As I have said previously, I just completed the Certified Healing Foods Specialist course from Immunitrition in September. The course was packed full of great information that I can not wait to share with all of you.
I am going to start a series on the importance of maintaining the balance of bacteria in our gut and the benefits of probiotic foods. I think this should be very informative and I will include a few tutorials, recipes, sources, maybe even a video or 2 as the series goes on!
In order to understand why we need to be eating probiotic foods and, possibly, taking a probiotic supplement, we need to understand how bacteria work in our digestive tracts.
Did you know that we are covered inside and out with bugs…mainly bacteria but also some yeasts, parasites and fungi???? Yikes! Sounds crazy, huh? Well, these ‘bugs' interact with our body in ways that are important for our health and survival.
Our digestive tracts or ‘gut' (the path from the mouth to the anus…I always wondered exactly what the ‘gut' is…there you go) houses most of these ‘bugs' (or microbiota). Keeping a healthy, non-damaged gut lining is crucial for all aspects of our health.
Some interesting facts about our gut bacteria or microbiota:
- Our body contains more than 100 trillion bacteria. That is more than 10 times the number of human cells you have in your body (1, 2, 7)! You could say we are more bacteria than human! 🙂
- 80% of our immune system is in our gut; a healthy gut = a healthy immune system (2, 5, 15).
- Our gut is also considered to be our ‘second brain'. The gut has more neurotransmitters and produces more serotonin than our brain (1, 2, 4) and the balance of intestinal ‘bugs' are thought to have important effects on mental health (2).
- Our gut is responsible for getting rid of toxins that our liver dumps in via bile (1) and our gut must break down and help us absorb all the food and nutrients we eat (7).
- Our gut contains between 2 1/2 to 4 pounds of bacteria at any given time (1, 5, 6). (WOW!)
- There are hundreds of different species with new ones being discovered each day.
- These bacteria are comprised of both ‘good' or ‘probiotic' bacteria (such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium) and ‘bad' or ‘pathogenic' bacteria.
- For our gut to be in proper balance, the ratio of bacteria should be approximately 80% good guys to 20% bad guys. The good guys help keep the bad guys in check (2, 7).
Now we know that we have a lot of bacteria, both good and bad, in our gut. Why are good bacteria important for our bodies? They are responsible for numerous activities and interactions within our bodies. Here is just a short list.
What your good gut bacteria are responsible for?
- Digesting food (1, 7, 15)
- producing vitamins (particularly b and k) (6, 7)
- regulating hormones (6)
- getting rid of toxins (6)
- producing healing compounds (6)
- maintaining a healthy immune system (2, 6, 15)
- creating end stage digestive enzymes that help you absorb nutrients (6, 7)
- balancing intestinal ph (6)
- crowding out invading pathogens (6, 15)
- improving bowel transit time (6)
- protecting intestinal walls (6, 15)
- increasing absorption of nutrients (6, 15)
- supporting the cardiovascular system (6)
- and preventing yeast and fungal infections (6, 15)
Whew, that's a lot of things for good bacteria to help with in our gut!
Unfortunately, very few of us have balanced gut bacteria, which means our good guys can't do all the work they are supposed to be doing! How does your gut get imbalanced? Take a look at this list and see if any of these things apply to you:
How your gut can get imbalanced:
- Eating a low fiber, high sugar, processed food, nutrient poor diet (i.e. SAD), which makes the wrong bacteria and yeast grow (1, 2, 6, 15). Does this diet sound familiar? It's the diet of the majority of Americans.
- Overuse of medications that damage the bacteria…particularly antibiotics, either taking them as a medicine or ingesting them by eating conventional meat and dairy (1, 2, 6, 7, 15). 80% of antibiotics sold in this country go to our animals (16). If you are not eating organic meat/dairy, or seeking out grass fed, pastured animals that are treated minimally with antibiotics, you are, without a doubt, consuming antibiotics every single day without even realizing it.
