Updated: Apr 28
You are what you eat. And, very importantly, you are also what you feed the trillions of microbes that live in your gut.
The lining of your gut, like every surface of your body, is covered in microscopic forms, mostly bacteria. These organisms create an ecosystem called the gut microbiome. And though we don't really notice it's there, it plays an important role in your health and can affect your weight, your vulnerability to illness, and even your mood.
Not surprisingly, what you feed your microbiome may have the biggest impact on its health. And the healthier it is, the healthier you are. The key to a healthy microbiome is nourishing a balance among the nearly 1,000 different species of bacteria that live in your gut.
There are two ways to maintain this balance — helping the microbes already there to thrive by giving them the foods they need (prebiotics), and adding living microbes directly to your system (probiotics).
Prebiotics are compounds found in plant fibres. They act like fertilizers, that stimulate growth in the garden of healthy bacteria in the gut.
Prebiotics are found in almost all plant foods, especially those that contain complex carbohydrates, such as fibre and resistant starch. These carbohydrates aren't digestible by your body, so as they move through the digestive system they provide fuel for bacteria and other microbes.
There are many prebiotic supplements on the market these days, but the
very best way to consume these essential elements is through a diet rich in a variety of plant foods in their most natural forms: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds of all kinds.
A healthy gut microbiome is composed of hundreds of strains of different bacteria, and it turns out this vast diversity is a key indicator of gut health.
We are all different when it comes to our microbiomes. How we were born, whether we were breastfed, how many antibiotics we have taken over the years, our age and even our blood type will all influence the makeup of our own unique pattern of gut bacteria. As we learn more about the gut microbiome, we now know that loss of diversity of bacteria in the gut is associated with more illness and more rapid aging.
Probiotics are additional good bacteria that can add to the healthy population in your gut. Probiotics can help rebuild a healthier gut; improving detox mechanisms, assisting elimination, reducing inflammation, balancing the immune system and many more functions we’ll expand on in future articles.
You can ingest probiotics in naturally fermented foods, as well as consume them using probiotic supplements containing live organisms: usually only a few specific strains. Not surprisingly, we take in a wider variety of probiotic strains when we consume these as fermented foods: they provide more beneficial organisms than any supplement can replicate.
That’s why we think of naturally fermented foods as the whole-food version of a probiotic supplement! They contain strains of good bacteria that are not usually found in supplements, as well as the prebiotic fibres we need to feed them.
Probiotic-rich foods are delicious and are part of traditional diets all around the world. Our ancestors fermented and pickled foods as a way of preserving them when they were abundant in summer, for use all through the year. We now recognize that including a variety of these traditional foods, prepared as our grandmothers made them, has a real benefit to gut health. Some of our favorites are:
· Lacto-fermented sour pickles
· Brine cured olives
· Pickled veggies, like green beans, cherry tomatoes or garlic
· Organic kefir or sheep’s milk yogurt, for those who eat dairy
· Coconut kefir or yogurt for those who do not
· Miso and tempeh
One thing to understand about probiotic supplements is that there are many different kinds on the market. For instance, lactobacillus bacteria are common in the digestive tract, predominantly in the small intestine. But there are more than 120 species of lactobacillus, and at least a dozen of them may be used in probiotics. We recommend looking for a probiotic supplement that is made up of multiple strains of bacteria, rather than just considering how many billions of bacteria are in each capsule.
Probiotic supplements really help after your microbiome has been disrupted by an illness or use of antibiotics or steroids. For good health, fermented foods are a great way to keep the microbiome happy and thriving all through the year. Stay tuned to SHINE for more about this important topic.