Herbs and Spices May Transform Your Gut Health

Natalie Wong

Written by Natalie Wong


Emerging research from the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon, has taken a significant leap forward in understanding the complex relationship between the foods we eat and our gut health. Focusing on a group of naturally occurring antioxidants known as polyphenols, scientists have begun to unravel how these compounds, prevalent in plant-based foods, could be the key to preventing diseases and enhancing the overall function of our digestive systems.

Published in the journal Nutrients, this study leverages data from the International Cohort on Lifestyle Determinants of Health (INCLD Health) to shed light on the impact that polyphenols from herbs and spices may have on the gut microbiome. The gut microbiome, a bustling metropolis of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their collective genetic material, plays a pivotal role in not just our digestion, but also our immune responses and even skin health.

Peering into the Microbial Universe

What we introduce into our bodies through diet, environmental exposure, and medication can significantly sway the balance of this microbial ecosystem. The residents of this microscopic city can be broadly categorized into ‘good’ bacteria, which support our health, and ‘bad’ bacteria, which when overgrown, can lead to illness. The focus of the study was to explore the role of polyphenols in bolstering the population of beneficial gut microbes, and consequently, our health.

While we’ve long known that polyphenols found in foods are linked to a reduced risk of various diseases, there has been a gap in research specifically examining the benefits derived from the polyphenols present in a standard diet. The study aimed to bridge this gap by investigating the effects of these compounds on gut health in typical dietary patterns.

Methodology and Demographics: A Closer Look at the Study’s Participants

The research involved a cohort of 96 healthy adults, carefully selected to exclude those who had used antibiotics recently or suffered from certain diseases that could skew the results. The majority of this group comprised white females who were non-smokers and consumed minimal alcohol—factors that could also influence gut health.

Of the 29 high-polyphenol herbs and spices considered in the study, participants regularly consumed only six. Cinnamon emerged as the herb with the highest polyphenol count, while black pepper was the most frequently used spice among the group. The participants were then categorized into different groups based on their level of polyphenol exposure—low, medium, and high.

Decoding the Gut Microbiome: Microbial DNA Analysis

In a detailed analysis, scientists extracted microbial DNA from stool samples to get an accurate picture of the gut microbiome. Contrary to what one might expect, the overall microbial diversity was consistent across all groups regardless of polyphenol intake. However, when looking closer at specific microbial taxa, there were notable differences.

Those in the higher polyphenol intake group showed an abundance of the beneficial Lactobacillus bacteria. Interestingly, it was also the high-consumption group that exhibited a reduced presence of harmful bacteria. These findings imply that regular consumption of polyphenols may encourage a healthier intestinal environment.

Despite these promising results, researchers and experts underline the need for further research. Dr. David D. Clarke, while acknowledging the potential benefits of polyphenols, emphasizes that more extensive studies are required to solidify these findings.

Expanding the Scope: Beyond the Study’s Limitations

The study’s scope did not extend to all foods rich in polyphenols. For instance, common dietary sources like coffee, tea, and red wine were not included in the analysis. This omission indicates that the study’s results are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the full potential of dietary polyphenols on gut health.

Chrissy Arsenault, a registered dietitian, points out the exploratory nature of this research and its implications for medical nutrition therapy. The insights from this study could pave the way for new dietary recommendations and interventions that specifically harness the power of polyphenols to maintain and improve gut health.

Implications for Everyday Health and Future Research Directions

The study from the National University of Natural Medicine offers a tantalizing glimpse into how everyday food choices could have a profound impact on our well-being. The habitual consumption of polyphenol-rich herbs and spices may be an easy and effective strategy for supporting a healthier gut microbiome.

However, the journey to fully understand the complex interactions between dietary polyphenols and the gut microbiome is far from over. Future research needs to expand on these initial findings, exploring typical diets and including a broader range of polyphenol-rich foods. With such research, we may soon be able to provide more precise nutritional guidance to enhance gut health and prevent disease more effectively.

The revelations of this study are a reminder of the intricate connection between our diet and our body’s internal ecosystem. As science continues to delve deeper into these relationships, we can look forward to a future where personalized nutrition could help us live healthier, more vibrant lives.