There’s a lot of research studying the care and feeding of the bacteria in our gut. Researchers have found numerous links between the health of the gut microbiome (the colonization of bacteria that live in our intestines) and the immune system, autism, depression, autoimmune diseases and conditions in the bowel. This includes inflammatory bowel disease, just to name a few on the very long list possible issues.
Researchers are also asking about the role the gut health plays in Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and other brain related conditions. Due to the broad array of body systems that are affected by gut health, I strongly encourage all of my health coaching clients to increase their consumption of probiotics (either by supplementation or adding certain foods to their diet), even when they don’t have specific complaints about how their gastrointestinal system works.
The amount of bacteria that we have on our skin and in our gut is enormous. We exist in a beneficial symbiotic relationship with bacteria — we can’t live without them and they can’t live without us. Our gut flora, or the composition of bacteria, not only helps us digest our food, but also makes many of the nutrients in food available to our cells. One of the problems with foods and medications that interfere with the gut bacteria is they can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies (see related blog post). When our gut flora is out of whack, it is common to feel lethargic, have constipation or diarrhea and unexplained stomach aches. The power of our gut bacteria to affect our well-being is astounding.
In an effort to fight off microscopic invaders, our friendly bacteria can muster our immune system and release their own antibiotics to kill hostile bacteria. In addition to protecting us from invaders, these tiny creatures are responsible for our metabolism functions.
The bacteria that exists in one person’s gut differs from everyone else. Families tend to have similar gut microbe profiles, as do those living in a particular locale — if you lived in Africa the bugs in your gut would be quite different than someone from South America. This is partly due to the food you eat.
There has been a significant amount of research on the makeup of gut bacteria in skinny people versus fat people. In studies with mice, sharing the gut bacteria of skinny mice with fat mice caused rapid weight loss in the fat mice. They have begun doing something similar with humans as well with some very positive results. The new weight loss pill might well be a dose of thin people’s gut bacteria!
Your diet can either nurture your microbes or stress them to the point of extermination. Your gut bacteria thrive on the kind of fiber that comes from fruits and vegetables, and is stressed by diets composed of lots of sugar, artificial sweeteners (aspartame for example), emulsifies, stabilizers and artificial colors that are often found in processed foods.
You can chose to take a probiotic but it won’t do a thing for you if you have a diet rich in the garbage that destroys your micro flora, so don’t waste your money if that’s how you like to eat.
If you plan to limit your intake of processed foods to the occasional swing through the drive-through, a daily probiotic might help how your gut functions. However, in addition to popping pills, there are a host of foods that support a diverse colony of gut flora.
Buttermilk, yogurt, kefir, fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, pickled carrots or green beans, miso (a Japanese seasoning) and apple cider vinegar all support the growth of a diverse and healthy gut.
If you decide to support your gut with food, read the labels! Many yogurts and kefirs contain so much sugar you are wasting your money, in spite of their claims on the front of the package. Buy plain yogurt and add your own flavoring (strawberries, honey, cherries, etc.). Then you are getting all the benefits of the yogurt and the fruit without the other ingredients that will weaken you micro biome.
Every culture has its own selection of fermented foods that keep the gut happy — Japanese miso, Korean kimchi, Greek yogurt and olives, and lots of others. There are many choices, and every reason why you can find something to add to your diet that will grow some healthy bacteria!