Tag Archive for: gut health and microbiome

Nobody’s digestion is perfect. And finding the foods that won’t frustrate your gastrointestinal tract is often a game of trial and error. Dealing with digestive concerns like gas, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation aren’t fun. These problems may be caused by the FODMAP foods you’re eating.

FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols. (Saccharide is just another term for sugar.) These types of sugar can be minimized in the low-FODMAP diet some people adopt to support good digestive health.

Traditional health recommendations tell you to eat a large variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Research even shows a highly varied diet helps support a healthy gut and healthy microbiome. But no two people are exactly alike. Your diet may contain some normally healthy foods that your personal digestive system doesn’t work well with.

So, if you have digestive concerns, it might be worth limiting some of that variety in your diet. Low-FODMAP diets aim to eliminate or reduce the foods that most commonly feed into occasional indigestion and stomach discomfort.

What are FODMAPs?

To understand why you might be feeling the effects of FODMAPs in your diet, you first need a basic understanding of digestion in the gut. (Find a full recap of your digestive system here.)

After being broken down in your mouth and stomach, most of the food and liquid you eat is absorbed in your small intestine. Fiber and other waste products pass through the small intestine and into your large intestine.

The molecules that make it all the way into your large intestine become food for your microbiome. The sugars and carbohydrates that pass into the large intestine are fermented by bacteria. This fermentation process can create gas—and the accompanying feelings of bloating, cramping, and abdominal discomfort.

Due to individual digestive differences, you may have trouble breaking down and absorbing certain types of sugars and carbohydrates that others can absorb. This means more of the sugars pass into the large intestine, more fermentation takes place, and you’ll potentially feel more digestive discomfort.

The foods targeted by low-FODMAP diets are ones most frequently associated with poor digestion. They don’t need to be avoided by everyone, but some people do benefit from limiting or eliminating certain high-FODMAP foods.

The Chemistry of FODMAPs

As you learned above, FODMAP is an acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. If you know the basic chemistry of carbohydrates, then you might be worried this is a far-reaching diet with a goal of eliminating all carbohydrates in your diet. But that’s not the case. A low-FODMAP diet only limits the intake of specific types of sugars within these carbohydrate categories.

For example, sucrose, lactose, and maltose are all disaccharides commonly found in the diet. Only fructose is limited in a low-FODMAP diet. So, you don’t need to worry about reducing all disaccharides in your diet.

These are the specific molecules targeted within each category of a low-FODMAP diet:

  • Fermentable oligosaccharides (polysaccharides): fructans and galactooligosaccharides
  • Disaccharides: lactose
  • Monosaccharides: fructose
  • Polyols: sorbitol, mannitol, and maltitol

You’ll discover your individual needs vary. For example, some fermentable oligosaccharides may need to be eliminated for a successful low-FODMAP diet, while the disaccharides and polyols foods can still be eaten, just in small amounts.

Unlike the other molecules targeted by a low-FODMAP diet, fructose isn’t limited to a threshold amount. Instead, it is limited in relationship to the amount of glucose you eat. That’s because glucose, when eaten together with fructose, helps increase the absorption of fructose in the small intestine.

When fructose is eaten alone or too much is eaten in relationship to glucose, then it will pass into the large intestine. Once in the large intestine, then fructose can cause some of the same problems as the other FODMAP molecules.

High and Low FODMAP Foods

A simple online search for “FODMAP foods” will help you find lots of lists and charts of foods to avoid or include in your diet. Below you will find a short sample list of some high-FODMAP foods (to avoid or limit), and others that are low (less likely to cause problems) in FODMAPs.

  • Fructans and galactooligosaccharides
    • High: wheat, rye, barley, onion, garlic, artichoke, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, legumes
    • Low: corn, rice, quinoa, potatoes, bell pepper, cucumber, green beans,
  • Lactose
    • High: milk, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream
    • Low: lactose-free milk, almond milk, hard cheeses
  • Fructose
    • High: pears, apples, watermelon, honeydew, papaya, star fruit, fruit juices, agave nectar
    • Low: blueberries, strawberries, oranges, pineapple, cantaloupe, kiwi
  • Polyols
    • High: apples, apricots, avocados, foods sweetened with honey, sorbitol, mannitol, or maltitol
    • Low: dark chocolate, table sugar, maple syrup, brown sugar

Implementing a FODMAP Diet

Not everyone will benefit from avoiding FODMAP foods. But if you decide to try a low-FODMAP diet, it’s best to work through the list of foods systematically. It’s unlikely that all high-FODMAP foods are causing you problems.

Where possible, keep as many foods and as much variety as you can in your diet. The three-step approach below will help you find out which foods may be causing problems for you. Then you know which foods you can continue to enjoy.

1. Elimination and Restriction

The best way to start is by restricting or eliminating as many high-FODMAP foods as possible. After sticking to this strict diet for a few weeks, hopefully your digestive system will feel better.

If symptoms still haven’t improved, you should work with your doctor or dietician to develop a personal plan for you and look at foods outside the FODMAP list.

2. Reintroducing Foods

If the FODMAP foods elimination has helped, it’s time to start reintroducing some options you eliminated from your diet. Reintroduce foods one at a time, and only in small amounts.

By testing out foods one at a time, you will learn which ones are safe for you to eat, and which ones need to be either eliminated or only eaten in very small amounts. After testing out a food, wait one or two days to feel how you tolerate it.

Take your time with the reintroduction phase. You’re going to be tired of eating a restricted diet and anxious for some freedom in your food choices. If you try too many FODMAP foods at once or don’t wait enough time between testing new foods, then you won’t know which choices are responsible when problems arise again (and they probably will).

There may be times when you need to go back to step one and spend a couple of weeks with a more restricted diet, just to let your GI system settle down again. Then you can start testing new foods again.

3. A Personalized Diet

Just like the FODMAP foods lists and charts you’ll find online, it’s probably worth making your own list. It will help you clearly define which foods to avoid, limit, and can be safely eaten.

By following this process of elimination and reintroduction, you may even find foods that aren’t on traditional low-FODMAP lists. This will also help create a very personalized diet.

A low-FODMAP diet requires patience to figure out, and it isn’t a magic solution that will solve all your digestive-health concerns. But it is a tool that can help you on a path to better digestion, while still includes a beneficial variety of healthy foods in your diet.

Your gut isn’t shy about letting you know when you’ve wronged it. The signs of strife can pop up anywhere along the digestive tract. Absent of obvious chaos, your level of digestive health may remain a bit of a mystery. If it’s working right, you might not notice. The nine-question digestive health quiz will paint a more vivid picture of your gastrointestinal wellness.

The dietary and lifestyle decisions you make shape your gut health. So the questions in this digestive health check will primarily focus on what you’re eating. Unless you keep a food journal, it may be hard to be completely accurate. That’s OK. Think about what you’ve eaten on an average day or week in the last month.

After the quiz, you’ll be able to see your score. You’ll also find extra information about what impacts your score and tips to help optimize your digestive health.


Your body is full of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Trillions of these tiny microbes—collectively called your microbiome—exist mainly inside your intestines, in your mouth, and on your skin. They are with you from birth. And, surprisingly, that’s a good thing.

While some bacteria and microbes are potentially harmful, others are extremely important for supporting your health. Maintaining nutritional status, immunity, and the behavior of the brain are related to a healthy balance of these microbes.

Refresh your knowledge on the microbiome with these helpful stories:

Defining Microbiome: Meet Your Bacterial Buddies

The Gut-Brain Axis: Connecting Your Brain and Microbiome

Your Gut Microbiome’s Reaction to Dietary Fiber

How Your Complex Oral Microbiome Impacts Health

Why Your Skin Microbiome is Important—And 5 Ways to Protect It

Diversity is Key and Prebiotics and Probiotics Can Help

One established characteristic of a healthy gut environment is the variety or diversity of the microbes. The more diverse your microbial community is, the more resilient it is likely to be.

When your gut is loaded with a variety of friendly bacteria, there’s less empty space for the bad kind to take up permanent residence.

Environment, genetics, and other factors have some influence on your microbiome. But your diet determines what grows best and what microorganisms win the battle for space and resources.

