The Forgotten, yet Oh so Important Organ, Our Gut!
To the surprise of many, we humans are mostly made of microbes (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, viruses), in fact they outnumber our cells 10 to 1! The majority of these microbes, more than 100 trillion of them to be precise, lives in our gut, particularly in our colon (large intestine) and may weigh as much as five pounds.
When we think of bacteria, we usually associate it to something that is bad for you, or is detrimental to your health and will make you sick, not in this case. It has been shown that the colony of bacteria that resides in our gut is responsible for our digestion and getting the most nutrients out of the foods we eat, but what studies are now suggesting and we are discovering is that our microbiome plays an important role in our overall health.
When our microbiome is out of balance and not functioning well (the balance is achieved when the flora is made up of approximately 85% good bacteria and 15% bad bacteria), our immune system becomes impaired, consequently we are less protected to fight off other harmful bacteria or viruses (cold, flu, gastro, etc.), our metabolism is weakened, our vitamin and hormone production is affected, we are more at risk for chronic gastro-intestinal illnesses (IBS, Crohn’s disease), as well as auto-immune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and many other health conditions (obesity, infertility, heart disease, dementia, cancer, etc.).
More than 40 diseases have been linked to an imbalanced microbiome. It has even been said by some researchers that up to 90% of all diseases can somehow be traced back to your gut and the health of your microbiome. The takeaway message I want you all to retain is that a HEALTHY microbiome is essential for good health, period!
So what does it take to optimize our microbiome?
For starters, our microbiome is unique to each one of us. The colonization process begins prenatally, through transmission from mother to fetus, and continues after birth. How you were delivered (vaginally or by Caesarean), whether you were breastfed or given formula, your hygiene, your antibiotic exposure (a single round of antibiotic treatment can impact gut bacteria for a year; antibiotic residues found in non-organic meats and dairy), your environment and diet are all crucial in establishing your microbiome and developing your immune and nervous systems. They say that your “adult” microbiome is reached between the ages of 2 and 5, and is then shaped or adapts to changes in our environment throughout our lives.
Research has revealed that the foods you eat directly impact your microbiome’s environment and composition. For instance, if your diet is rich in foods that are refined and processed, high in added sugars (which feeds the bad bacteria) or unhealthy fats (trans/hydrogenated, refined vegetable oils), you are allowing the harmful species to overgrow. By choosing foods that support and promote the growth of your good gut bacteria, you help keep the harmful substances out of your gut and help lower and regulate inflammation in your body, all of which positively supports your microbiome and overall health.
These are the foods that I strongly urge you to add to and make the base of your daily diet:
Antioxidant-rich foods: Antioxidants are powerful substances found mostly in fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as in herbs, spices, teas, coffee and cocoa. They help reduce and prevent oxidative damage to the cells in our bodies by removing the waste products found in our cells (free radicals) and double as anti-inflammatory foods. By reducing the level of free radicals in the body, antioxidants help prevent overall cell damage (thus minimizing gut damage), our immune system from being overloaded and decreases inflammation inside our bodies, which has been linked to the leading health issues we face these days.
Strive for 7 to 10 servings of whole, fresh fruits (3 to 4) and vegetables each day (4 to 5), and opt for the most colorful ones for the most antioxidant levels (all berries, pears, plums, oranges, nectarines, beets, dark leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, squashes, etc.).
Don’t forget to add a variety of fresh and dried herbs and spices (basil, sage, peppermint, thyme, turmeric, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, etc.) to your diet as they surprisingly can significantly contribute to your dietary intake of antioxidants. These benefits can also come in the form of teas.
Probiotic-rich foods and supplements: Probiotics introduce good bacteria to our gut and control the growth of harmful bacteria. Many fermented foods also contain living microorganisms that are genetically similar to probiotic strains. I can’t stress enough how crucial it is for you to regularly include a variety of probiotic foods to your daily diet. Each probiotic offers a different type of beneficial bacteria which can help the body in numerous ways, not only through better digestion!
Try to include foods like organic probiotic yogurts, kombucha (effervescent drink made from fermenting black tea with bacteria and yeast; great and healthy replacement to soft drinks), kefir (similar to yogurt but fermented with bacteria and yeasts) or for a dairy-free option try coconut kefir, fermented vegetables made with a sea salt and water brine not vinegar (sauerkraut, kimchi, brine-cured olives, pickles and other vegetables), apple cider vinegar (add a tablespoon to a cup of water and drink daily or use as a salad dressing), tempeh (fermented soybean; can replace meat or tofu in meals), miso (made from fermented soybeans, rice or barley; add a tablespoon to some hot water for a quick probiotic-rich soup or use some to marinate meats and fish). Fermented and sour foods not only contain probiotics, but a type of healthy acids that support the growth of probiotics in the body.
When choosing a probiotic supplement, although there are many on the market today, not all are created equally and effective. The product needs to be backed by thorough research, the quality of the bacteria scientifically proven, they should contain a mixture of strains, be present in high numbers, from 15 to 100 billion, and must be able to survive passing through the digestive tract. A product like Bio-K+ which is 100% probiotic, meets these requirements and can be taken daily. Furthermore, it is especially beneficial during antibiotic treatment!
Prebiotics: Prebiotics are still less widely known, but they are what feed the probiotics and help the good bacteria in our gut flourish. Essentially, they act like a fertilizer. They are a type of carbohydrates found in or added to foods that are rich in non-digestible, fermentable fiber, such as fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) or galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). The body can’t break down these types of fibers, consequently they pass through the small intestine and make their way to the colon (large intestine) where they are fermented by the gut flora.
A diet that is high in fiber and plant-based foods with lots of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds is essential to promote the health and diversity of the microbiome. It also has the added advantage of being anti-inflammatory, thus keeping the body and gut lining healthy.
Foods that are naturally a good source of prebiotics are garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, tomatoes, apples, bananas (more beneficial if eaten slightly green), barley, oats, flax and chia seeds.
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