For this last installment of my gut health series, I want to talk about probiotics foods and supplements. You might be thinking, “You kind of buried the lead on that one!” but you would be wrong. I chose to write about probiotics last because I think we all have a little bit of an addiction to magic bullets. We tend to really like it when someone says take this new supplement, superfood, weird lemon-cayenne-concoction-thing because we see it as an end to our problems without actually having to change the reasons we have our problems. And as most of us with a medicine cabinet full of half-used supplements can attest, this is never the case.
Probiotics, whether found in capsule form or food, support our gut health by putting in lots of good bacteria and yeast into our guts. These critters help to strengthen our immune system, reduce inflammation, heal our gut, and just generally help our bodies repair and heal so that they can function well.
Scientist and doctors predict that one day we will be able to pinpoint exactly what kind of bacteria we need and then go get a prescription filled for it. However, the science isn’t quite there yet, so I recommend doing what you can to get a good variety of probiotics into your diet. Here is how I do it.
- Yogurt. We all know yogurt has good bacteria, but we tend to eat the ones with lots of sugar or fake sugar. Eating sugar with our probiotics doesn’t necessarily undo all the good but for your health; however, it’s better to eat the whole fat plain yogurt and add your own fruit or honey.
- Fermented vegetables. When made traditionally, pickles, sour kraut, kimchi, etc. are full of healthy bacteria. Look for these items in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. The ingredients should list seasoning, vegetables, and water, and say “live cultures.” Traditionally fermented foods do not use distilled vinegar like commercial brands of pickles you find on the shelf. Bubbies brand seems to be the widest spread brand. My family eats fermented vegetables at least once a day and I often crunch on my own homemade dilled carrots when I have snack cravings.
- Fermented soy products. Natto, miso, traditionally fermented soy sauce, and tempeh are also chock-full of healthy bacteria are a great substitute for vegetarians or just a meatless Monday. Non-fermented soy products are harmful to your health, especially for those with thyroid disease, but fermented soy has many health benefits.
- Probiotic supplements. I pick probiotics with various strains of Lactobacillus, Streptococcus, Bifidobacterium and Saccharomyces. Probiotics are not regulated, so do your research before buying a probiotic. Ideally, buy them from a health food store or a more health-focused grocery store.
Stress is a killer of joy, a robber of your time, and, as it turns out, devastating to your gut health. I’ve written a lot about stress and its effects on your health and tips for managing it, but today I want to take a slightly different approach. The little ecosystem in our guts made up of bacteria, viruses, and fungi (microbiome) aren’t just helping us digest our food and strengthing our immune system. This ecosystem is actually influencing and being influenced by our brain. Scientists call this the microbiome-brain-gut axis.
Researchers have found that being put under stress affects the make-up of our microbiome. Under stress, both animals and humans show a decrease in lactobacilli. This is fine when stress last for just a little while because the microbiome will bounce back, but most of us aren’t dealing with small bouts of stress. Unfortunately, many of us live with chronic low-level stress which means our microbiome doesn’t have the chance to bounce back.
This starts a vicious cycle. “Evidence (shows) that bacteria residing in the gut can also affect central brain function including neurobiological features and behaviors relevant to various psychiatric disorders.” Basically, our mental state influences the makeup of our microbiome and the microbiome impacts our mental state, which for many of us shows up as anxiety and/or depression. Can you think of a better reason to take care of both? Me neither. Here are some things you can do to protect your health.
- Prioritize stress management! I know that we live in a stressful world, and we are even financially rewarded for being constantly stressed out. I’ve been a part of a work culture where working all hours and heating up your lunch at 3pm only to eat in front of your computer is seen as a symbol of your commitment and dedication. This is crazy! Your stress level is the key to avoiding disease and absorbing nutrients and a hundred other things that create a quality life. For tips on how to start managing your stress check out my series on the topic.
- Watch what goes into your body. So far this series has focused on things to avoid like antibiotics and processed and sugary foods. I’ve also written about keeping your microbiome healthy by increasing your intake of fiber. I’ll be sharing more about what you put into your body and its effects on stress in more detail over the coming weeks, so stay tuned!