Common modern diets are rich in sugars, saturated fats, and processed food. They also lack fiber. This tends to select for certain bacterial species to dominate. A vegetarian or Mediterranean diet, on the other hand, includes a lot of fiber, healthy fats, and is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Different species of bacteria are known predominate in guts of people who regularly consume these diets.

The amount of prebiotic fiber (which feeds the microbiome) and probiotic foods (which provide live bacteria) are part of these dietary calculations, too. A varied diet rich in fiber, and its positive impact on the microbiome, is an important piece of the health puzzle. It’s just one reason health professionals emphasize abundant fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains in your daily diet.

Putting the Focus on Prebiotics

The most effective way to influence your gut microbiome in the right direction is to consistently include a wide variety of fiber in your diet. Probiotics is a more well-known microbiome vocabulary word, and they’re important to health. But certain fibers, known as prebiotics, are just as important.

Prebiotics essentially act as a gut fertilizer. That’s because they are certain non-digestible carbohydrates (fiber) that nourish healthy microorganisms (probiotics). For example, prebiotics like inulin support the balance of healthy bifidobacteria (important gut bacteria in mammals) in the digestive tract. If you’re going to populate your gut with a variety of healthy microbes, you need a variety of fibers and prebiotics in your diet.

Here’s where you can find them. Check out the food sources that provide healthy fiber and prebiotics to your diet:

Chicory root – inulin

Dandelion Greens – fiber

Jerusalem Artichoke – inulin

Garlic – inulin and FOS (fructooligosaccharides)

Onions – inulin and FOS

Leeks – inulin

Asparagus – inulin

Bananas – inulin and resistant starch

Barley – beta-glucans

Oats – beta-glucans and resistant starch

Apples – pectins

Konjac root – glucomannan fiber

Burdock root – inulin and FOS

Flaxseeds – gums, cellulose, and lignans

Jicama – inulin

Wheat Bran – arabinoxylan oligosaccharides (AXOS)

Probiotics Can Help Change Bacteria’s Bad Reputation

Most people are taught to watch out for spoiled food, which is generally caused by an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria or mold. It’s a legitimate concern. But certain types of bacteria help support your health and are safe in the proper balance. They’re called probiotics—meaning “for life.”

As mentioned above, these healthy bacterial probiotics support the balance and health of the intestinal environment in several different ways. This includes providing competition, supporting immune function, and communicating through chemical signals.

It’s much more complex than that, but that’s the basic idea. If you want to dive deeper, this recent review article will give you a more complete understanding of how probiotics work.

Acquiring probiotics from your diet is a matter of choosing and incorporating certain foods into your meals. You can find them in fermented dairy foods, like yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, and some types of cheese. Fermented soy products like tempeh, miso, and natto are also excellent sources. Even vegetables get into the act with kimchi, pickles, and sauerkraut. Another popular trend is making or drinking kombucha, which is made from fermenting a mixture of tea, yeast, and sugars.

Combining probiotics and prebiotics could multiply potential benefits. Some symbiotic fermented foods do that for you. Yogurt and kefir are two examples of foods that have living bacteria and prebiotic substances to feed them.

Answers to Common Prebiotic and Probiotic Supplement Questions

Under normal circumstances, diet is the most important factor in a healthy gut environment. Everyone should prioritize a healthy, balanced diet as a lifelong practice. But that’s often easier said than done.

Sometimes life and health just doesn’t go as planned, regardless of intent. In these cases, supplemental prebiotics and probiotics can help fill gaps where the diet may come up short. Take a look at some of the common questions about these dietary additives.

Why take a probiotic or prebiotic supplement?

Many realities of life can disrupt the stability of your gut environment. A few include: stress, a nutrient-poor diet, dehydration, unhealthy sleep patterns, certain medications, and exposure to new microbes when traveling.

Instability in the gut microbiome can even be associated with the normal aging process. A change in nutritional status and lifestyle can negatively influence gut health, especially in older adults.

In these situations—where your gut health can be in flux—a probiotic or prebiotic (or both) can help support the diversity and balance of your gut microbiome. Supporting a healthy diverse microbial environment can help you maintain normal digestion, which you need to utilize and metabolize energy and nutrients. In the same way your body needs essential vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients on a daily basis, your gut needs the right nourishment every day to operate at its best.

When it comes to dosage or colony forming units (CFU), is higher always better?

Even at billions of colonies, the amounts of bacteria added through probiotics is minuscule in the context of the entire gut environment. In other words, rather than thinking of a product containing 50 billion CFU being four-times more than 12 billion, it’s more accurate to think of it as 50 billion out of trillions, versus 12 billion out of trillions.

The dosage that’s most appropriate for you depends on your health goals and the specific probiotics included in a particular formula. For general balance and maintenance of healthy microflora, products containing five to 20 billion CFU are typical. A product containing 50-billion CFU may be needed for certain probiotic strains or health concerns. Even higher dosages are sometimes used for intensive therapy or to restore flora to an optimal balance after illness.

So total CFU counts do matter, but so do your personal needs. It’s always a good idea to consult with your healthcare practitioner to determine the best CFU number for you.

Do probiotics survive the harsh environment of the stomach?

It’s true that stomach acid destroys much of the bacteria and microbes you ingest. But not all strains are wrecked by the acidic environment of the stomach. Food poisoning wouldn’t be an issue if stomach acid was 100-percent effective.

When searching for a probiotic supplement, look for strains known to survive the acidic environment of the stomach and the body’s bile. You may find this listed on the label or in company literature. A quick search on Google may also indicate whether the strain has been tested to survive the stomach environment.

Are more strains always better than fewer strains?

Because of the diversity of the microbiome, it is easy to assume that a probiotic containing many different strains is the best option. However, existing research suggests that most often the opposite is true.

The majority of compelling research papers revealing health benefits of probiotics involve single strain and two-strain probiotics. Why? Many factors determine whether a probiotic strain will be beneficial or not, including stability, ability to survive digestion, compatibility with your microbial environment, and formulation of the probiotic product itself.

What should I look for on the label of probiotics?

All probiotics should list the genus, species, and specific strain of bacteria. For example, Bifidobacterium animalis BB-12 is listed by genus (Bifidobacterium), species (animalis), and strain (BB-12). Strains are all different and have unique characteristics, and quality probiotic supplements will designate the specific strains that are included.

When and how is it best to take probiotics and prebiotics?

There really isn’t any solid evidence that timing is important in most cases. Probiotics can be taken in the morning, noon, or night—whenever it’s best for you. There’s also debate about whether it’s better to take probiotics with a meal or on an empty stomach. Unless there are specific product instructions to the contrary, you can take them with or without food.

The recommendation is much the same for prebiotics. Consistency is the most important recommendation, so take them whenever it works best for you to take them on a daily basis. They can be taken together with probiotics, and they are often included with probiotic products and foods.  But it isn’t necessary to combine them or take them together if it doesn’t work best for you.

What is the best form for a probiotic product?

The form and delivery system that is best depends on the specific microbes used, the intended purpose, and distribution of the product. Some probiotics require refrigeration to maintain viability, while others do not. Probiotics can come in capsules, powders, liquids, packets, tablets, or even in food products themselves. Stability and viability are important, so be sure to purchase probiotic products from a company or source you trust.

Who should NOT take probiotics?

Although probiotics are generally safe to use, there are reports linking probiotics to side effects in some people. The people most likely to have problems are those with compromised immunity, people who are critically ill, and those who’ve had recent surgery. If there is a question in these cases, it’s always best to consult a health professional.

Can children take probiotics? 

There are various reasons a child may benefit from probiotics. Most pediatricians are familiar with probiotics so it’s best to discuss the appropriate use and dosage in children with your health professional.

The first part of the digestive story receives the most fawning attention. Everyone likes a beginning, and eating is a winning topic. The grinding, churning breakdown of digestion makes for an industrial middle section. Then there’s the end. “Waste is expelled.”

But everyone is a digestive magician whose failsafe trick is turning delicious food into poop. It’s normal. It’s essential. And it’s time the finale of the digestive story had its moment—it’s time to talk about what your poop means and what your poop says about your health.

Don’t cower from this poop talk or think yourself uncouth for your interest in the topic. Don’t hold it against yourself or scold your inner child for giggling. By the end, you’ll see that poop is important—if a little gross—to consider and discuss. You can handle the types of stool and what poop color means.

Poop can be a funny word, an uncivilized topic, and a key to understanding your health—all at once.

