You’ve probably heard about probiotics by now: little friendly bacteria that live in your digestive tract and somehow help you through your day. Really, “probiotics” are in reference to the bacterial, fungal, and yeast (microbe) communities that takes up residence throughout the body, including in the large intestine, lungs, sinuses, and skin, among other sites. If you are thinking that fungus on your skin sounds like an infection, not a benefit, you are mostly right. Conditions such as athletes foot and ringworm are examples of an imbalance between the synergistic (helpful) microbes and the parasitic (harmful) microbes. So what is a “correct balance” all about?
In an ideal situation, a person would be exposed to their first collection of microbes as they pass through the birth canal. Breastfeeding would further introduce microbes to the system. A lifestyle of whole, fresh foods, exposure to fresh air and soil, unchlorinated/unfluoridated water, and an avoidance of antibiotic treatments would keep that community of microbes healthy and thriving. In return for being a gracious host, the person would benefit greatly. The healthy collection of microbes keeps potential infections in check and secretes vitamins in the large intestine, in addition to many other digestive and immune system supports.
Few of us are able to fully live out that ideal scenario, however. Cesarean birth, formula feeding, processed foods, treated water, and multiple rounds of antibiotics are the norm for most individuals, and in return, a weak community of microbes is unable to provide it’s health-sustaining services. There are many chronic conditions in which poor microbiota health has implications: yeast infections, Crohn’s and Colitis, sinus infections, weight gain, and even ADHD, Autism, and depression have links to poor microbiota health and balance. Even if you are not experiencing these serious conditions, there are many symptoms of poor microbiome health: coated tongue, feeling bad around must or mold, irregular bowel movements, constipation or diarrhea, excessive smelly gas or bad breath, lower abdominal cramping, or dark circles around your eyes can all be symptoms of an imbalance within the microbe communities of your body.
Unfortunately, it may be impossible to regain your full microbiota potential after it is lost. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to provide the greatest opportunities to babies at birth and beyond. There are many things you can do, however, to support and enhance your current microbiota status.
1. Lifestyle shift – All of the ideal lifestyle factors I mentioned above are essential to supporting not only the health of your microbiota, but your health as a whole organism! Whole foods, filtered water, fresh air, and using antibiotics ONLY in extreme circumstances (I’ve recovered from strep throat without antibiotics in the same amount of time as those on antibiotics) are excellent steps to take. Broad spectrum antibiotics kill off both the beneficial and harmful microbes, which leaves space for the harmful varieties to take over. These strains of organisms thrive on sugar and processed foods, so a combination of a poor diet and antibiotics is a recipe for poor overall health.
2. Take probiotic supplements – There are a variety of probiotic capsules on the market. The best will be found refrigerated, indicating that they are alive. Find a probiotic with as many different types of strains as possible that include a “prebiotic” starch, which provides a food source for the organisms. It may seem like overkill to take, literally, billions of organisms, but many do not survive the digestive process. They should be taken 30 minutes or so before meals, when stomach acid is at it’s lowest. This gives the organisms the best chance of reaching the large intestine. Garden of Life offers an interesting variety of probiotic supplements.
3. Eat many probiotic foods – The process of making sauerkraut and yogurt requires bacteria. When these foods are eaten, the bacteria within is able to work for you as it passes through your digestive tract. They do not take up permanent residence, however, so regular consumption is required to experience the benefits. Eat a variety of these foods including kimchi, kombucha, kefir, miso and natto in addition to sauerkraut and yogurt. Bear in mind that most grocery store items are pasteurized, a heating process which kills off most of the organisms. Refrigerated cultured foods typically have many more organisms than shelf-stable items. These foods are also easy, inexpensive, and fun to make at home. Homemade varieties will be rich with probiotics.
The Best Sauerkraut
2 cups shredded red cabbage
2 cups shredded carrots
1 diced jalapeño
2 diced garlic cloves
2 tbsp. sea salt
1 tsp. black pepper
Mix the cabbage, carrots, jalapeño and garlic in a large bowl. Sprinkle with pepper and salt. Massage the salt into the vegetables with your hands for several minutes until most of the liquid has been pulled from the veggies into the bowl. Pack into two quart jars. Press small jars (1/2 cup work well) into the larger jars and push down on the veggies, forcing the liquid level to rise up above the veggies. If there isn’t enough to completely cover the cabbage, add a little water. Cover the quart jars with cheese cloth, screw the rings on, and place in a dark cupboard for 2 weeks. Mark in on your calendar so you don’t forget!