Hippocrates said “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” and since then, much literature has been published about the benefits of a well balanced diet. However, digestive health begins long before you can do anything about your own diet.
It all comes back to gut bacteria, a complex community of microorganisms that live in the digestive tract. These micro-organisms out number cells in the body by 10 to 1! Typically there is a balance of ‘good bacteria’ and ‘bad bacteria’ in the gut. These bacteria form an intricate, living fabric of natural controls affecting body weight, energy production and disease process. They also aid in digestion by essentially cleaning out the gut so that everything keeps flowing. Not only that, recent studies have looked at how gut bacteria can have an effect on the the functioning and development of the immune and nervous systems.
Our first “inoculation” of good gut bacteria occurs as our eyes, nose, lips, and mouth slide through our mother’s birth canal. This transfer of flora plants the “seed” for the initial colonies that begin to populate the respiratory, urogenital, and gastrointestinal tracts. More and more babies are being deprived of this initial inoculation thanks to rising cesarean section rates. Once outside the womb, our mother’s breast milk helps to nourish certain bacteria in the gut during infancy.
Unfortunately many people have an imbalance between healthy microflora and disease causing microorganisms, thus setting the stage for illness. Here are a few lifestyle factors that can upset the balance of gut bacteria:
- Antibiotic Use
- Poor diet – Sugar, Excessive Grains, GMO foods
- Increased over the counter meds (aspirins, mouth wash, antacids)
- Increased use of cleansers and sanitizers
- Chlorinated water and alcohol
- Herbicide/pesticide use on produce
- Surgeries, chemo and radiotherapy
- Exposure to heavy metals and pollutants
- Anti-depressants and sleeping pills
- Artificial colouring
Do you have symptoms of unbalanced gut flora?
- Constipation, bloating, gas or chronic diarrhea
- Hormonal imbalance
- Menstrual complaints
- Candida infection (e.g. thrush)
- Urinary tract infections
- Vitamin and mineral deficiency
- Skin conditions including – acne, eczema and psoriasis
- Psychological issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, OCD)
So mum does her best during the early stages of life, but she isn’t always going to be able to support us. There are ways in which we can help maintain this balance in the gut. Certain foods are rich in probiotics (good bacteria) that the body needs. Fermented foods for example, allow this ‘good’ bacteria to culture.
Probiotic Rich Foods
- Miso Soup
But like all bacteria, probiotics need nutrition to survive. These are known as ‘prebiotics’. Prebiotics are essentially the food for probiotics.
Prebiotic Rich Food
- Chicory Root
- Dandelion Greens
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Honey (raw)
How much should you have?
No consensus exists about the minimum number of microorganisms that should be ingested for beneficial effects, however a minimum of a billion colony forming units (CFU’s) per day are suggested to maintain healthy gut bacteria concentration. Typically, a probiotic supplement contains several billion microorganisms to increase the likelihood of adequate gut colonisation. During periods of imbalance (i.e. a course of antibiotics) up to 10-20 billion CFU’s (depending on bacteria strain) can help to reduce symptoms. In addition to probiotics, five grams of prebiotic fibre per day is recommended. Remember that when you cook something it changes the composition, so best to have your prebiotics raw or minimally steamed for the greatest benefits.
Other ways to support your gut bacteria?
Just as plants prosper in nutritious soil full of micro-organisms, we to need these organisms to live a long, healthy life. I’m certainly not saying you should eat dirt but there are ways you can get similar benefits.
- Don’t overdo it – just a rinse and roughly wash your organic produce, leaving a little bit of necessary dirt on your veggies.
- Get down and dirty – spend some time outside and don’t be afraid to get dirty
- Go bare foot – take your shoes off from time to time on the grass, dirt or sand
- Get a pet – Animals provide a diverse number of micro-organisms that help your gut
- Swim in the ocean – get benefits not only from the salt but also therapeutic microbes
If you’ve been battling with an illness or just haven’t been feeling quite right, lend your digestive system a helping hand and bring balance back to your gut. What have you got to lose?
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