability
Gut permeability refers to the passage of contents from the intestines into the rest of the body. The gut barrier is highly selective in controlling what goes out of and comes into the intestines.
When the gut barrier (intestinal barrier) is disrupted due to injuries, infections, or microbial toxins, the intestinal contents can leak into the bloodstream.
Simply put, increased gut permeability could increase the risk of these disorders.
Extended fasting such as IF could help reduce gut permeability and possibly cut down the risk of these disorders, suggests a 2017 study.
Researchers of the study believe that extended fasting, also called gut rest, could reduce gut permeability and systemic inflammation. Note that long-term systemic inflammation can cause cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and swollen joints.
2. IF improves the balance of bacteria in the gut
For optimal gut health, there must be a balance between different types of bacteria in the gut. When a person’s gut loses this balance (dysbiosis), certain types of bacteria can overgrow and lead to serious complications.
IF has shown promising results in helping maintain gut balance by keeping different types of gut bacteria in check.
In a 2016 study, rats that fasted 72 h every 2 weeks for 18 weeks had improved gut balance. Their gut had more Helicobacteraceae and less Lactobacillus, Roseburia, Erysipelotrichaceae, and Ralstonia.
In addition, the fasting rats had significantly lower levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
3. IF increases bacterial diversity in the gut
Bacterial diversity measures how many different types of bacteria are present in the intestines and how evenly they are distributed.
Generally, higher bacterial diversity indicates gut balance while lower diversity indicates dysbiosis. Thus, for a healthy body, you need to have higher bacterial diversity.
In a recent study, a team of researchers led by Francesca Cignarella, Ph.D. (Neuroimmunology Scientist at Washington University in St. Louis) found that IF significantly increased bacterial diversity in mice after four weeks of IF.
4. IF boosts intestinal function
Aging decreases intestinal function by decreasing the number of intestinal stem cells (ISC). Moreover, aging also impairs the function of ISC.
ISC are early forms of cells that continuously divide and form new types of specialized cells in the intestines. When an injury occurs in the intestines, ISC can help repair it by dividing into the types of cells that have been injured.
A 2018 study found that fasting for 24 hours enhances intestinal stem cell function in mice. Interestingly, researchers of the study also noted that both young and aged mice were able to reap the benefit.
They conclude that fasting could be a novel approach to helping intestinal cell regeneration and maintaining gut health.
5. IF might help reduce bacterial load in the gut
The increased bacterial load can cause dysbiosis and changes in intestinal barrier function. This, in turn, can increase the risk of infections and other diseases.
IF can help reduce the bacterial load and maintain intestinal barrier function, suggests a 2018 study. The study, which appears in the journal Current Biology, further notes that reduced bacterial load can lead to improved gut health and a longer lifespan in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster).
Do not Want to Fast? How to Improve Gut Health?
Fasting is not for everyone. When it comes to intermittent fasting, some might think it is not their cup of tea.
If you are one of those who cannot commit to IF, consider the following “gut health diet” tips to keep your gut healthy.
Eat plenty of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and beans. They are rich in fiber, the food for “friendly” bacteria.
Fermented foods are one of the best foods for gut health. Consider taking kombucha, kefir, miso, and apple cider vinegar.
Prebiotics and probiotics work wonders for your gut health and help maintain a healthy bacterial balance. You may try foods like yogurt (probiotic) and bananas (prebiotic) or buy supplements. However, talk to your doctor before taking any supplements to find if they are right for you.
Do not eat highly processed foods. Processed foods may cause dysbiosis and increase inflammation.
Stop eating lots of sugar and artificial sweeteners. The typical Western diet contains lots of sugar and fat, both of which are not beneficial for the “friendly” bacteria in your gut.
Drink enough water every day. Water moistens the mucosal lining of the intestines and helps maintain the balance of “friendly” bacteria in the gut.
Eat healthy fats such as extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO). EVOO contains high amounts of chemicals called “polyphenols” that are beneficial to the gut.
Take an antibiotic only when it’s absolutely necessary. Do not self-medicate with antibiotics. Always talk to a doctor before taking an antibiotic. Antibiotics kill both “friendly” and “harmful” gut bacteria.
“Gut health is not just about digestion, it’s about your entire body and brain”.
Increasing evidence suggests that gut health could hold key to the physical and mental health of an individual. Impaired gut balance has been linked to a number of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and mental illnesses.
Various lifestyle and dietary factors can negatively affect gut balance. For example, eating processed foods can cause dysbiosis. Likewise, irrational use of antibiotics can disrupt the microbial balance in the gut.
Thus, it is critically important to watch what you eat.
Besides, many studies have shown that intermittent fasting could be an additional strategy in helping your gut stay healthy. However, most of these studies have used animal models. The results of these studies may not be applicable to all of us.
Thus, if you thinking to start intermittent fasting, you should first consult an expert.
There are different ways to do intermittent fasting. These include the 5:2 diet, 12-hours fasts, 16-hour fasts, 20-hours fasts, and 24-hour fasts.
You will have to find the approach that meets your unique individual needs so that you can get the best results.
For this, you will need a team of experts. The team will carefully study your unique physical parameters and design an intermittent fasting diet protocol to give you the best possible outcome.
Click here to find your custom fasting plan.