- Chronic low grade infections and toxins such as mercury and mold (1)
- Lack of digestive enzyme function (1)
- Delivering a child by c-section. The infant misses the ‘microbial bath' from the birth canal (3)
- Replacing breast milk with formula and other foods (15)
- Drinking chlorinated/fluoridated water (2, 6)
- Using antibacterial soaps, hand gels, etc. (2)
- Exposure to pollution and to chemicals and pesticides on food (2, 6, 15)
- and, of course, stress (2, 6, 15)
Do any of the above apply to you? My guess is, they apply to most everyone! Everyone's gut is probably not within the appropriate bacterial balance.
Why does this matter? The length of your gut is protected by a bacteria layer. When this layer gets damaged, opportunistic pathogenic bacteria and yeasts can grow, the lining becomes damaged and our body has a difficult time absorbing nutrients, allowing us to become malnourished (15).
Ever hear of ‘leaky gut'? This seems to be a phenomenon right now. We can ‘heal and seal' (15) our gut! We need to get the balance of our bacteria in check so our intestinal linings can heal!) When our gut microbiota/bacteria get imbalanced, our health can suffer in a variety of ways.
Researchers are linking gut bacteria imbalance to numerous things, including:
- celiac disease, leaky gut, gluten intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome (2, 7, 15)
- insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome (2)
- eczema and dermatitis (2)
- psychological disorders, especially depression (2, 7, 15)
- colds, influenza (2)
- liver disease (2)
- herpes (2)
- chronic fatigue (2)
- acne (2)
- gas and bloating (2, 7)
- nausea, constipation and diarrhea (2, 7)
- headaches (2)
- sugar cravings (2)
- food allergies (2)
- chronic ear, urinary and yeast infections (7)
- chronic halitosis (7)
- Chron's disease (7, 14)
- autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and MS, juvenile diabetes (9, 10)
- ADD, ADHD, Autism (3, 7, 11, 12, 15)
Wow! And, this isn't even a complete list!!!! So…what can you do about this information? You see how gut bacteria are so important to our health and wellness. It is our responsibility to maintain and nourish our microbiota. This is hard to do with a SAD diet full of fake foods.
How can you ensure that your gut microbiota is properly balanced?
- Try an elimination diet. Cut out gluten, dairy, yeast, corn, soy and eggs for a few weeks and see how you feel (1).
- Treat infections and overgrowths (see a good nutritionist, naturopath, functional medicine doctor, integrative medical doctor)
- Take digestive enzymes and probiotics (1, 7)
- Increase your intake of Omega 3 fatty acids (1)
- Reduce exposure to chlorinated water (7). Buy a filter for your showers. Drink filtered water.
- Try to go organic…avoid foods heavily sprayed with pesticides, insecticides, fungicides (7)
And two that I consider to be the MOST IMPORTANT:
- Eat whole, unprocessed foods with plenty of fiber (1, 2, 7). (Sound familiar? Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not A Lot…Thank you, Michael Pollan!). This will help the beneficial gut bacteria to flourish. Eating REAL FOOD will help you balance your gut. Get rid of the processed garbage! Choose more nourishing ingredients, read labels and source better quality food!
- Eat fermented or cultured foods, such as sauerkraut, yogurt, dilly carrots, beet kvass and more. A probiotic supplement may contain 10 billion units of bacteria but a serving of fermented food can have 10 trillion units (3). One small serving of cultured veggies, can be worth the cost of an entire bottle of probiotics!!!
The next several posts within this series are going to be about the history of fermentation or culturing of foods, how to culture foods yourself and how you can incorporate probiotic foods into your diet which will help you to balance your gut bacteria.
If you would like to get more information on the importance of maintaining a healthy bacterial balance in your gut, if you are suffering from one of the issues listed above (or you have children who are suffering) and are interested in learning how to ‘heal and seal' your gut, I strongly encourage you to get the book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome, by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD.
Do you ever think about the microbiota in your gut? Do you take probiotics or eat cultured food yet? Would love to hear about your experiences!
If you want more information about fermentation, ‘good' bacteria, and the health of your ‘gut', check out my other posts in this series:
5. Cultivate From Within by Khem Shahani, Ph.D.
7. The Power of Probiotics by Caroline Barringer
8. Microbiome project
15. Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD