Welcome to week 2 of my Gut Health Series!! If you missed week 1, you can check it out here. In week 1, I shared some general information on what the microbiome is, what determines the makeup of your gut microbiome, how to tell if your gut microbiome is out of balance and what you can start doing now to restore your gut health and flora balance. This week, I want to dive into the topic of probiotics and prebiotics.
Just to recap, the microbiome refers to the to the catalog of microbes and their genes within the human body. It’s referring not only to the microbes that exist within our body, but also all of our microbes’ genes. When we refer to “probiotics”, we are talking about the specific bacteria, and sometimes yeast, that make up this vast microbiome. Each of us has about 3.5-4.5 POUNDS of microbes living inside us, happily cohabiting our bodies. These probiotics are predominately found in our digestive system, but also exist in our lungs, genitourinary tract and elsewhere throughout the body. The two main genera of probiotics found in our digestive system are lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. Within each genus are different species and strains. Each strain of probiotics performs a different function and are vital to many bodily processes including:
- Lactose digestion – Probiotics help us digest and break down lactose. That’s why some people can tolerate yogurt and kefir but not regular milk. The good bacteria in the cultured yogurt eats up the lactose.
- Regulation of the immune system and inflammation – Probiotics reduce the levels of toxic pathogens that are harmful to our health. Active lactobacilli and bifidobacteria produce high levels of lactic acid, making the intestinal environment more acidic, which inhibits the growth of undesirable bacteria, molds, mold spores and yeast.
- Cancer protection
- Detoxification – In our culture, we are constantly being exposed to chemicals and metals. Probiotics in our gut help us to metabolize those chemicals and detox from heavy metals including arsenic, lead, and mercury.
- Lipid (fat) regulation
- Oral health
- Nutrient utilization – Probiotics help with the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats and protein during digestion by promoting the release of digestive juices and enzymes from the stomach, pancreas and gall bladder
- Mineral absorption, specifically calcium, magnesium, zinc, potassium and iron.
- Regulation of peristalsis – Probiotics help ensure healthy, regular and smooth bowel movements.
- Production of vitamins (specifically B + K)
Bifidobacterium, is found mostly in the large intestine, or colon, and are responsible for energy production and maintenance of the colon cells. In most of our body we run on glucose, but not in the digestive system. In the digestive system, we run on glutamine in the small intestine and butyrate in the large intestine. Glutamine and butyrate maintain the cells in the digestive system and make sure that the cells are able to reproduce and produce energy. The fibers we ingest in beans, nuts, whole grains, and veggies get fermented by bifidobacteria, creating short chain fatty acids which in turn produce butyrate.
Research on the benefits of probiotics and gut health in general is in its infancy. There is SO much we don’t know. Here’s a bit about what we do know:
- Premature babies sometimes get an awful medical condition call necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), which can be fatal. Research shows that probiotics can be helpful in combating this condition.
- A specific probiotic yeast called saccharomyces boulardii has been researched for over 50 years and is known for helping with diarrhea from all causes.
- If you are planning on traveling out of the country, it’s great to take some of this probiotic before boarding the plane to prevent diarrhea when eating and drinking the water in different regions of the world.
- Research shows that it helps kill the bacteria and toxins related to Clostridium difficile, a very serious and potentially life-threatening bacterial infection of the colon, that the regular antibiotic treatment protocol doesn’t kill.
- A good balance of probiotic bacteria helps run your metabolism and therefore determines whether you are heavy or thin.
- Probiotics help us produce more T regulatory cells which act as the brakes to the immune system. They let the immune system know when to shut off. That’s why probiotics are great for people with autoimmune conditions because they help slow down the inflammatory cascade.
- Probiotics help with symptoms of IBS.
- Probiotics help people who are prone to reoccurring respiratory infections and bladder/yeast infections.
- Probiotics help regulate serum lipid levels (cholesterol and triglycerides)
- Probiotics help with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Not that long ago, probiotics were a big part of the human diet as we were regularly ingesting cultured and fermented foods. Then came the advent of refrigerators, and now we eat mostly processed, non-fermented foods and we don’t get the benefits of dietary probiotics. Don’t get me wrong, refrigerators are great. They keep food fresh for longer and prevent a lot of food related sickness and waste due to spoilage. However, it’s important to take the time to incorporate cultured and fermented foods into your diet, especially when you are out of balance or feeling stressed. Here’s a list of cultured and fermented foods that you can start incorporating into your diet today:
- Pickled vegetables
- Pickled ginger
- Miso soup
- Raw pickles
- Sauerkraut – Just make sure it doesn’t have preservatives in it, it won’t have the same benefits if it’s loaded with preservatives
- Full-fat plain Greek yogurt – When companies sell low-fat yogurt, they are simply replacing that fat with sugar, and the sugar feeds the bad bacteria in the gut, worsening any imbalance you already have. If you can, avoid getting low-fat or flavored yogurt because of the high sugar content. Instead, get plain, high-fat Greek yogurt and add your own fresh fruit.
- Kim chee
- Root and ginger beers – Make sure they aren’t pasteurized.
- Kombucha – Check your labels and make sure they are lower in sugar.
- Raw vinegars – My favorite is Bragg Organic Raw and Unfiltered Apple Cider Vinegar.
- Fermented sausages
- Sourdough bread
- Essene bread (sprouted grain bread)
- Micro-brewed beers – Again, make sure they haven’t been pasteurized.
- Artisan cheeses
When starting to eat more fermented foods, start slow. If you have any imbalance in your gut flora, introducing fermented foods may cause some bloating or even bowel changes. Try to eat live foods every day, and slowly increase the amount over time, noting how you feel and adjusting accordingly.
You can also supplement with probiotics. Probiotic supplements are typically a combination of lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, but may also include streptococcus and/or bacillus. The main ones you want are lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. These bacteria are measured in colony forming units, where 10 units = 10 billion live organisms.
- To maintain gut health: 1-3 billion units/day, up to 10 billion.
- If you just completed a round of antibiotics: 50 – 100 billion units/day for 3 – 4 weeks to restore balance.
- If you have ulcerative colitis and are experiencing a flare up, research shows great success with 2.6 trillion units/day to calm the inflammation.
Some probiotic supplements also have prebiotics in them. Prebiotics are a non-digestible starch that humans can’t digest, but the bacteria can. Think of prebiotics as the food for your good gut bacteria. When the good bacteria digest the prebiotics, they produce short chain fatty acids which in turn produce butyrate, an essential component to maintenance and function of the large intestine (see the paragraph above on bifidobacteria). For many people, they can cause gas and bloating. If you are new to supplementing with probiotics and prebiotics, start with a straight probiotic and then eventually add a prebiotic to your regimen.
- Resist gastric acidity, are not digested by human enzymes, are absorbed into the intestine
- Fermented by intestinal microflora (lactobacillus + bifidobacterium)
- Selectively stimulate growth and/or activity of intestinal bacteria and promote health and well- being
Okay, that’s a lot of info!!! And that’s just the beginning. We are just now learning about all the benefits of maintaining a healthy gut. It’s mind blowing the effect an unbalanced gut can have on your health, mood and life! This week, print out the list of cultured/fermented foods above and do some shopping! You will probably find yourself in a whole new aisle of the grocery store. Try something you’ve never tried before! Remember, start small and increase slowly. If you notice a lot of bloating, don’t give up as this is an indication that your gut is imbalanced. Simply decrease your daily dosage of cultured food/drink and keep going!
Stay tuned for next week for part three of my Gut Health Series!! If you have IBS, eczema, psoriasis, GERD, or ulcerative colitis, you don’t have to give up, there are specific diets that can be implemented in the short-term to restore your microbiome and improve your health. See you next week 😉
Plants for Life,
Stephanie Misanik, INHC, RYT-200