Look to the Large Intestine for Keys to Understanding What Your Poop Means

Poop is formed from the solid parts of food your body can’t absorb or use in another way. It’s purely waste—the scatological leftovers—collected and compressed in your large intestine.

And your colon is a great starting place for this indelicate discussion. That’s because various stool types and what your poop says about your health begins in the large intestine. Many of the factors broken down below have their origins here.

Before proceeding further, let’s explore a bit more about what makes up your poop. No matter the consistency, poop contains a lot of water—approximately 75 percent. You’ll also find undigested matter, which mainly means fiber. Stool also contains:

  • live and dead bacteria
  • intestinal mucus
  • proteins and fats
  • salts
  • a variety of other cells and discarded cell parts

This mashup of your body’s trash collects in your large intestine. It solidifies the longer the mixture stays here because water is absorbed through the large intestine.

When it’s time to go, your defecation reflex starts. The literal movement of your bowels is driven by peristalsis. These muscle contractions in the rectum, like those along the digestive conveyor belt, initiate the final act of digestion.

During your follow-up work in the bathroom, a lot of questions can pop up. The biggest one seems to be, “Is that normal?” People don’t regularly—no pun intended—talk about what their usual stool is like, so comparison is hard to come by.

That being said, you can look at the characteristics below and better understand what your poop means. The information you’ll receive from your own quick stool study won’t be medical quality, but it can begin to illuminate what your poop says about your health.

What Stool Color Means

The color palate of your poop should exist in shades of brown. The exact variations and hues are determined mostly by the raw materials of your diet.

The leftovers will look a lot like what you ate, so the exact color can change day by day. More leafy greens one day will add a touch of green. Beets can produce a shocking red. But brown remains dominant because that’s the color of used up digestive enzymes, bile, and bilirubin.

Divergences in poop color that are unexplained by your diet may be signals from your body. Here’s an explanation for what stool color means:

  • Black: Some iron supplements and copious amounts of black licorice could be the culprit. Outside of those explanations, black poop is a serious matter to bring to your doctor’s attention. It can mean bleeding is happening in your upper intestinal tract.
  • Red: Your first thought is blood. And, in the absence of red foods, you’re probably right. But, unlike black poop, the bleeding is happening later in the process—in the large intestine or rectum.
  • Really Green: If you skipped the spinach and still have very green poop, the issue lies with bile. Your body hasn’t had time to fully utilize and dismantle the bile before your bathroom break. That suggests your food’s cruise down the digestive highway is happening at higher-than-normal speeds.
  • Grey/White: Green means too much bile leftover, and grey or white is the opposite. This coloration may mean inadequate bile supplies earlier in the digestive process. Talk to your doctor about reasons this may be consistently happening.
  • Yellow: Fat is typically at fault for yellow-colored poop. If this is a persistent problem, you can talk to a health-care professional about potential absorption issues.

Fecal Firmness and Texture Tell You a Lot

You can feel when something is off about the firmness and texture of your poop.

Ideally, your stool is smooth, firm, soft—but not too soft—and passes without issue. Think of this as the center of a continuum. The further your feces strays from that middle point in either direction, the less healthy it is.

Moving left and away from the center, the stool types grow increasingly lumpy and firm. Some lumpiness is OK. The far-left side of the spectrum is poop that’s like hard, little, problematic pebbles.

The opposite is true for the far-right side of the stool spectrum. The further you go, the softer it becomes—ultimately hitting diarrhea at the extreme right end. A little softness in the stool is still accepted as healthy, but once you start seeing cloud-like pieces with ragged edges, you may be on the way to diarrhea.

There’s a lot of space between pebbly feces and a smooth stool, as well as diarrhea and the perfectly formed poop. Your bowel movements can and will slide along the spectrum depending on your diet and daily blips in digestive health.

Time spent in the colon is responsible for a lot of differences in texture and firmness. Poop hardens up when it spends too much time there, but it gets softer the faster it moves through.

This speed can tell you a bit about what’s going on in your digestive health. Hard, pebble-like stool signals constipation and might also be a sign of dehydration or a lack of fiber. On the other side, diarrhea is your body’s way of quickly ridding itself of unwanted items. Those can include bacteria, viruses, and foods it doesn’t easily tolerate.

Bigger digestive issues can be tied to the extremes of the stool spectrum. If issues persist, consult with your health-care provider.

Judging Your Bowel Movement’s Buoyancy

Unlike color or texture, buoyancy is simple, with no spectrums or charts. There are only two options—sink or float.

You want your poop to sink in the toilet bowl. That’s a sign of good density. It also means your stool doesn’t contain too much fat.

If your poop floats, you may consider cutting back on fat in your diet. Consistent floating issues after a dietary change might mean your body is having trouble absorbing fat—another point of discussion with your doctor.

What Your Poop Says About Your Health if There are Visible Food Particles

Don’t worry too much if you can identify some of the fibrous parts of your diet in your poop. Fiber isn’t able to be digested fully, and the insoluble sort may not change much on the digestive journey.

You can help your guts out by chewing your food better to give digestion an adequate head start. Breaking up fiber-rich vegetables in your mouth won’t make the indigestible parts break down fully. But it will at least make the end of the process less alarming.

Your Last Two Poop Properties to Consider: Size and Smell

No two poops are the same in size. If you eat more, you’ll poop a bit more—whether more frequently or in larger quantities.

It’s normal to poop up to three times a day and as infrequently as every couple of days. And your round, smooth-but-solid stools are ideally a few inches (several centimeters) each. The small, hard pebbles aren’t what you want. But if it’s a bit bigger, that’s not problematic in and of itself—especially if it was easy to pass.

Then there’s smell.

If your poop actually smells like flowers, that would be more abnormal than a bit of unpleasant odor. Poop stinks. And that’s because bacterial breakdown of food is a smelly business. But if the odor is often extremely pungent—to the point where you can’t stand it—you may want to check with your doctor about a potential infection or digestive issue.

A Few Words About Urine

While body waste is at the top of your mind, you might also wonder about urine. It’s another way your body is emptying the garbage. You can learn something about your health from your urine, too.

Pee color is often the first and best signal for hydration status. Properly hydrated people have pale, straw-colored urine. The darker the shade of yellow, the more water you need to start drinking.

Some vitamins may also impact the color of urine, turning it a brighter, more golden color. Medications and food coloration (including natural pigments or synthetic dyes) can make your urine blue, green, or brown. Red or pink urine could also be food related, but blood is often to blame. See your doctor if bloody urine persists outside of dietary factors.

Your pee can also smell different, depending on the balance of waste products and water in urine. If you haven’t eaten asparagus and your pee consistently and persistently smells strong and odd, it might warrant a conversation with a health-care professional.

Don’t Waste an Opportunity to Keep an Eye on Your Health

People’s trash tells interesting stories. You can learn a lot. Poop is your body taking out the garbage, and there’s much to glean from the types of stool you have. So stop shortchanging the end of the digestive story and pay a bit more attention to what your poop says about your health and your lifestyle.

But it’s easy to overreact to a peculiar poop. Your strange stool might have you rushing to the internet to dabble in self-diagnosis. Don’t do it.

What your poop says about your health is worth paying attention to. But clear signals tend to bear out in the long-term more than on a single occurrence. You should immediately address bleeding or black stool, and quickly deal with diarrhea or constipation. Other indications about what your poop means may change as quickly as the calendar flips from day to day, though.

If you’re looking for positive poop interventions, start with your diet and lifestyle. Changes in diet can upend your fecal expectations. Switching to a higher-fiber diet will make an impact you’ll see in the toilet bowl quickly. Same goes for lowering your fat intake. Other lifestyle tweaks to form more perfect poops include healthy hydration, regular exercise, and supporting a balanced microbiome.














Eating is one of life’s great joys. But what follows—digestion—is more work than wonder for your stomach. The stomach functions as a chemical and mechanical pouch solely designed to break down food for absorption. In addition to what the stomach does for digestion, it’s also your main food storage tank.

The stomach is also the first stop after you’ve swallowed food. Unlike other sophisticated organs, like the brain or liver, the stomach is a physical brute. In addition to a muscular lining to pulverize food into smaller pieces, highly acidic gastric juices are created to further dissolve your dinner. What the stomach does is tackle the tough work of preparing nutrients to be absorbed in the intestines.

