Have you ever had a gut feeling that something wasn’t quite right? If you’re like me, you trust your gut, and listen strongly to this intuition, using it to guide you through the uncertainties of life.
On the other hand though, can I really trust my gut? The gut that occasionally rumbles like thunder because I was so busy balancing work and the kiddos that I forgot to eat lunch. Yup, that’s the same one.
Can I trust my gut to digest the foods I’m eating properly? Can I trust it to nourish me adequately and provide the nutrients I need? Can I truly trust my gut to keep me happy, healthy, and energetic like the rock-star mother I really am? I believe these are important questions to ask yourself too as the answers may affect your health and the state of your gut microbiome.
Guess what mamas? You have approximately 100 trillion bacteria in your gut. I bet you didn’t know you had so many friends! And like good friends, it’s great to trust them.
For many of us, these benevolent bacteria are becoming an endangered species due to overconsumption of highly-processed foods, antibiotic misuse, and an obsession with sanitizing everything. These are the friends we’ve lost touch with perhaps, and because of it, we’re missing out on some potential health benefits. Ideally, our gut microbiome (or the collection of all bacteria, fungi, and viruses in the gut) is diverse and in balance, not in a state of dysbiosis. In terms of friendship, diversity certainly keeps things fun and we absolutely want more good guys than bad guys on our side!
It seems obvious that gut bacteria impacts our digestive health (and it does), but it’s also associated with many lesser-known benefits. Research has revealed that these bacterial friends play a role in weight, disease risk, and immunity. 70-80% of our immune system is located in our gut and it seems that the microbes here may influence host immune response. Gut health is related to mental and emotional health too. Gut microbes may have the ability to affect our neurotransmitters (such as serotonin), which in turn can affect symptoms of depression.
The great news is that there is a lot you can do to keep the peace between you and your microbial companions.
Here are five strategies to consider:
1) Let Young Gut Flora Flourish
- Breastfeed when Possible: You may be aware of the myriad benefits of breastfeeding your little ones. One benefit just may be the probiotic (good bacteria) benefit you pass along. Researchers have found several species of beneficial probiotics in human breast milk. This bacteria has demonstrated the ability to keep an infant’s stool healthy and reduce the incidence of digestive and respiratory infections. This benefit may not be as conclusive in women who have been treated with antibiotics.
- Be Mindful with Antibiotics: On average, children are prescribed one antibiotic per year. Although the cause is unclear, antibiotics have demonstrated the ability to upset the microbiome leading to asthma, eczema, and obesity. If your child is started on an antibiotic regimen, consider discussing the addition of a probiotic supplement and/or fermented foods (see below) with your healthcare provider. In addition, don’t be afraid to discuss the actual need for an antibiotic prescription with them (which may not be warranted for viral infections), as well as other treatment recommendations (e.g., natural remedies such as drinking warm tea with honey and lemon to soothe a cough).
2) Experiment with Fermented Foods (and Drinks)
Fermented foods often have significantly more strains of beneficial bacteria in them than probiotic supplements, which usually only contain a few. This increases the likelihood that your gut will benefit. In addition, you may find fermented foods more affordable than probiotic supplements. Here are a few examples of fermented foods you may wish to learn more about:
- Kefir milk or kefir water (preferably organic, unsweetened or with minimal natural sweeteners)
- Unpasteurized sauerkraut or pickles (*note—this doesn’t include canned sauerkraut or the leftover open jar of pickles in your refrigerator. These foods are usually found refrigerated at the grocery store and will indicate they contain live cultures)
- Kimchi (a Korean dish made with fermented vegetables, often cabbage)
- Yogurt with live active cultures (preferably organic, unsweetened or with minimal natural sweeteners)
- Miso paste (made from aged, fermented soybeans)
- Kombucha (a fermented tea drink)
Some fermented foods are more daring than others. I’ve been successful getting my kids to enjoy kefir milk and yogurt with live cultures, and as you can imagine, not as successful with getting them to nibble kimchi (although the youngest does at times!). Some fermented foods may not be the best choice for children (such as kombucha which contains trace amounts of alcohol) and I encourage you to do your own research on the best fermented food choices for you and your family. Take note that we’re all unique and some folks may find they don’t tolerate fermented foods well (this includes, but isn’t limited to, those with specific gastrointestinal concerns or histamine intolerance).
3) Feed Your Friends Well
This probably goes without saying, but take it easy on highly-processed foods (the ones with mile-long ingredient lists and artificial colors and sweeteners to boot) and feed your beneficial microbes with whole foods rich in complex carbohydrates and fiber (think a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils). After all, dietary diversity supports a healthy gut microbiome! Some foods contain prebiotics, or non-digested components in food that feed probiotics. A few sources of prebiotics are Jerusalem artichokes, onions, leeks, garlic, and jicama. Pure, unfiltered apple cider vinegar (ACV) is considered a prebiotic as it contains pectin (from fermented apples). If you’re looking for kid-friendly flavors, we’ve enjoyed Poppi, a soda alternative infused with ACV (in fun flavors like Raspberry Rose!) found here.
4) Consider Taking a Quality Probiotic Supplement
If you’ve not had success with fermented foods, have been on antibiotic therapy, or have fallen victim to a nasty tummy bug, you may consider taking a quality probiotic supplement.
Probiotics are not “one size fits all.” More research is needed to determine which types of probiotics are beneficial for certain health conditions. In addition, because we each have unique microflora (our own friends!), we all may require different doses and strains of a probiotic before seeing any real benefits. Before beginning a probiotic supplement it’s safest to first discuss it with your healthcare provider. There are certain situations where probiotics might be contraindicated, including for those with weakened immune systems or whom have been diagnosed with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and/or other gastrointestinal conditions.
To secure a good supplement, look for one that has had third-party testing, or a check on product purity. This might be indicated with a United States Pharmacopia (USP) seal. Reputable companies often have data about studies that have been conducted with their products and should contain labels with information on the supplement’s shelf life and the names of the beneficial bacterial strains found within. You can also check consumerlabs.com to investigate any probiotic supplements you’re interested in.
5) Keep it Clean, but Don’t be Afraid to Get Dirty Too!
We are currently in the midst of a pandemic and it’s likely that surfaces everywhere are frequently sanitized. This is absolutely important. With that said, consider exposing yourself to a natural environment where friendly bacteria thrive as well—the dirt! Apparently there are more microbes in one teaspoon of soil than there are people on Earth, and these microbes have been linked to health benefits. It’s a great time to work in a garden for this reason and more.
The composition of the gut microbiome shifts over a lifetime. This happens for many reasons—including those I’ve not mentioned here (e.g. stress). Daily practices that keep bacteria as friends, not foes, may help us begin to trust our guts again.
I don’t know about you, but I want to keep my bacterial buddies around!