In the last few years, there has been a growing popular interest in the mystical sounding “human microbiome”, the collection of bacteria, viruses, and single-celled eukaryotes that live in and on the human body. These microbes are said to outnumber our actual human cells by a factor of ten! And the ones that live in a healthy gut alone make up 3 – 5 pounds (~1 – 2kg) of mass, as well.
While that information – that you have billions of living non-human creatures in and on you – may not sound all that appealing, the fact of the matter is that they generally do us and our health a HUGE service. This is especially true when we’re talking about “the good kinds of bacteria” in our bellies.
Gut health – what is it and why is it important?
When the balance of good bacteria in our guts is high, we look and feel fantastic, we have a built in army to fight inflammation, and we absorb more of the beneficial nutrients from the delicious foods we eat. Why is this true?
Our intestinal flora and gut-associated lymphatic tissue (GALT) make up 70% of our immune systems. SEVENTY PERCENT! That is a vast majority, and the number is supported by countless scientific studies by the National Institute of Health.
These trillions of little microbes do everything from interacting with out brain – providing even more neurotransmitters than our brains themselves and playing a central role in the microbiome-gut-brain-axis – to regulating our moods with serotonin production, and decreasing pain and pain-marker C-reactive protein through naturally anti-inflammatory properties. The importance of the gut’s role in our bodily functions has also led to it being known as “the second brain”.
Our bodies’ own friendly bacteria has also been shown across the board to combat autoimmune diseases, and healthy gut flora levels can also help with weight loss, glucose control, and leptin (the hormone that helps regulate appetite) balance. Did I mention a happy microbiome promotes regularity, too?
What REALLY blows me away – especially as I am on a mission to help as many women as I can find hormone balance through nutrition and biohacking for optimal living – is that it is our GUTS that produce estrogens and progesterone, and regulate them, too. That’s right, ladies – a healthy gut full of good bacteria can help alleviate PMS, PCOS, and menopause among other female-specific conditions. (Gents – don’t feel left out – beneficial gut bacteria increase testosterone, too! And that actually makes EVERYBODY a little more randy…)
Okay – I’m sold. How can I make my gut healthier?
Bringing your gut to a healthy homeostasis may take a little time depending on where you are starting from, but the process can be pretty simple.
1. Consume probiotics
This can be done in either supplement or real food form, and there are SO many delicious kinds of probiotic foods out there! The most popular one we have been exposed to for some time now is active yogurt. Who doesn’t recall all of Jamie Leigh Curtis’ Activia commercials? That is just one brand, but there are countless others out there, both dairy and non-dairy for the lactose intolerant. He key is to look for labels that include “active cultures”.
You can also drink Kombucha, a fermented tea that has been a secret of Chinese medicine for 2,000 years! It smells a little bit vinegary, but there are so many commercially produced brands now available at both traditional and health-food stores that you can easily find something that will please your palate. I recommend newbies to try flavors like grape or mango, which mask the “healthy” flavor and will get you used to the new flavor profile.
Kefir is another one of my favorites, and my go-to is a water kefir, an effervescent very-mildly-sweet soda-like beverage. Kevita is one of the most available brands, and if you’re lucky enough to be in California, you can find the super delicious Obi brand. Root beer is my personal flavor of choice!
Kefir also exists in dairy form, whether made from cow, sheep, or goat’s milk, and is like drinkable yogurt.
Sauerkraut is a fantastic source of healthy probiotics, while adding an extra bang of flavor to your meals. The Germans knew what they were doing when they paired sauerkraut and sausages, where the tart cabbage-based condiment (or side dish, however you prefer to look at it) offsets the unctuousness of meaty sausage. YUM!
Kimchi, also spelled kimchee, is another lacto-fermented cabbage dish, but this time with spicy peppers and frequently radishes. My cousins love it on traditional Korean dishes like bibimbap, or on steamed rice, or as a topping for a burger, or with scrambled eggs… The fact of the matter is, once you have a taste for the flavor, it tastes good on just about everything – and a serving or two per day is phenomenal for your gut and digestion in general, as are all of these choices.
We’d better not forget pickles, either! Like the last two mentions, certain pickles (like Bubbies) that you can find in the refrigerated section are lacto-fermented. And who doesn’t love a li’l pickle action with their sandwich? (If you don’t, pass it over… I am proudly a Pickle Princess, rescuing pickles from being woefully wasted one lunch basket at a time. When I know the person… Usually…)
Buttermilk, labneh (a thick and creamy cultured cream cheese made from strained yogurt), crème fraiche, sour cream, and even some cottage cheese all have life and active cultures. There are also region-specific options available – Matsoni in Eastern Europe, Piimä and Viili in Scandinavian regions, Filmjölk in Sweden, and Bonny Clabber in the Southern U.S. and Scotland. There are clearly a number of options to choose from all over the world – just a little more proof about how good for you they may be!
Supplements can come in capsule or powder form, and some may even be included in your existing protein or greens powders. When looking for supplements, the general recommendation is that you look for ones that have 50 – 150 billion CFUs (Colony Forming Units). There is a slight chance that you may experience mild digestive distress as your body gets used to them – such as bloating, gas, or increased regularity – but probiotic supplements generally provide 10 – 100 TIMES the good bacteria that fermented foods do! Sauerkraut has about 3 billion CFUs per cup.
When purchasing supplements, again look for “active cultures” as opposed to “made with active cultures” to get the most effective results.
2. Eat more fiber, and do it every day
Fiber does more than fill you up – it is the food of choice for those happy microbes we have been talking about with probiotics! It also keeps these bacteria from eating the lining of your gut, which can lead to painful digestive conditions like ulcerative colitis.
Not to make TOO much of a joke, but you have to be “regular” about it, too. A tummy that flip-flops between regular healthy fiber consumption and french-fries-only every other day is going to be in constant turmoil trying to keep a balanced microbiome. Vegetables, flaxseeds, chia seeds, even a high-fiber snack bar every single day will increase your gut health immensely.
3. Be aware of your antibiotic consumption, whether in medical or edible form
Antibiotics definitely have a place in Western medicine and healing. They save lives by killing off harmful bacteria that has led us to infection. However, antibiotics don’t know the difference between “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria, so they just kill EVERYTHING (well, up to 90% of all of the bacteria in your total body microbiome!), thereby really throwing that once healthy gut for a loop.
I am not promoting complete avoidance of antibiotics at all, but be wary of taking them for every sore throat, common cold, and virus. In fact, antibiotics have zero effect on recovery from viruses. If your doctor confirms that you have a virus and not a bacterial infection, a broad spectrum antibiotic “just in case” may do more harm than good.
Antibiotics have also long been used in animal feeds to keep factory farmed animals healthy, growing on less feed, and producing more meat and milk than ever before. While many labels in the U.S. today proudly assure that meats are antibiotic free, the only way to ensure that you are not consuming treated animals or animal products is currently to purchase organic. That may not be an option for everybody, but embracing probiotics and fiber can definitely still have a tremendously positive impact on your health.
PASS THE SAUERKRAUT, PLEASE!
I hope you’ve gained a bit of a clearer understanding about why your gut health is important, and ways you can improve it in your daily life. There is no such thing as a TOO-healthy gut. It helps regulate your happiness, brainpower, hormone production and secretion, and sleep. A healthy gut has been shown repeatedly to help your immune system, deliver clearer skin, and combat autoimmune diseases. So whatever way of eating you’re currently following, take two pickles and call me in the morning!
What are YOUR go-to probiotics? Do you have any homemade recipes of the dishes or drinks we mentioned that you’d like to share?