Your stomach anatomy is unique, which helps it perform three vital food functions:

  • Temporary storage
  • Mixing and breakdown
  • Preparation for nutrient absorption in the intestines

Read on to learn more about how the stomach functions. You’ll also discover the way vitamin B12 and other nutrients are extracted from food, fun stomach facts, and how to care for your digestive system.

Your Stomach Anatomy Helps Accomplish What the Stomach Does in Digestion   

The entire digestive system is one continuous tube connecting your mouth (where food enters) to your anus (where waste is expelled). And your stomach anatomy is best described as an enlarged, pouch-like section of this digestive tube. The muscular, J-shaped organ is found in the upper part of your abdomen on the left side of your torso. At approximately 12 inches long and six inches wide—size may vary depending on the person, sex, build, and how much they’ve eaten—it connects your esophagus to your small intestine.

All digestion starts in your mouth, where food is chewed and combined with saliva. As each bite is sufficiently broken down, a digestive tube opens at the esophagus to allow food to travel to the tip of your stomach. Once there, an esophageal sphincter opens to pass chewed food into the stomach—one of the many key organs for extracting nutrients from your diet. If the sphincter doesn’t work properly, acidic gastric juices can leach into your esophagus which feels unpleasant—to say the least.

Your stomach anatomy is broken into four primary sections:

  • Cardia: Where contents of the esophagus enter the stomach.
  • Fundus: An expanded area connecting the esophagus to the stomach.
  • Body: The main, central region of the stomach.
  • Pylorus: Where digested food is dispelled into the small intestine.

The majority of what the stomach does for food digestion takes place in the organ’s body section, where chewed foods mix with acidic gastric juice and digestive enzymes. This content is churned through a series of muscle contractions called peristalsis. They are vigorous enough to ground solid foods down into a smooth food pulp for easy extraction of nutrients in the intestines.

The inner mucous lining of the stomach contains a series of folds that run its length—from the esophageal to the pyloric sphincters. These folds aid stomach functions by creating pathways for moving the food around and helping in digestion. While the majority of nutrient absorption takes place in your small intestine, the stomach does pull out some water, medication, amino acids, and water-soluble vitamins during its digestive stage.

Your stomach wall is made up of several layers of mucous membrane, connective tissue with blood vessels, nerves, and muscle fibers. Inner stomach lining also has glands that release the three to four liters of gastric juice needed every day to facilitate the absorption of nutrients. Its hydrochloric acid also breaks down food while digestive enzymes split up proteins.

Gastric juice is so virulent to organic matter it’s able to kill bacteria in your digestive system. To protect your stomach from the gastric juices, bicarbonate is produced in the pancreas and the stomach to neutralize the hydrochloric acid. In addition, mucus lines the walls of the stomach to reduce the effects of gastric juices. Once food has been transformed into pulp, the pyloric sphincter opens and pushes the material into your small intestine for further digestion and nutrient absorption. The stomach’s digestive job is done.

The Stomach Functions as a Key Cog in Vitamin B12 Absorption

Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient to keep your body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, while helping support DNA synthesis and red-blood-cell formation. Good sources of B12 are readily available in meats (beef, pork, and fish), eggs, milk, and fortified cereals. B12 is so vital to your body that three to five years’ worth of the essential vitamin is stored in your liver to continue healthy red-blood-cell production and other key functions.

While B12 is primarily absorbed in the small intestine, it can’t be used without first passing through the stomach. During the initial digestion process, B12 is pulled out of food and combined with a cell-recognition protein, called an intrinsic factor, from the parietal cells of the stomach.

Vitamin B12 supports the health of your entire body. This essential vitamin helps keep the body’s nerves and blood cells healthy and helps maintain the mechanisms for making new DNA. And without the digestive assistance from the stomach, the body wouldn’t be able to take on this vital nutrient.

Tips on How to Care for Your Stomach

You’ve learned how the stomach functions. Now let’s explore how you can support optimal stomach health. Caring for your stomach can have overlapping benefits for the rest of your body. And simple lifestyle changes go a long way to promote good stomach health and support your general well-being.

  1. Stay Hydrated

Water is vital for good health, and it is essential at all levels of digestion. Water helps soften food as you chew it, assists with its travel down the esophagus, and creates bulkier yet softer stool for waste removal. Water also aids in the breakdown of foods so your body can absorb the nutrients. Drinking eight glasses of water a day helps your stomach process food and supports proper hydration.

  1. Follow a Regular Eating Schedule

When you eat is almost as important as what you eat. Your body’s circadian clock is an internal biologic timer that coordinates daily behaviors: sleep/wake, hormone release, and heart function. It responds to environmental changes, like light and food, and helps coordinate your circadian rhythms with your surroundings.

When your clock is out of sync, it can negatively affect your health. Your body expects certain fuels (fats, sugars) at specific times of day. Eating at set times allows for proper digestion. Sporadic eating overworks your stomach as it digests food, sometimes causing bloating and indigestion. Studies show eating every 3–5 hours gives your stomach enough time to adequately process your food and fuel your body.

  1. Eat More Fiber

Fiber is a unique type of carbohydrate that’s essential to maintain a healthy weight and support overall health. While most carbohydrates are converted into sugar, fiber passes through your body undigested. It helps to regulate your hunger levels and assists with waste removal, supporting digestive health and overall well-being.

There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibers are found in oats, peas, beans, carrots, and citrus fruits. Insoluble fibers—wheat bran, nuts, and certain vegetables like cauliflower and potatoes—don’t dissolve in water to help materials move through your digestive tract.

Your stomach muscles and gastric acids break down food. And a diet rich in fiber helps bind the food pulp that’s passed from the stomach into the intestines. Once it reaches your colon, fiber feeds friendly gut bacteria and helps maintain your microbiome.

  1. Chew Your Food

Food is mostly digested in your stomach and intestines, but the process starts the second you take a bite. Chewing breaks down food into smaller pieces. This helps food to travel down your esophagus (to avoid choking) and assists your stomach with digestion. Chewing mixes saliva—which is packed with digestive enzymes—into your food to allow your body to absorb the greatest amount of nutrients.

Properly chewed food is easier for your stomach to mix with enzymes and digestive juices to continue breaking down nutrients for fuel. The better you chew your food, the easier it is for your stomach functions to carry on optimally.

Did you know these fun stomach facts?

  • Excuse me! Burping releases air molecules swallowed while eating. That’s why you burp when you drink carbonated beverages.
  • Belly size doesn’t correlate to stomach size. Regardless of your midsection’s girth, the average stomach is the same size, about 12 inches long and six inches wide.
  • On the front line. The acid in your stomach sterilizes and neutralizes bacteria and other toxins you might consume.
  • Home of hormones. Your stomach produces a variety of substances. This includes digestive enzymes, acids, and hormones that help stimulate hunger.
  • Stronger than steel. Stomach acid, or hydrochloric (HCl) acid, is powerful enough to dissolve most metals. Originally produced from green vitriol and rock salt, HCl is also known as muriatic acid, acidium salis, and spirit of salts.
  • Time for supper. A growling stomach is called borborygmic. It happens all the time, but it’s easier to hear when your stomach is empty.
  • Zero gravity diners. Muscles in your esophagus constrict and relax in a wave-like manner called peristalsis. This motion pushes food down your esophagus, which is why astronauts digest their food the same in space as on Earth.

Feed Your Body Right to Keep Up Healthy Stomach Function

It’s common for the stomach to be considered the home of your entire digestive process. But your stomach is just one of the many important organs that help your body absorb nutrients.

The best way to take care of your stomach’s health is to eat a balanced diet of whole foods, lean meats, plant-based fats, and to drink plenty of water. And while exercise doesn’t directly impact stomach functions, an active lifestyle can help burn excessive calories and help with heart health.

As the fuel tank for your body, your stomach temporarily stores the food that it later turns into the energy you need to power your life. So, the next time you feel something in the pit of your stomach, use these tips to give your belly the extra boost of support it needs.

When it comes to digestion, your job is easy. You cook, chew, swallow, and clean up. But after your plate is empty, the hard part starts. A cohort of digestive worker bees handles the arduous task of transforming chunks of chewed up nutrition into more useful forms. And from your mouth to small intestine, digestive enzymes bear the brunt of breaking down your diet into accessible, absorbable pieces.

You’re probably more familiar with the mechanical methods used to turn your afternoon apple into glucose, fiber, and micronutrients. That’s because you can feel your teeth biting, cutting, and grinding food up. You can even detect the churning of food in your stomach.

Digestive enzymes’ work goes undetected while it’s happening—because it occurs on a microscopic scale. Enzymes are specialized proteins throughout your body that support the activity of various important chemical reactions. These enzyme-driven reactions happen all the time without you knowing. But you’d feel the absence if your digestive enzymes took a day off.

That’s because these specialized proteins support healthy digestion. The enzymes working all along the digestive conveyor belt aid in breaking down food. This action is why digestive enzymes help you feel less bloated and full, while also assisting with other occasional issues that can occur when you eat too much.*

But that’s only one of the ways digestive enzymes support your health. Your body can’t use what it can’t absorb. Creating smaller molecules out of your food’s macronutrients is key for maintaining optimal whole-body nourishment. After enzyme-aided reactions occur, your dietary nutrition is able to soaked up by the small intestine—and eventually spread to the cells of your body.*

Without digestive enzymes, eating would be nothing more than an excuse to gnash your teeth. So follow your food’s digestion journey and meet the important digestive enzymes at each stop that help support the breakdown and healthy, efficient absorption of your dietary nutrition.*

A Quick Guide to Natural Digestive Enzymes

Specific chemical reactions in your body require unique enzymes to support their normal activity. This could make for a very lengthy list of digestive enzymes. But here are four of the most important and well-known digestive enzymes and how they’re involved in supporting healthy digestion:*

  • Amylase for starches
  • Lipase for fats
  • Protease for proteins
  • Lactase for the milk protein lactose

You can also think of amylase, lipase, protease as categories of enzymes. Along the digestive journey, there are different subsets of each main enzyme type that breaks down the major macronutrients.

The Mouth: It Starts with Saliva

Your mouth waters at the sight or smell of an impending meal. This isn’t some cartoonish reaction to a delicious dinner. It’s an important step that delivers the digestive enzymes that kick off digestion.

Your salivary glands are responsible for producing several enzymes carried in saliva and mixed with food as you chew. These specific digestive enzymes—including amylase—start the process of breaking down carbohydrates into simpler sugars.

The Stomach: More than Acid

Your stomach growls, rumbles, and expands if it gets too full. That makes your stomach the central concern when you talk about eating. And it does have a big, messy job to do—one that couldn’t be completed without the help of digestive enzymes.

Along with stomach acid, a protease called pepsin—released by the cells of your stomach wall—combines with fat- and carb-crunching enzymes to disassemble macronutrients. That’s how the fats, carbs, and protein of your diet are churned, mixed, and deconstructed into a liquid called chyme.

At this point, your meal is well on its way to a state of acceptable absorbability. But there are a few more organs and their enzymes that need to join the digestive party before nutrient absorption happens.

The Pancreas: A Powerful Enzyme-Excreting Organ

Your pancreas provides a lot of juice to help move food closer to its digestive destiny. Between your stomach and small intestine, enzymes produced in the pancreas take a turn breaking down your food further. They enter through ducts into the duodenum—located in the very upper portion of your small intestines.

These diverse digestive enzymes are secreted to specifically disassemble proteins into amino acids or peptides, and fats into their component fatty acids and glycerol. Carbohydrates are also further simplified at this stage of digestion.

Although not a digestive enzyme, bile from the liver is also key at this stage to helping support the breakdown of fats you eat.

The Small Intestine: Enzymes at the Site of Absorption

You wouldn’t recognize that apple or sandwich you ate by the time it reaches your small intestine. It’s been chewed up, churned about, and broken down.

But there’s one more set of digestive enzymes needed to finish the job and make final preparations for absorption. These enzymes finish the job of simplifying carbohydrates into glucose or fructose and further deconstruct proteins into their base building blocks—amino acids.

At that point, the digestive enzymes have done their job. Your food’s nutrients are ready to be absorbed and distributed throughout your body to help maintain your energy and overall health.*

Stock Your System with Foods Containing Natural Digestive Enzymes

You’ve read about the digestive enzymes your body produces throughout your digestive system. But you can support healthy digestion by adding some enzyme-enhanced foods to your diet.*

Select your favorites from the list below and build meals around them for a boost of digestive enzymes that can help you maintain normal digestion. They’ll also help you maximize your meals by supporting the processes that make nutrients as available as possible for absorption.*

  • Honey
  • Pineapple
  • Mango
  • Bananas
  • Papaya
  • Fermented foods (like sauerkraut, miso, or kimchi)
  • Avocado
  • Kiwi
  • Ginger

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

A meal can make your day. Or the wrong one can sink your plans—and your digestive system—like a stone. That’s because all foods don’t digest the same way. Digestibility can even change from person to person. This depends on factors like digestive juices and enzyme activity, microbiome makeup, and anatomical differences. But there are some hard to digest foods that are largely troublesome.

These problems are broadly categorized as digestive issues. And it might be best to leave it at that. To describe them in detail would probably end your reading experience right here. You’re likely familiar with the variety of feelings that result from eating the worst digestion foods out there. It isn’t pretty or comfortable.

And that’s good enough reason to figure out how to swap out these six potentially day-derailing foods.

Fried Foods Burn Your Day to a Crisp

A diet full of fried foods provides a variety of issues. They are a main culprit in the modern, Western dietary descent into the unhealthy. Eating fried foods has many links to unhealthy weight gain and all the associated issues.

While your waistline might be the first thing that jumps to mind, don’t forget the impact fried foods have on your digestive system. Frying any food adds fat. No surprise, since you’re literally immersing food into liquid lipids.

This abundance of fat can trigger a variety of gastric issues for some. It also has been found to have adverse effects on the healthy diversity of the gut microbiome. And that community of microbes play a big role in digestion. That makes fried foods a double-whammy of digestive difficulties.

Eat This Instead: Baking or roasting foods instead of frying will cut down on added fat without sacrificing some of the crunch and crisp of fried foods.

Sugar Substitutes Aren’t Sweet on Your Digestive System

You or someone you know is cutting back on sugar consumption. This is a good goal. But turning to highly processed sugar substitutes may create digestive issues.

Some alternative sweeteners—especially sugar alcohols—have been tied to gastrointestinal unpleasantness. That’s because these substitutes aren’t fully digestible. And consuming too many of various sugar alcohols—frequently found in chewing gum and other sugar-free foods—can sour your day.

Eat This Instead: Cutting out sugar is tough, but there are natural, plant-based substitutes that aren’t linked to substantial digestive issues.

Fatty Meats Make Hard to Digest Foods

Just because the fat is present before cooking doesn’t make fatty meats easier to digest than fried foods. Once again, you need to trim the excessive, unhealthy fat.

The same concerns about your microbiome exist with fatty meats. But your anatomical digestive processes can be upset by eating too much fat, as well. That’s because fat impacts the speed of stomach emptying. Altering the timing of movement and the flow of food through your digestive tract could wreak havoc.

Whether it slows down emptying or speeds up the process, you will feel it.

Eat This Instead: Protein is a key component of a healthy diet. You absolutely need it. But that well-marbled steak isn’t essential. So, replace fatty meats with leaner—or plant-based—protein sources.

Processed Foods Interrupt Your Digestive Processes

Your body has developed to eat what’s around you. For a long time, that meant whole foods from plant and animal sources. Now food scientists and manufacturers can develop foods that take parts and pieces from many sources to make a new whole.

This processing often strips fiber, which is great for digestive health. It also adds fat, sugar, and salt—all of which aren’t good for digestion in excess. More digestive issues could come from the prevalence of artificial ingredients and preservatives that may be hard for your body to handle.

Eat This Instead: Stick, as much as you can, to whole or minimally processed foods—fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, legumes, nuts, and whole grains.

Dairy can be Disastrous for Digestion

If you’re lactose intolerant, the dairy aisle has many hard to digest foods. That’s obvious. Many lack the enzymes necessary to process lactose (or milk sugar). There are remedies, but dairy digestion could remain hard no matter what, especially soft cheeses and milk.

