What's Bugging You?
With cold and flu season around the corner, many of you are obsessively using your hand sanitizers and wet wipes thinking they will keep your family safe and prevent sick days. The truth is that this growing germaphobia movement and our culture’s obsession with sanitizing has destroyed our inner flora of healthy bacteria and set us up to be even more susceptible to attacks from stronger bugs. Probiotics may be just the immune boost your body is looking for. In fact, the importance of your gut flora, and its influence on your overall health cannot be overstated.
What's Inner Flora?
As Hippocrates said, "All disease begins in the gut." There are five hundred species and three pounds of bacteria in your gut. The bugs in your gut are like a rain forest--a diverse and interdependent system that must be in balance for you to be healthy. Too many of the wrong ones (like parasites, yeast or bad bacteria) or not enough of the good ones (like lactobacillus or bifidobacteria) can lead to serious damage to your health. These bacteria outnumber the cells in your body by at least 10 to one, and maintaining the ideal balance of good and bad bacteria forms the foundation for good health—physical, mental and emotional.
Let's start at the beginning. Before birth, you were floating in amniotic fluid, protected, sanitized and bacteria kept their distance. Until you slipped down that birth canal, you were pretty much spic-and-span. Then came your birthday, and all of a sudden, you were invaded; from the delivery, from the doctor's hands, from the first meal at your mother's breast, from your older sister who kisses you (or if no one's looking, spits on you), from everyone and everywhere came an army of bacteria that moved in and stayed. The challenge is to identify strategies to optimize that bacterial population, so that you can live in a beneficial, symbiotic relationship where they nourish you, help you fight disease, and optimize your health.
What Are Bacteria Doing For You? Against You?
They look, yes, a little alien. Bacteria also come in all kinds of shapes, strings, spheres, oblongs. But they aren't all bad guys. In fact, without them, we wouldn't survive very long. The microflora help you digest your food, synthesize vitamin K and the important B vitamins to increase your energy, regulate hormones, excrete toxins and produce healing compounds that keep you healthy.
Each of us has unique communities of microbes, and the groundwork for that profile is laid from birth. So if we are like hotels, we seem to attract very different guests. As adults we become identified with certain bacteria and that has huge consequences. I, for example, might have a lot of bacteria in me that are great at digesting oats. Your bacteria may not care much for oats. What happens if both of us have a giant bowl of oatmeal for breakfast? I gain weight. You make more frequent trips to the rest room (and stay skinny). The bacteria in your gut can influence gene expression and may make you susceptible to certain diseases, to obesity, or they may make you less susceptible. Bottom line: Bacteria matter.
Why Your Gut & Immune System Are Under Attack
Although we each have a unique microflora profile that's laid down at birth, it's not a static thing. Your gut flora are highly susceptible to environmental changes, and can rapidly respond to alterations in diet. Common lifestyle factors such as eating processed foods, taking antibiotics (both those prescribed and those found in conventionally-raised meats), birth control pills, steroids, hormone-replacement therapy and excessive use of antibacterial soaps and household cleaners all conspire to shift your intestinal microflora toward one that no longer supports your immune system.
Increasing evidence suggests that the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders, including Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis--is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to the good bacteria or probiotics. BTW, probiotics literally means, "for life" while antibiotics mean "against life", no kidding!
How to Boost Gut & Immune Health
One of the simplest ways to restore gut health and boost your immune system is to nourish the good bacteria in your inner eco-system by consuming probiotic rich foods and beverages. These include: sauerkraut, kimchi, natto, miso, milk kefir, coconut kefir and kombucha. Historically, people used to get large quantities of beneficial bacteria--i.e. probiotics--straight from their diet in the form of fermented or cultured foods, which were invented long before the advent of refrigeration and other forms of food preservation. As a result, they didn't suffer the same kinds of problems with their gut health--like IBS, constipation, bloating, heartburn, reflux, gas and things too gross to mention in print-- as so many of us do today.
Get Some Culture
It's worth noting that each mouthful of fermented food can provide trillions of beneficial bacteria, far more than you can get from a probiotic supplement, which will typically provide you with colony-forming units in the billions. Literally, one serving of cultured vegetables is equal to an entire bottle of a high potency probiotic!
So, where do you start? Look for raw sauerkraut or cultured vegetables in the refrigerated section of your health food store and add just 1 tablespoon to your meals. I like Bubbies or Farmhouse Culture brands. (Please note, the pasteurized kraut you find unrefrigerated at the grocery store does not offer these benefits).
Another fun way to incorporate these vital foods is to add water kefir grains to coconut water to make a coconut kefir. This process eats up the sugar in the coconut water and produces a fizzy drink that can be mixed with a little fruit or ginger juice to make a soda. Sweeten with stevia for a treat the kiddos will ask for again and again. If you don't have time to make your own coconut kefir, Whole Foods, Sprouts and Mother's Market also carry Inner-Eco and Coco-biotic brands and you can take 1 tablespoon morning and night on an empty stomach to replenish the good bacteria.
Did I mention that in addition to boosting your digestive health and immune system, probiotics also stop cravings for sugar and refined carbs (sour is the antidote to sweet) thereby helping you lose weight, beautify your skin (making it more poreless) and improve your mood? They serve as natural anti-depressants by secreting feel-good nerochemicals that make us happy.
And yet, we've just barely scratched the surface in terms of the benefits of these probiotics. If you're suffering from leaky gut, IBS and a host of digestive woes caused by eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) and your dependence on pharmaceuticals, I urge you to get the support you need to heal your gut. Until then, take a deep breath, relax your belly and open your mind to a paradigm shift around the need for sterility in food production. Take a tour de taste buds with all sorts of tantalizing sour delights. And get fizzy with it!
Recipe: Rupina's Raw Sauerkraut
- 1 head of raw organic cabbage(Keep one large outer leaf on the side)
- 1 cup of shredded red cabbage
- 1/2 cup shredded carrots
- 1 tbsp dulse flakes
- 1 tbsp chopped garlic
- 1 tbsp of celtic sea salt
- 1 bunch fresh parsley or cilantro
- 1 clean 32 oz glass jar with lid
Chop the cabbage into very thin strips. You can also use the grater attachment on your food processor. This appliance will speed up the process quite a bit. Put all the ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Vigorously massage cabbage with hands for 10 minutes until the water is coming out and it is translucent. When you can squeeze the cabbage and lots of water is dripping out, it is time to grab your jar. Tightly pack all of the cabbage into the jar until the liquid is 1 inch above the top of the cabbage. Now add the outer leaf on the top like a cover. Make sure the water is above all the cabbage. Pour any excess cabbage juice from the bowl into the jar. Now cover with a lid and put in a cool dry cabinet for 1-4 weeks. When you feel like it is ready, remove outer leaf cover and taste. If it is not soft enough you can just put it back away for more fermenting. When you feel it has fermented enough put it in the refrigerator to stop the process. Enjoy!