There are many new promising studies emerging about how good health begins in the gut.
Imagine this….fast forward to the year 2020 and doctors of the future are ordering stool samples and writing out scripts for probiotics for common ailments, as opposed to farming out pharmaceuticals to fatten up medical bills and corporate bank balances.
It may seem like a pipe dream (excuse the pun) but with all the new evidence supporting the need for good gut health, it may not be such a wacky concept.
Gastro-intestinal health is paramount to overall heath and wellbeing and this means starting at the source and what resides there; the unique mix of bacteria in your gut or micro-biome.
Bacteria are single-cell microorganisms found everywhere on Earth – in water, soil, plants, and in every part of the human body. In your digestive system there are over five hundred species of bacteria, in fact the bacteria in your gut outnumber the bacteria in the rest of your body at a ratio of ten to one.
The digestive system contains a mixture of both good and bad bacteria. Scientists now recognise that bad bacteria is harmless just as long as there is enough good bacteria to counter their effects.
What determines your digestive and overall health and wellbeing is that there exists a proper balance between your good and bad bacteria.
Some examples of good bacteria are Lactobacillus or Bifidobacteria, while strains of bad bacteria include Salmonella, what you often hear about in cases of food poisoning), E. coli, Shigella, or Clostridium difficile.
Bacteria that populate your gastrointestinal (GI) tract are known as gut flora. Similar to your fingerprints, everyone’s gut flora is unique.
As babies, we swallow the bacteria that are present in the birth canal which then colonises our intestines, setting up our gut flora for life
Having healthy gut flora is important for supporting a number of functions, including producing digestive enzymes that help you to digest and absorb the nutrients from the foods you eat.
Your gut flora is also responsible for combining various compounds to create essential vitamins and minerals that your body requires to function effectively.
Finally, healthy gut bacteria crowd and produce substances that make it difficult for bad bacteria to survive or thrive in your intestinal tract.
Unfortunately, stomach complaints are becoming an increasingly common problem in modern life. Food intolerances, illness, certain medications such antibiotics, aging, chronic stress and poor diet are just some of the various factors that can cause an imbalance in your native gut micro flora.
This can leave you prone to bloating, constipation, and painful stomach spasms. Thankfully, many of these unpleasant symptoms can be relieved by restoring the balance in your gut bacteria through the use of probiotics.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) probiotics are “living microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”. In other words, probiotics are the good guys, the “good bacteria” I was referring to earlier.
We can take probiotics naturally, by consuming probiotic-rich foods and beverages, as well as in supplement form. All sources of probiotics act in the same way to provide the body with beneficial living bacteria, particularly Lactobacillus and Bifidobactia.
So far, studies have shown there are over one hundred diseases that can be successfully treated with probiotics, everything from Diarrhea, to Atopic Dermatitis, to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, even the common cold.
The ability of the gut micro biota and oral probiotics to influence systemic inflammation, oxidative stress, glycemic control, tissue lipid content and even mood, is gaining more and more notice in mainstream medicine.
One of the major pluses of eating a supercharged wholefood diet is that you cause your beneficial gut bacteria to flourish, thereby improving your overall physical and mental wellbeing.
Prebiotics are also important in the gut flora equation. They are fiber that is indigestible (i.e., can’t be killed off) by bad bacteria and are essentially food for the probiotics. They help these beneficial bacteria is your digestive system to grow and flourish.
The three most common prebiotics are Inulin, Oligofructose, and Polydetrose.
Prebiotic-rich foods include vegetables such as artichokes, chicory, garlic, onion, leek, fennel, green peas, corn, cabbage, and legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans and soybeans.
Some probiotic-rich foods you can easily incorporate into your diet include:
- Biodynamic organic yoghurt (dairy or plant-based) – read the labels to ensure it hasn’t had high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners and flavours added to it. Also read the label to ensure it contains “live and active cultures” – this is what you’re after. Yoghurt is a great way to get some probiotics into your kids’ diet too. This Yoghurt Berry Crunch Pot makes an excellent dessert or after school snack.
- Kefir – similar to yogurt in consistency, this fermented product is a unique combination of milk (or coconut water) and fermented kefir grains. It’s rich in Lactobacilli and Bifidus bacteria, as well as antioxidants. You can find Kefir at most health food stores and markets, but a much cheaper option is to make it yourself at home. Try this simple Kefir yoghurt recipe.
- Sauerkraut is made from fermented vegetables such as cabbage, and extremely rich in healthy live cultures, vitamins, and may even reduce allergy symptoms. Look for sauerkraut that is kept in the fridge at your local deli or health food store, as those kept at room temperature often contain additives and preservatives that can cause further damage to a weak digestive system.
- Miso – is a traditional Japanese food that is often used in macrobiotic cooking as a digestive regulator. It can be made from fermented rye, soybeans, brown rice or barley. Adding a tablespoon of miso to some hot water makes a delicious probiotic-rich soup. You can also spread it on some sprouted bread as a probiotic-loaded, additive-free vegemite replacement. Look for organic, GMO-free miso at most health food stores and Asian grocers.
- Tempeh – For vegetarians, tempeh is a great substitute to meat or tofu, as it is less processed and, as it is made from fermented soybeans, is rich in probiotics. Don’t be alarmed by the black spots covering your tempeh. This is normal, and a natural result of the fermentation process.
- Kombucha – is essentially an iced tea that contains sugar that has been fermented to result in a probiotic-rich formula. This drink has been used for centuries and is believed to help increase your energy, enhance your wellbeing and may even help you lose weight. However, kombucha tea may not be ideal for everyone, especially those that struggle with fructose mal-absorption or candida.
- Tamari – as a wheat-free soy sauce, tamari is a great salt substitute that will not only provide your body with plenty of vitamins and minerals, it will also help you better digest the often carb-heavy foods it is consumed with.
While I believe the best, most natural forms of probiotics can be found in fermented foods, if your digestive system is particularly weak or has been compromised by chemical poisoning, medications, or acute illness, then taking a probiotic supplement may be necessary, at least for the short-term.
Probiotic supplements are available in a range of different formats such as capsules, tablets, powders and yogurts. They can also vastly differ in cost.
The good bacteria used in probiotic supplements are created using fermentation processes, similar to those used when creating probiotic-rich foods.
While each format of probiotic formula has its advantages and disadvantages for example, powder form is more rapidly absorbed in the body, milks are more kid-friendly, while capsules are more convenient, especially when travelling, there are a few key things to look for when choosing a supplement:
- There should be at least 7-12 strains of beneficial probiotic bacteria, the more and more diverse the merrier.
- Look for 10-20 billion cfu.
- Always check the “best by” or “expiration date”. Skip on the probiotic if the label says “viable at time of manufacture” which means everything in it could be dead by the time it reaches your mouth.
- Ensure it has an “acid protection system” to stop the probiotics from dying when they reach the acidic stomach juices.
- Certification by an independent third party e.g., the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in America demonstrates it’s been tested for quality
So there you have it, my guide to probiotics.
The take home message is that probiotics are beneficial forms of gut bacteria that help stimulate the natural digestive juices and enzymes that keep our digestive organs and many other bodily systems functioning properly.
In addition to regularly including probiotic rich foods in your diet, you can also take a probiotic supplement.
Eating a wholefood, supercharged diet is one of the best things you can do to ensure you maintain a proper balance of good and bad bacteria. If you’re interested in learning more about gut health, join my Heal Your Gut four-week online program here.