Eat This Instead: Fermented dairy products like yogurt. Also lactose-free milk and harder cheeses are easier because lactose isn’t present or is limited. That’s because it has already been taken care of. So, turn to these easier options to get your dairy fix.

Carbonated Drinks Don’t Do You Any Favors

Many carbonated drinks have alternative sweeteners or are loaded with sugar. Both can be bothersome. But the bubbles are the real problem.

Some people deal with carbonation better than others. But filling your stomach with gas can easily lead to bloating for anyone. And when those bubble pop, the air has to escape somewhere.

Drink This Instead: Plain water is always your best bet for hydration. If you need something a bit more interesting, try adding fruit or switching to green tea.

Aren’t Fiber-Rich Grains, Fruits, and Vegetables Hard to Digest Foods?


You’ll see fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains on lists of foods that may menace your digestive system. You can blame fiber.

It’s true that fiber—both soluble and insoluble varieties—aren’t fully digested. Given what you know, that seems bad. And packing yourself with a bunch of fiber-rich foods does generate a gastrointestinal reaction.

But the reason fiber-rich plant-based foods aren’t on the list above is because these foods have so many positives. And there are easy ways around the digestive dysfunction they could cause.

First of all, fiber also aids in digestion, adding bulk and helping the movement of waste products. It also acts as food for your microbiome (prebiotics). And finally, fiber has ties to multiple health benefits and weight management success.

Vegetables and fruits are packed with vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients. So, you don’t want to skip them because they were on a list of hard to digest foods. You just have to be smart about how they are prepared and how much you eat.

Gradually increase your consumption of raw vegetables—especially cruciferous types, like cabbage and broccoli. That way your body and microbiome have time to adjust to the incremental increase in fiber and other plant material. Cooking vegetables will also help with their digestibility, and, in some cases, improve the bioavailability of certain nutrients.

When it comes to fruits, moderation still matters. But selection is important, as well. Berries and bananas—and other low-fructose fruits—are easier on your digestive system than choices like pears or apples. Also, don’t overdo it with acidic fruits.

Obviously, avoid grains if you’re allergic to them. And legumes (beans, lentils, and peas) are tough because they’re full of fiber and you may not have the enzymes needed to break them down. Soaking beans before cooking is a step towards mitigate beans’ impact on your guts.

Do a Favor for Your Digestive System

There are so many factors to consider when planning your meals. You can focus on macronutrients, micronutrients, calories, and on and on. Just don’t forget about what happens after the food leaves your fork.

Cut the food that you eat into small pieces and chew each bite completely before swallowing, as this can aid in digestibility. Swap out or limit the hard to digest foods you eat for ingredients easier on your gastrointestinal tract. That way eating will be energizing, filling, and satisfying instead of a form of culinary sabotage for your day.

hand planting corn seed

hand planting corn seed

You’re a gardener—even if you don’t have the green thumb to prove it. You may never have planted a seed and cared for it until it sprouts from the earth. But you’re still a gardener of sorts. That’s because your gut is like a garden and your diet acts as the soil and fertilizer.

What you put into your garden influences your microbiota (the microbes that grow there). Specifically, the mix of fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fat, and micronutrients in your diet determines whether your microbiome will flourish.

The microscopic residents of your gut include fungi, viruses, yeast, and other microorganisms. But bacteria are the most notable gut flora. Because their lifespan is short, bacteria can adapt to environmental changes rapidly. They can also take genetic material from neighboring gut flora, which can benefit both bacteria and the host they live in (you!).

These characteristics are what make bacteria so impactful on human health. And that’s why it’s important to understand how your diet cultivates the health and diversity of bacteria and other gut flora.

How Your Gut Garden Started

Last Months of Pregnancy

You weren’t born with the bacteria you now have in your gut. This profile was built over the initial years of your life, starting with the way you were born. Cesarean versus vaginal delivery dictated the initial dominant bacteria in your gut. Then, what you were fed rounded out your gut’s early bacterial profile.

Studies on mother’s milk really illustrated the role and importance of gut microbiota. Researchers initially were unsure why the milk contained such complex carbohydrates. These molecules were known to be indigestible for infants. The babies lacked the necessary enzymes. However, early research revealed the complex carbohydrates are actually present in mother’s milk to nourish the infant’s gut microbiota, and not the infant.

So, your gut garden began at this early stage in life. Mother’s milk acted as the rich soil that nourishes bacteria within. The result was symbiotic for the bacteria and baby. The bacteria flourished, and in doing so, protected the baby’s gut lining. This was important for healthy immunity and nutrient absorption—and remains important as an adult. Proliferation of good bacteria meant they can crowd out possible pathogens and break down the complex carbohydrates into digestible parts.

After your first two years of life, your microbiome’s profile was nearly set. And even with all the variety in flora, lifestyle, genetics, and anatomy, there are some bacteria typically found in the gut microflora.

The most common types of bacteria found in the human gut belong to the phyla firmicutes and bacteroidetes, actinobacteria, and proteobacteria. These phyla (a biological classification) contain bacterial species you may have heard of before, like Lactobacillus, Prevotella, Bifidobacteria, and H. pylori.

There has been a concerted effort to extensively analyze the human microbiome. More research needs to be done before one profile is proclaimed the healthiest. But even with a lack of definitive answers, an educated conclusion can still be made.

One confirmed characteristic of a healthy gut is a diversity of microflora. Diverse bacterial communities tend to be more resilient. This means they’re better at fending off potential pathogens that might invade and try to take over space. When the gut microbiota is filled with a plethora of various good bacteria, the bad kind don’t have empty space to take up residence.

This is a constant battle for space and resources. And you play a big role. As the gardener, you control the soil and fertilizer, which determines what grows best. That’s where what you choose to eat comes into play.

How Your Diet Affects Your Gut Microbiome


Research shows differences in microbial profile exist based on the content of your current diet—just like the differences explained by feeding mother’s milk versus formula. That means a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (which contains more fiber) will produce a different bacterial profile than one rich in animal protein and fat, or another full of simple and processed carbohydrates.

But what kind of dietary soil grows the most diverse and robust gut-flora garden? And which diets fail to yield advantageous bacterial profiles?

The table below will give you an idea of how gut microbiota shifts with different diets. You don’t need to be an expert on the different bacteria listed below to get an idea of that key characteristic of a healthy gut—diversity.

Increasing Species Decreasing Species Diversity
Western diet Bacteroides Bifidobacteria Less

Mediterranean diet







Vegetarian diet








 Western Diet

This type of diet is high in saturated fat and sugar, and it features processed foods. Because it lacks a variety of fruits and vegetables, the modern Western diet lacks fiber. If you remember from earlier, fiber is what feeds your gut microbiota. That’s why fiber is often called a “prebiotic.” That’s because it feeds the bacteria that ultimately help nourish you.

Without that fiber, there are fewer species of flora in your gut that can thrive. This means microbial diversity is less than with other diets rich in fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Decreased microbial diversity leads to decreased gut resilience, which can spell problems for your health.

Mediterranean Diet

On the other hand, the Mediterranean diet is known for healthy variety. That includes:

  • Various fruits and vegetables
  • The inclusion of legumes and whole grains
  • A generous use of healthy fats—like olive oil
  • Minimal intake of animal-based proteins

This mix creates a diet rich in fiber—or prebiotic material—that your gut microbiota literally lives for. And, as you might have guessed, the Mediterranean diet promotes microbial diversity. One review of diet-induced microbial changes noted no decreasing species in those who consumed a Mediterranean diet. On the other hand, researchers noticed an uptick in at least three species.

Not convinced? One study focused on a group of Italian participants who ate a Mediterranean diet. Over the course of three weeks, the participants provided three samples that were pooled and analyzed for gut microbial content. The researchers found those who best adhered to the diet had more diverse flora in their guts. More specifically, in plant-based eaters (no animal-based protein), they found an increase in Prevotella bacteria.


Eating vegetarian yields increases in similar bacteria found in adherents of the Mediterranean diet. Additionally, vegetarian diets also cause an uptick in diversity of microbiota, thanks to all that vegetable-based fiber.

Another notable shift is the decrease in Bacteroides species—the opposite trend seen in Western diets. The main difference is the consumption of animal-based protein. Bacteroides are not inherently bad, and can have a beneficial relationship with the gut. But, should they escape that environment through the gut lining, they can cause issues.