Fiber! It may be the most boring topic of conversation, but it’s literally what’s for dinner for your good bacteria. Or as Justin L. Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford University says,
“The interaction between fiber and microbes that consume it…is the fundamental keystone interaction that everything else is built on in the gut . . . It may lie at the heart of the symbiotic pact between microbes and humans.”
When we eat, we are not only feeding ourselves but, just as importantly, we are feeding our microbiome. We need to make good choices for both. Researchers have found that, when the body is given a diet high in protein and fat, bile tolerant bacteria start to grow within a day. While these bacteria are necessary to help the body properly digest protein and fat, at least one of those bacteria, Bilophila wadsworthia, is linked to inflammatory bowel disease. In fact, the Harvard study that reported the discovery said, “We can’t conclude from this study whether or not Bilophila might be causing colitis in humans, but our data does show that this colitis-associated bacteria can be enriched through diet.”
I’m not saying that you need to stop eating meat or fat. Good quality protein and healthy fats are really important to your body. But if your entire diet is made up of only those things, your system is going to be out of whack. Adding fiber — things like legumes, oats, low sugar fruits, non-starchy vegetables, nuts — will help to balance out those bad bacteria because fiber feeds beneficial bacteria. Beneficial bacteria are so important because our bacteria can help switch on our genes. So if we are genetically predisposed to certain diseases, those diseases may be unlocked by having an unhealthy makeup of bacteria in our guts.
Get more fiber into your diet! In her book The Immune System Recovery Plan, Dr. Blum recommends eating at least 30 grams of fiber per day. Most of us get less than half of that, so it might take a little bit of work at first. Here are some tips to help you increase your fiber intake so you can increase your beneficial bacteria.
- Add more fiber into your diet. This list provides some great sources of fiber.
- Increase fiber slowly. Many people complain that eating vegetables and other types of fiber hurts their stomachs. I get that. It can take a while for your body to get used to eating more fiber. So spend a week observing how much fiber you are eating and then make a commitment to increasing it by 5 grams a week until you get to where you want to be with your overall consumption.
- Drink plenty of water. Fiber needs water to do its thing.
- Think half. When meal planning, create meals that are at least half vegetables. Or rather draw an imaginary line down your plate and make sure that one side is dedicated to vegetables.
- Try one new vegetable, nut, lentil, or grain a week. Most of the time we aren’t getting enough fiber because our go-to foods don’t have enough in them. Instead of supplementing with pills, think outside the box and find some fiber rich foods that you can make a staple.
With every bite of food we take, we are feeding our microbiome, i.e. the 100 of trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses, etc, that exist all over our body, especially in our digestive track. Unfortunately, we aren’t feeding our microbiome the right stuff, and this is seen in the rise of diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune disease. It’s even evident in common complaints of brain fog, lack of energy, and anxiety.
The food we eat has either negative or positive effect on the various bacteria living inside us. For instance, when we eat highly processed food and food high in sugar, we are feeding bacteria that cause inflammation and harms our brain. Meanwhile, that same diet means that we are starving the bacteria we need to keep us healthy and slim. One study found that after only 10 days on a “McDonald’s diet” the diversity of bacteria was drastically decreased, going from 3,500 to 1,300 species of bacteria. Sugar also promotes the overgrowth of candida yeast that can lead to leaky gut creating a whole host of issues, from brain fog to food allergies.
We all know that processed foods and sugar aren’t great for us, but it can be hard to get off those foods. Processed food and sugar is easy, convenient, and taste pretty good. Also, they have our bodies (and those naughty bacteria) hooked making it difficult to go cold turkey. For those that rely heavily on processed food or have sugar cravings, here are some tips to get that food out of your diet so you can start to bring balance back to your gut.
- Keep it simple. Don’t go from picking up fast food or throwing together hamburger helper to attempting three-course real-food meals. Create a meal plan with simple meals that use real ingredients. Here are some recipes for inspiration. Think pre-washed greens with avocado, tomato, and a protein like grass-fed steak, chicken, tempeh, or nuts to top it off. Cooking with real foods can take time and practice, so start off slowly and have a plan so you don’t go back to your fallbacks.
