Our gut is home to trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that are both beneficial and detrimental to our health. Our diet and lifestyle choices affect the health of our gut and, subsequently, whether we provide an environment that better supports the friendly bacteria or the unfriendly bacteria that live there.
When we provide a healthy environment for our beneficial gut flora to thrive, we are more likely to enjoy clear skin, restful sleep, fewer colds, higher energy, satisfying poops, lower incidence of disease, and healthier wellbeing.
By contrast, an off-balance gut biome has been linked to a variety of conditions including digestive issues, fatigue, depression, acne, weight gain and obesity, inflammation, allergies, autoimmune disease, diabetes, and more.
Healthy gut biome
One significant way in which we negatively affect the health of our gut is by eating a diet that is high in sugar and processed foods, while not eating not enough fermented and plant-based foods. Other strong contributors include smoking, chronic stress and anxiety, and antibiotics.
The good news is that our gut is resilient and a healthy diet and lifestyle can shift the balance of good-to-bad flora back in our favor fairly quickly. A few key things we can do:
- Add fermented (probiotic) foods to our diet
- Supplement with a high quality probiotic
- Replace processed foods with real foods (veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes)
- Replace refined sugars with healthier sweeteners (but still don’t overdo it!)
- Replace wheat and processed grains with healthier whole grains including oats, rye, and barley
- Exercise and rest more, stress less (meditation, breathwork, yoga, sleep)
Let’s talk about the fermented probiotic foods we should be eating daily, the prebiotic foods that feed these healthy bacteria, and what to look for in a quality probiotic supplement.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that help to restore and maintain the balance of beneficial vs. harmful bacteria in the gut, keeping it healthy. Cultured, fermented foods are a great source of probiotics. You’ll find them in most health food stores and you can also make a few of them pretty easily yourself.
Here are some popular fermented foods that we should be eating regularly to help our gut biome to thrive.
Always check the label on your sauerkraut to make sure that what you’re getting is, in fact, probiotic. Most commercial supermarket brands will pasteurize their sauerkraut, which kills the beneficial bacteria. They may also add sugar, vinegar, and preservatives that we don’t want.
By contrast, the main ingredients in the beneficial (and OMG, so delicious) probiotic sauerkrauts are typically just cabbage and sea salt. Some brands may also throw in a few vegetables, such as carrots or onions, which is great.
As a purist, I just love plain ol’ cabbage and salt sauerkraut, but whatever floats your boat!
Kimchi is similar to sauerkraut, but it’s usually spicy. It also tends to include more veggies such as carrots, radishes, onion, garlic, ginger, and often fish sauce. If you’re vegetarian or sensitive to fish, worry not. There are plenty of veg versions as well.
Kombucha is a lightly carbonated drink fermented from black or green tea – not from mushrooms, as commonly believed.
An ingredient that is key to the fermentation process is yeast. Yeast is a distant cousin to mushrooms. Both yeast and mushrooms are fungi and it’s believed that this may be what prompted kombucha’s (wrongful) association with mushrooms. Some even refer to kombucha “mushroom tea”. It is not.
All that to say, if you’ve been dismissing kombucha because you don’t like the taste of mushrooms, it neither contains nor tastes like mushrooms. Do note that some brands pasteurize their kombucha. As mentioned earlier, pasteurization kills probiotics, so again, check the label to make sure it specifically says ‘unpasteurized’.
I looove miso. I use it to make miso soup all the time, but it’s also amazing in salad dressings. To make the soup, just dissolve 1-Tbsp of miso paste in hot water. So simple.
Notice I said hot water and not boiled water. This is because boiling will kill the beneficial bacteria in the miso. I usually bring the water to an almost-boil (or a full boil, if I’m not paying attention). Then I’ll turn off the heat and let the water cool until it’s still hot, but not ‘kill the bacteria’ hot. (If you’d burn your mouth on it, it’s too hot.) Once it’s cooled a bit, then add the miso and stir until dissolved.
I also use miso for full-on veggie soups, adding the miso at the very end. There’s a little trick to this.
First, I toss the veggies into a soup pot, cover them with water, then bring it to an almost boil. Lower the heat and let the veggies simmer on low for about 20 minutes, then turn off the heat, so it cools a little, before adding the miso.
Here’s the trick: I throw the miso paste into a coffee mug, dip the mug into the hot water, trying not to capture too many veggies in the process. I’ll then dissolve as much of the miso as I can in the mug by stirring it and carefully pouring only the liquid back into the soup. I repeat this a couple times until the paste is fully dissolved. (It only takes a minute or two.)