You (And Your Gut Microbiota) Are What You Eat

There’s still much research to be done on the gut microbiome and all of its intricacies. But some things are very clear.

First, you gut microbiota’s health is inherently tied to your overall health. One of the main reasons? Your gut flora help digest food and nourish your body. They also play a role in signaling the brain with various messages, like when we’re hungry or adequately satiated. And flora also play a role in maintaining healthy immunity.

Second, it’s established that you should strive for diversity of microbiota in your gut. And before you worry, there’s no need to completely overhaul your diet to achieve this goal. Instead, start by thinking about ways you can incorporate more fiber into your diet.

Luckily, you have a lot of options for doing so. Try a few of these easy options:

  1. Make small, easily applied changes. Like swapping out rolled oats for steel-cut oatmeal. Or eating whole-wheat pasta al dente versus cooked soft. Feeding yourself whole grains that take a little more effort to digest means you’re giving your microbiota more fiber to chew through.
  2. Consider replacing a processed snack with fruits or vegetables. And you can make it fun! Apples or carrots can be more exciting when paired with your favorite nut butter. A salad also tastes brighter with fresh strawberries.
  3. Skip the peeler when you can. Vegetable and fruit skin (or peels) can have a lot of healthy fiber and nutrients. When you peel them away, you miss the nourishment they provide you and your microbiota.
  4. Take a wholly different approach to grains. Love white bread and other grains? You’re not alone. But substituting a serving here or there for a whole-grain option is a good start. Try a multigrain bread, whole-grain pasta, or a new grain altogether (bulgur, quinoa, farro, or brown rice). It can spice up your cooking routine and help your gut.

Woman using antibacterial hand sanitizer

Lastly, consider easing up on antibacterial soaps and ideology. You want to keep pathogens away from your homes and bodies. But it’s easy to go overboard when it comes to cleanliness. This might mean not washing your hands after petting your dog, or making sure you really need antibiotics before taking them. The common cold is caused by a virus, so you won’t benefit from antibiotics.

The state (and diversity) of your gut microbiota is fairly stable in adulthood, but that’s not the case when you take antibiotics. They can wipe out bad and good bacteria. That’s like depleting a garden of all its organic material, richness, and nutrients at once. And that wonderful, fertile microbial soil will need to be rebuilt. One study found that it can take up to four weeks for your gut microbiota to return to its normal diversity.

Now that you’re in the know when it comes to your microbiota, you can trust yourself to be a master gut gardener. Whether your soil isn’t where you want it to be or not, you have the knowledge and tools to make changes and grow a healthy gut microbiota garden that can benefit your health.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.

women eating

women eating

You aren’t what you eat. But you are what your body absorbs. That’s because all of your food isn’t used by your body. And if you don’t absorb the nutrients in your food, they do no good for your cells, muscles, brain, and more.

But how are nutrients absorbed by the body? The simple version of this process has five components:

  1. Chewing and the introduction of enzymes in your mouth
  2. Churning and mixing with acid (gastric juice) in your stomach
  3. Contact and absorption in your small intestine—your nutrient absorption center
  4. Entrance into the bloodstream
  5. Carrier proteins bringing nutrients into your cells

Click to expand

But the journey is much more interesting and complex. A lot goes on behind the scenes to get the good stuff in your meal to enter the bloodstream.

So, follow along as the vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in your food make their way into your cells. And learn how you can help your body continue healthy nutrient absorption.

Your Digestive Systems Prepares Food for the Small Intestine

To sustain your body, your food needs to be broken down into usable pieces. Carbs, proteins, and fats become glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids, respectively. The vitamins and minerals in food need to be extracted, too.

That’s what your digestive system does. And digestion starts right after the first bite. Teeth tear up food into manageable chunks. The enzymes in your saliva (called salivary amylase) break down the food’s chemical structure.

Digestion continues in the stomach, where powerful acid disassembles food even further. With the help of peristaltic motion (rhythmic digestive movement) the food you consume is stirred and mixed as it prepares to enter the small intestine.

If you’re interested in a deeper dive into digestion, take a trip through your digestive tract.

Small Intestine: Headquarters of Nutrient Absorption

The workings of the small intestine can be complex. But its role can be simply summed up in two words: nutrient absorption. That’s because your small intestine is in charge of pulling glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals out of food to be used by the cells.

This is accomplished by tiny projections called villi. The microscopic, brush-like lining of the small intestine acts like a comb that grabs important nutrients out of the digested food that leaves your stomach.

Villi are great at absorbing nutrients because they increase the surface area of the inside of small intestine. With hundreds of thousands of villi lining your gut, that’s a lot of surface area for nutrient absorption.

Each villus (a single protrusion of the villi) is composed of a meshwork of capillaries and lymphatic vessels (called lacteals) underneath an ultra-thin layer of tissue. This special structure makes it possible to pull macro- and micronutrients out of your meals and send them to the bloodstream.

Water is also essential to this process. The small intestine uses a chemical process called diffusion to extract nutrients. Diffusion moves water and water-soluble compounds across barriers, like the villi in the small intestine. These compounds include:

  • Glucose (simple sugars)
  • Amino acids (parts of proteins)
  • Water-soluble vitamins (B vitamins and vitamin C)
  • Minerals

Once these nutrients are diffused into the villi, it’s a straight shot to the bloodstream. That’s where these nutrients can work in cells to make proteins and create energy.

Fats and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) require a few extra steps to enter the bloodstream.

First, bile acids from the liver mix with fats in the small intestine. This breaks the fats down into their component fatty acids. Then, the fatty acids and other fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed by the villi into lacteals. These lymphatic vessels transport the fat-soluble compounds to the liver. That’s where they are stored and released in the body as needed.

And there’s a lot of use for fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins. Cells use the fatty acids to build cell membranes. And vitamins A, D, E, and K are useful in the body to support the health of your eyes, brain, heart, and bones.

Nutrient Distribution into Your Cells

Absorbing nutrients into the bloodstream isn’t the end of the journey. To make energy, move muscles, sense touch, and generally propel your life, the nutrients you eat need to enter your cells.

This is easier said than done.

Surrounding each of your cells—no matter the type—is a cellular membrane made of fatty acids. It protects the cell, and controls what can enter and exit. Some materials, like water, can pass into the cell easily. Others need assistance.

Proteins embedded in the cellular membrane act as ushers. They help carry nutrients from the bloodstream into the cell. Glucose, amino acids, fats, and vitamins use carrier proteins to get inside cells.

Once through the membrane, nutrients play many important roles. Some cells, like muscle fibers, need minerals like calcium to flood the cell in order to move your arms and legs. Others, like nerve cells, need sodium and potassium to be pumped in and out so your brain can pick up sensory information.

Cells use the glucose in your bloodstream to create energy by making ATP, the cellular energy currency. And amino acids are the building blocks for all DNA. When they’re brought into the cell, amino acids help transfer genetic information so cells can replicate.

Nutrients and the Blood Brain Barrier

While the small intestine readily absorbs and distributes nutrients to cells, the brain is more guarded. As a precaution, your brain is selective about the compounds it allows to enter through the bloodstream. This transport of nutrients is managed by a mechanism called the blood-brain barrier (BBB).

The BBB consists of the vessels and capillaries that deliver blood to the brain and surrounding tissue. These vessels are made of tightly packed cells that only allow the smallest molecules to pass through to the brain. Larger molecules can only enter with the help of specialized transport proteins.

Glucose is one of the nutrients that has the easiest time crossing the blood-brain barrier. And with good reason. Glucose is the fuel your brain thrives on, so it’s important that it can freely enter the brain.

Fatty acids also travel across the BBB easily. That’s because your brain’s health relies on them. Omega-3s are especially important for supporting growing brains.

It’s not so easy for amino acids. Carrier molecules attach themselves to amino acids to guide them to the brain. Without the carriers, these protein components wouldn’t be able to do their job in the brain. That includes manufacturing neurotransmitters that help regulate your mood and nervous system.

Other nutrients can enter the brain through the blood-brain barrier. Vitamins B6 and B12 also rely on carrier molecules. But vitamin C can cross the BBB on its own and has been shown to help other helpful compounds make their way to the brain.

3 Tips to Maintain Healthy Nutrient Absorption

Now you understand how nutrients are absorbed by the body. And have a good idea of the importance of this process. But how much of nutrient absorption is within your control?

