Diversify your diet
Your overall goal for gut health is to create a diverse microbiome. And it’s not just fibre that provides sustenance for good bacteria – other things in our meals do, too. If you eat a large variety of foods, including many different types and colours of fruits and vegetables, that variety will promote a healthy gut.
Not all food is helpful: high-fat processed foods deplete healthy bacterial strains and make your gut less diverse in general, says Chang. In fact, if you were to suddenly swear off eating your salad in favour of fries, he adds, “Your microbiome would change within 24 hours, with a decrease in the healthy microbes that plant fibre promotes.”
Avoid unnecessary antibiotics
Antibiotics are a literal lifesaver when needed, but they do tend to throw our gut microbiome off balance by killing even the bacteria you want to be in there, like the gut-wall maintaining Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes. Usually, a plentiful amount of those two can crowd out bacteria that can make you sick, just as it’s harder for weeds to establish themselves in a lush lawn than in unplanted dirt. But when antibiotics do their job of destruction, bad bacteria can take over before the good have a chance to re-establish themselves. That usually comes with a telltale result that something is off: diarrhoea. While most healthy gut microbiomes can bounce back from that, if yours is already unbalanced, Gibbons says antibiotics could lead to issues like IBS.
To help prevent antibiotic-caused diarrhoea, you can take a probiotic the same day as you start your antibiotics. A 2017 University of Copenhagen review found that only 8 per cent of people who took probiotics developed diarrhoea when they took antibiotics, compared with 18 per cent of those who took placebos.
Most importantly, make sure you really need an antibiotic before you take it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 30 per cent of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary.
Talk to your doctor about probiotics
As mentioned, probiotics have been proven to prevent diarrhoea while taking antibiotics. They may also protect people when they’re travelling to a country where the bacteria in the food and water are different from those back home. Most usefully, though, they may help people who have IBS, although their effectiveness has yet to be confirmed in studies. Anecdotally, however, experts say they can work for some people and continue to encourage patients to try them for gut-related issues. It’s best to try them only at the direction of a health care provider, who can suggest specific brands so you’re not wasting your money on random products. In the meantime, scientists are working to understand them better. “Within the next five to 10 years, I believe we’ll start to see medical grade probiotics hitting the consumer market,” says Gibbons.