You are a wonderful, unique, human microbiome as individual as your fingerprints.
Though this may sound a bit intimidating, the vast array of microorganisms on and in your body that form your microbiome help protect you against harmful germs and break down food to give you energy and keep you alive. In other words, you are loaded with good bacteria essential to health and happiness.
When it comes to such microorganisms, the intestinal tract, or gut, contains 10 times more bacteria than all the human cells in the body. The more diverse the type of bacteria in your gut, the better your overall health. Seventy to 80 percent of the immune system is found in the gut, so understanding what we can do to keep it balanced and working at an optimal level is important.
This brings us to probiotics. Probiotics are the “good” bacteria that line your digestive tract and support your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection. Much of the information concerning probiotics is fairly new, and there is more research to be done. However, we have a pretty good handle on what conditions destroy beneficial bacteria and what foods and practices help increase gut health.
What destroys the good bacteria or probiotics? The list includes antibiotics (which may result in a yeast infection since the “good” and “bad” bacteria get out of balance), refined sugar, processed foods and additives, emotional stress, various medications, alcohol (except red wine), lack of exercise, overuse of sanitizers, smoking and poor sleep habits. As good bacteria are diminished and less diverse, inflammation occurs and makes us more susceptible to disease. This would help explain the rise in cancer, food allergies, asthma, colitis, irritable bowel, diabetes, mood disorders, obesity and cardiovascular disease. In other words, gut health and lifestyle affect our well-being.
Fortunately, there are many ways to get more diverse probiotics into your diet and improve gut health. Think foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and other foods pickled by fermentation are good. The ultimate goal is two to three servings of two to three such foods a day. Add small amounts slowly, since your body will need to adjust.
A note about the sauerkraut — this is not the kind you find on a shelf in your local grocery store. Sauerkraut with probiotic benefits is typically found in health food stores or farmer’s markets; contains live bacteria and must be refrigerated; contains only cabbage and salt, aside from vegetables or spices for seasoning. It is not heated, canned or pasteurized, as this kills the bacteria. It does not contain vinegar, preservatives or sugar. Read your label and do not fall for an imposter! It is simple to make your own, if you feel so inclined.
Greek yogurt is another source of probiotics. Look for a brand containing lactobacillus bulgaricus. The discovery of this species occurred unknowingly in Bulgaria in 1905. Three years later a microbiologist noticed that a peasant group in Bulgaria was living and thriving well past the age of 100. He studied these folks and learned that they frequently took work breaks to eat a mixture of yogurt, onions and nuts. He discovered that the yogurt's lactobacillus bulgaricus could fight off a common intestinal disease that produced toxins that would speed the aging process. Cheers to lactobacillus bulgaricus!
Many yogurts are touted for their active cultures and disease-fighting properties. Before you buy, check the sugar content and other additives. Our goal in improving health is to eat fewer artificial ingredients and choose food in its most natural state.
Eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and whole grains adds fiber, another necessary component for gut health. The fiber provides fuel for the bacteria to produce short-chain fatty acids that nourish the gut barrier, improve immune function and help prevent inflammation, which reduces the risk of cancer.
Polyphenols contain antioxidants and offer potential health benefits. These are micronutrients found in certain plant-based foods including dark chocolate, cocoa and cacao powder, fruits, beans, vegetables, nuts, red wine, tea and coffee. And they increase the diversity of bacteria.
To increase and diversify probiotics in your diet, change one habit that destroys them and add a food that enhances them. For example, sleep at least seven hours and add Greek yogurt to your regimen. When that is easy, add another food or habit. Practicing a healthy lifestyle is simple when you build it one step at a time.