Quite a bit, actually. Maintaining your digestive health and making smart dietary decisions are two major factors under your control. Here are three simple suggestions to support nutrient absorption. Pick one to work on and see how it makes you feel.

  1. Focus on your good bacteria ratio with a probiotic

Your digestive system is helped by the members of your gut microbiome. That’s why probiotics are great for supporting healthy digestion. They help maintain healthy bacterial diversity, which assists your gut in breaking down some types of food so they can be properly absorbed.

  1. Make healthy fat choices

Remember those fat-soluble vitamins? They rely on fat to get from the small intestine to the rest of your body. Healthy fats are necessary for storing up vitamins A, D, E, and K. Choose healthy fats (plant sources) over saturated or trans fats to help your body absorb these important nutrients. Just another reason to take your supplements with food.

  1. Give your body plenty of nutrients to absorb

This sounds like the most obvious advice, but it’s important to remember. Make a goal to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to optimize the vitamins you’re getting on a daily basis. Start by eating different colored foods. This can help you meet your nutrient goals. Red and orange foods have lots of vitamin A, while green veggies are packed with B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Colorful foods also contain phytonutrients that support good health. So, try to fill your plate with different colors to meet your daily needs.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

Brushing your teeth might help change your mood or prepare you for a good night’s sleep. It’s simple advice for good oral health. But the reality is that your mouth is one of your body’s most complex places. Partly because it’s the gateway to your digestive tract. And with everything you put into your mouth on a day-to-day basis, you’re inviting and hosting scores of different types of life—collectively known as the oral microbiome—inside your oral cavity.

It might sound a little scary, but there are colonies of bacteria everywhere inside your mouth. On your teeth. In your gums. On your tonsils. Beneath your tongue. On the inside walls of your cheeks.

The oral microbiome contains over 700 prevalent species of bacteria, according to the American Society of Microbiology. And all of these various bacteria come to hang out and play their part in your oral and overall health.

That’s right. There’s a big connection between oral health and your long-term health. But what do the different types of bacteria living inside your mouth provide in terms of functionality? What influences the makeup of these varying types of microbes? And perhaps most importantly, what’s the key to maintaining a healthy balance of oral bacteria?

Science helps break it down.

Why Oral Bacteria Exists

The fact is, bacteria and other microbes are almost inescapable. They live everywhere around you, on you, and inside you. That’s prompted experts to refer to these microbes as “permanent guests.”

The oral microbiome is no different. Various bacteria and microbes contribute to health—positively and negatively. And this complexity has been a topic of focus among cell biologists, microbiologists, and immunologists over the last decade. These microbial communities create a fascinating world for experts to explore. Purnima Kumar, professor of periodontology at Ohio State University, said every time a person drinks a glass of water, they’re swallowing millions of bacteria.

Kind of gross. Also fun to think about, right? But it’s not much fun for the residents of the oral microbiome.

There’s a battle raging inside your mouth. It’s a life-or-death fight for space and food. And the outcome is important to you. Some bacteria in what is also called your biofilm help protect your mouth and maintain the health of your teeth and gums. Others create issues for your dental health.

The ongoing fight between the good and bad sides can be easily swayed based on things you do. That includes behaviors—like diet and poor oral hygiene—as well as recurring health problems. One interesting development scientists have figured out is your overall oral health is generally influenced by your mother’s oral health. That’s because you’re more likely to be born with similar bacteria.

That’s right—you weren’t born with teeth, but you’re born with oral bacteria.

It’s Time to Start Caring About the Composition of Your Oral Microbiome

You know that gross feeling when you wake up every morning? With the film on your teeth and your breath not at its best—to put it kindly? What if that was permanent? No thanks.

The easy answer to this issue might be to remove all the bacteria in your mouth so you don’t have to feel that way. But if you wiped away all the bacteria in your mouth, you would be ridding yourself of those that work on your behalf, too.

Certain bacteria fighting on your team can help your breath stay away from nasty territory. On top of that, some bacteria of the oral microbiome work to break down foods in an enzymatic reaction that starts with your saliva.

Some strains of bacteria like Streptococcus and Neisseria are linked in studies to the maintenance of esophageal health. And Neisseria has proven to play a part in the breakdown of toxic substances like tobacco smoke.

There are bad guys in there, too. And they can have their say both in the short-term and the long-term health of your mouth. So, the important thing is to create a balance of bacteria that is beneficial to your health. Just like you can do in your gastrointestinal tract.

It’s all about space and food. That starts with good hygiene. Experts will tell you what your parents have said all along: brush and floss to keep bacteria under control. That’s why when you let oral care slide for a while, things in your mouth can get dicey. Bacteria levels can rise, which could cause issues for your teeth and gums.

There are other factors you might not think of—like saliva. It helps wash away lingering bits of food and provides protection from acids produced by bacteria. But some medications can reduce the flow of saliva in your mouth. Be aware of this if you take some decongestants, antihistamines, and antidepressants.

Your diet also plays a role in the health of your mouth and your oral microbiome. That means concentrating on a healthy diet that supports the growth of good bacteria instead of bad ones. Adding an oral probiotic also might be useful to support a healthy balance for your oral microbiome. You’ll find more tips later on in the story.

What Kind of Bacteria Live in Your Mouth?

Don’t worry, there’s no way to cover all the types of bacteria in your oral microbiome on one page. There’s simply too many. Covering the hundreds and hundreds of different species would require a full book.

But here are some common types of bacteria you should be familiar with:

  • Streptococcus: One of the largest players in the oral bacteria community, there are several different strains that fall under the Streptococcus family. Usually they are oval-shaped chains of bacteria cells. And some can cause issues for your teeth. Streptococcus mutans, for example, is a potential pathogen that can convert sugar to lactic acid. And that acid buildup is bad for your teeth.
  • Porphyromonas gingivalis: This is one type of bacteria you don’t want to see show up. Luckily it isn’t usually present in a healthy oral microbiome. Avoid it to maintain the health of tissues and bone structures that support your teeth.
  • Lactobacillus: These strains are long, rod-like bacteria that have thick cell walls. Like Streptococcus strains, Lactobacillus helps change lactose (a milk sugar) into lactic acid. This means more acids that shouldn’t be allowed to linger in your mouth. But Lactobacillus is a beneficial bacteria for your gut, which is why it’s in many probiotic products.
  • E. Coli: Most E. coli in the human body is found in your guts, but a trace amount of the bacteria is also part of the oral microbiome. Thankfully, not all E. coli strains are alike. And these aren’t the same as the ones you hear about on the news from contaminated foods.

The oral microbiome’s residents are created equal. In fact, different strains of the Streptococcus family actually are helpful. Streptococcus salivarius K12 aids in fighting bad breath. Like you read above, Neisseria helps breakdown bad substances like cigarette smoke, and some strains help break down food.

It’s not currently possible to design your bacterial mix to be purely good. So, maintaining a healthy balance in your mouth microbiome is what’s important. And there are several ways you can support this healthy balance.

Tips to Maintain a Healthy Balance of Oral Bacteria

There will always be a variety of neutral, harmful, and helpful oral bacteria renting out space in your mouth. That’s just the reality of the situation. Don’t fret, though. There are simple answers for keeping your oral microbiome in good shape.

First and foremost, it’s about maintaining the necessary level of oral hygiene. Brushing—twice a day—and daily flossing keeps bacteria at bay.

Your lifestyle and diet also have a big impact on the bacteria in your mouth. A healthy, whole-food diet that’s mostly plant-based is a great start. You also need to avoid things that stimulate the growth of bad bacteria. Sugar is a big source of food for oral bacteria. Also stop smoking—or, better yet, never start. Nicotine is damaging to your oral microbiome. Stress is also as bad for your bacteria as it is for you.

Oral probiotics can also help add more beneficial bacteria to the microbiome, too. Researchers have found that supplementing with oral probiotics can be a useful tool in supporting and maintaining the health of your mouth. Oral probiotics are generally chewables or in tablets of various forms that allow the bacteria to set up shop in your mouth and adapt to their new environment.

The gateway to your body is one of the most complex parts of you. Understanding what’s going on inside your mouth and your oral microbiome can help maintain your long-term health. The oral microbiome is the initial line of defense for your overall health, so start taking steps to care for it every day.