- Deal with the cravings. Sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine. Meaning you are going to have some cravings and you might not feel great for the first couple of days. Here are some ways to reduce those cravings.
- Eat enough fat and protein throughout the day to keep your blood sugar stable.
- Don’t keep sweets in the house.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Don’t substitute with artificial sweeteners. They will only increase your cravings and mess with your blood sugar.
- Get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep makes us crave all sorts of things that aren’t good for us.
- Find a better way to reward yourself. Go hang out with a friend, go for a hike, try out the adult night at the roller skating rink. Whatever it is, do something that is going to be pleasurable so you won’t be tempted to find pleasure in a bag of something.
- Watch That Sugar Film. One of my clients referred to it as “the scared straight for sugar,” and he is absolutely right. There is nothing quite so compelling as watching a once healthy man headed towards liver disease after only a few days of eating how most of us eat every day.
For more on gut health stay tuned and check out the first in the series.
This week I’m wading into the pretty controversial topic of antibiotics as an introduction to a new series on gut health. First, I want to put it out there that I am really glad we live in a time where antibiotics are available, but I believe we need to seriously reduce our exposure to them at all levels and tend to our gut health every day.
Why I like them
Before the advent of antibiotics, people died at an alarming rate from things we now can treat in 5 to 10 days with a cheap trip to the drug store. It’s been said that if we had had antibiotics during the plague we could have saved countless lives. Just a few weeks ago two people that I love had to take antibiotics. I say had to because these people are not the type to run to the doctor demanding antibiotics for the sniffles. One had a serious ear infection and one a serious kidney infection, and in both cases, antibiotics played an important and vital role in their recovery.
Why I tend to avoid them
Aside from antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA that will usher in the coming zombie apocalypse (kidding!), we are starting to make connections between antibiotics and what Dr. Martin J. Blaser calls our modern plagues. He writes that obesity, diabetes, asthma, cancer, autoimmune disease, and a whole host of prevalent modern ailments are a direct result of our abuse of antibiotics. From the pills we take to the antibacterial gel we squeeze all over our kids, antibiotics wrecking our microbiome, i.e. the trillions of fungi, bacteria, etc that live inside us.
Antibiotics kill everything, the germs we are trying to kill and the healthy microbes trying to keep us healthy. And that’s a real problem because antibiotics are way overprescribed, especially for kids. Not to mention that here in the States we have something of a germaphobic culture that causes us to sanitize everything, including ourselves and our living environments. This is devastating to our microbiome. In the coming weeks, I’ll be talking more about healing and taking care of our microbiome, but the first step is to address how we actively destroy it through the medicine we take, the products we use, and the food we eat. Here are some tips to reduce your and your families exposure to antibiotics.
1. Ask your doctor questions. When your doctor offers antibiotics to you or your children ask the following:
- “What should I expect if I take these drugs?”
- “What can I expect if I don’t take these drugs?”
- “What would happen if we took a wait and see approach?”
I can’t tell you how to respond to their answers because we all have our limits, but I will take a few more days of being sick to protect my long term health.
2. Stop trying to sanitize your world! Back away from the sanitizer gel, get rid of the bleach, and stop being so scared of germs. Before you eat or after you use the restroom wash your hands with NORMAL (not antibacterial) soap and water. Believe me, this is enough. Also, when you clean your house, you don’t need to try to wage war on the germs because, honestly, you aren’t going to win but you will probably do some damage to your own health in the process. For tips on cleaning without harming yourself, check out this post.
3. Reduce the amount of antibiotic-laden meat and animal products you eat. There has been some movement from big producers like Tyson’s and Cargill to reduce the amount of antibiotics used in their animals, but we have a long way to go before conventional meat is free from antibiotics. So be more conscientious about the animal products you put in your body. Vote with your checkbook by buying foods from farmers that do not use antibiotics, which is typically going to mean going with the product that is certified organic. It is going to cost you a little more for those antibiotic free eggs, but in the end it’s still going to be cheaper than managing a disease.
Good luck and stay tuned for more information on healing your gut.