You probably know that probiotics are good for you. You may take acidophilus daily or occasionally grab a Bio K yogurt, pack of sauerkraut or kombucha when your stomach is upset.
But is this really all you need to do to support your gut health?
Not to be the bearer or bad news, but even the best efforts can be wasted without the right information. While supplementing with probiotics and eating fermented foods are great, they are only part of the gut health puzzle.
The GI tract is complex and dynamic - it is home to over 100 trillion bacteria (that’s about three pounds … of just bacteria), called the microbiome. When in balance, these critters help to regulate our digestion and mood, improve our energy and immunity, lower anxiety and protect us from chronic illness.
When out of balance (also called ‘dysbiosis’), the microbiome does the opposite. Dysbiosis has been linked to chronic and debilitating illnesses like heart disease, autoimmune conditions (for ex: rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) and cancer among others.
Do you need to focus on your gut?
If you have ever been diagnosed with a specific gut related condition (ex: IBS, IBD, Celiac disease, GERD) or experience gut symptoms like pain, bloating, flatulence, constipation or diarrhea, you already know to focus on your gut.
For others it might not be as obvious. If you …
- Have taken antibiotics within the last few years
- Struggle with joint pain or arthritis
- Are distracted and have difficulty concentrating (forgetfulness or ‘brain fog’)
- Have been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition
- Experience skin ‘flare ups’ like eczema or acne
- Feel depressed or anxious
… it is essential to focus on your gut health. The GI tract is the body’s primary immune barrier - it is where most diseases begin but it is also where we can look first in order to restore health.
This is where I get really excited because the gut is alive and constantly changing - we can target our approach to your microbiome by shifting
- What you eat (and how you eat it)
- How you manage stress
- Your environmental exposures (ex: pollution and heavy metals)
When you take a probiotic ….
... you are not replacing missing bacteria. Probiotics and fermented foods do not contain the same bacterial strains that are naturally present in your gut. This is one of the most confusing and misunderstood pieces regarding probiotics and gut health.
Research shows that it only takes 1-2 weeks for the probiotic microbes to disappear after supplementation.
Does this mean that you should scrap the idea of using probiotics all together? Absolutely not! They can still help - although they don’t replace the good bacteria, they still help to regulate the gut environment and can have a tremendous therapeutic effect.
These benefits do depend on the strain and dosage. Probiotics are helpful if you’ve just taken antibiotics or if you’re struggling with a specific gut condition like IBS, IBD, infections, constipation and leaky gut. But the benefit doesn’t stop there - more novel research has shown how probiotics can help with anxiety & depression, eczema, elevated cholesterol levels, prevention of UTIs and yeast infections.
Supplementing with probiotics alone isn’t enough. We need to support the gut by feeding the beneficial bacteria that are a natural part of our gut ecosystem.
Hence, prebiotics …
Prebiotics are a fancy word for fibers that feed bacteria. These fibers nourish and grow our indigenous gut populations, which is why they will have more long term benefit than supplementing with probiotics.
When probiotics eat their prebiotics, they produce short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that nourish and protect the colon. They also increase the acidity of the gut, which helps create the perfect environment to help even more bacteria thrive.
Win / Win / Win.
Where can you find prebiotics?
The food we eat not only nourishes our bodies but it also feeds our microbiome - and we can selectively grow or inhibit different populations depending on what we put in our mouths.
(Is your mind blown yet?)
I can’t say this enough but EAT YOUR VEGETABLES!I
Plant fibers feed good bacteria - the more we can get in, the better off we will be. Not all plants will do this, so refer to the list below for the best choices on prebiotics and polyphenols that nourish the good guys.
The more diverse the plants in our diets are - the more benefit. If you’re up for a challenge, aim for 40+ plants per week. Two different varieties of the same fruit or veggie count - for example a Gala and Honeycrisp apple count as two different plants towards your 40.
Keto- and paleo- dieters beware … High protein and high fat diets that include mostly animal products can starve good bacteria and feed more harmful ones. While it's not necessary to do a full 180 and go vegan, I do encourage you to watch your protein:vegetable ratio.
Everything in moderation, my friends …
Whole foods that encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria
- Grains - buckwheat, brown rice, red quinoa
- Legumes - lentils, black beans, chickpeas, adzuki beans, fava beans
- Vegetables - jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onion, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale
- Seeds - sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
- Cacao powder
- Green tea
- Fruits - apples, grapes
- Supplemental fibers - ex: psyllium husk, acacia fiber, banana or plantain flour
Get Super Specific - Customize Your Plan
It’s amazing what we can learn from analyzing poop (I get really happy thinking about the amount of people I’ve gotten to poop in a cup and ship it across the country - sorry Fedex!)
But in all seriousness, we can learn so much from running a stool test because labs can test bacterial DNA and uncover the general makeup of your microbiome. These reports can then show us which bacteria are low / high so that we can customize your nutrition strategy.
Once we have this information, we can either encourage or limit the growth of different bacteria, because bacteria are specific regarding the fibers they like to eat. This is truly amazing because no two people have the same microbiome - we really are different and these tools allow us to nourish the body in its beautiful, unique way.
Sometimes we just need to nerd out, poop in a cup and support our health with the best tools we have.