For those want to avoid soy, you should know that miso is most often fermented from soy. You can find soy miso that is non-GMO at most health food stores. However, if you want to skip soy altogether, these same stores usually offer miso that has been fermented from barley, rice, or chickpeas. Just be sure to check the ingredients, because (oddly) some of these alternatives still include soy, even if they’re called ‘rice miso’ on the label.
For those who can tolerate dairy, kefir is similar to yogurt but with more beneficial bacteria. In fact, I eat kefir the same way I do yogurt: I mix it with fruit and nuts.
Many commercial kefir brands (and this goes double for yogurt) contain sugar and preservatives, so always check the label or consider making your own. If you do buy your kefir, check the label to also see that it’s made from unpasteurized milk, as (again) the pasteurization will kill the probiotics.
It’s also worth noting that while all kefir is probiotic, not all yogurt is. Further, many commercial yogurt brands often contain high fructose corn syrup and other unsavory ingredients. So at the risk of sounding like a broken record… always check the label, check the label, check the label.
Coconut kefir is a dairy-free alternative to milk-based kefir. The coconut version has some of the same bacteria as regular kefir, but with fewer probiotic strains. Kefir recipes are just a Google search away, so you can make it pretty easily at home. Or just look for brands that do not contain added sugar or preservatives and do contain beneficial probiotic strains.
Kvass is a drink fermented from barley or rye and it is definitely an acquired taste. I can barely handle the smell, but I’ve met people who swear by its benefits and by the fact that it’s “not so bad once you get used to it.”
I’m trying, I really am.
Those sensitive to grains can also find kvass fermented from carrots, beets, or other root veggies. I haven’t tried root veggie kvass yet, but I’m guessing you may not need to hold your nose quite as tightly to take a shot of it.
In addition to fermented foods, you can also get your probiotics from a supplement.
You’ll often see probiotic brands bragging about how many strains they include in their product. They’ll say things like “most other brands use only 5 or 6 strains, but we have over a dozen!“. As is often the case, this ‘more is better’ mentality misses some very key points.
When it comes to probiotics, it’s the quality of the strains that count, as well as how well the strains interact with each other (vs. compete with each other) in the gut. So having billions of bacteria over a dozen strains can be great. Or not. It depends on the strains.
Think about this: If those bacteria are not strong and healthy, or they have not been properly fermented, or the quality of how they are manufactured has otherwise been compromised, or the strains compete with each other, then they are not going to support your gut in the way you need them to. Strains and quality matter.
It’s worth noting that whether a probiotic requires refrigeration is not a determining factor of its quality. Many high-quality brands can be found on the shelf in the non-refrigerated section of the supplements aisle.
Good to know
Apparently, you cannot overdose on probiotics. However, you can experience some pretty uncomfortable symptoms if you take too much, as well as when you’re just starting out. People typically report temporary reactions such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, acne breakout, and/or a rash.
These side effects, unpleasant as they may be, are often a sign that the probiotics are starting to work. The good bacteria are overtaking the bad bacteria and the battle can be a bit intense at first.
If the symptoms are mildly uncomfortable, the recommendation is typically to ride it out. If they last longer than a couple weeks or are too uncomfortable, the advice I’ve seen says to lower the dosage until your gut acclimates, then slowly increase until you reach the recommended dosage.
Prebiotics are a type of soluble fiber that passes through our digestive system without being digested. The undigested fiber ends up in our colon, where it becomes food for our beneficial microflora. In other words, the beneficial bacteria we add to our gut, whether through food or supplementation, are probiotics. The fibers that feed and nourish those probiotics are prebiotics.
Prebiotic fibers are found in vegetables (usually raw) such as chicory root, garlic, onions, leeks, dandelion greens, jicama, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichokes, which are also known as sunchokes… or lovingly referred to as ‘fartichokes’ thanks to their high fiber content. 😉
Prebiotics are also found in psyllium husk, in whole grains such as wheat, corn, and barley, in under-ripened bananas and plantains, prunes (dried plums), the skin of apples, and in yacon syrup.
Depending on your diet, you may get enough prebiotics from food. But you can also supplement to promote even stronger gut health.
Good to know
Fermented foods often contain both prebiotic fibers and a variety of probiotic strains. Some supplements, such as Dr. Ohhira’s, also have both prebiotics and probiotics. so you don’t have to buy them separately.