“Perhaps the most important aspect of the gut, that has everything to do with your general wellness and mental health, is its internal ecology—the various microorganisms that live within it, especially the bacteria.” – Dr. David Perlmutter
“Our study shows that the gut–brain connection is a two-way street. […] When we consider the implications of this work, the old sayings ‘you are what you eat’ and ‘gut feelings’ take on new meaning.” – Dr. Kirsten Tillisch
My number one source for everything food related is a brilliant dietitian and nutritionist with whom I have a great relationship: Kristen Koehler Balchan, RD, LDN.
Aside from being a health and wellness expert, both personally and professionally, she’s also a seasoned kombucha brewer. At least once a week, you can find her taking care of the several bacterial colonies living in our home.
Why? The answer’s all about the gut, and its impact on everything from the immune system and weight, to brain function and happiness.
You may have seen kombucha in the store, or tried a bottle. Maybe you’ve even heard about probiotics or the microbiome. They’re hot topics for a reason, and by the time you finish reading this article you’ll know why – along with how to best nurture and take advantage of our bacterial buddies.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not a doctor, nor am I pretending to be… you know the rest.
A World Within Us: The Microbiome
A relationship that confers positive benefits to both parties is known as symbiotic. Take, for instance, the Egyptian Plover. Also known as the crocodile bird, the daring plover supposedly flies into a crocodile’s open mouth in order to pick out the tiny bits of food stuck in their teeth. The bird gets its lunch (without getting eaten) and the crocodile gets its mouth cleaned.
Remember that scene from The Lion King? Probably inspired by the Plover.
As humans, we’ve got our fair share of symbiotic relationships. In fact, our bodies actually contain more bacteria cells than human ones, with over 1000 different species of bacteria in the gut alone.1 We play host, providing them with a place to live and food to eat, and they, in turn, improve our digestion, metabolism, immune systems, and even brain functioning.
There’s a “whole inner world that lives within your intestines,” writes Raphael Kellman, MD.2 “Trillions of tiny microbes that help you extract the nutrients from your food, balance your mood, and sharpen your clarity and focus.”
Our bacterial friends are collectively known as the microbiome, and both good and bad species have been competing for real estate in the gut since birth. Amazingly, over one-third of human breast milk is composed of a substance (oligosaccharides) that’s hard to digest for infants, but perfect food for the intestinal bacteria that helps supports their young immune systems.3 4 5
Probiotics & Prebiotics
Before we go further, let’s get some definitions out of the way.
- Probiotics are the good kind of gut bacteria – the microbial “pro” squad. Technically, the World Health Organization defines probiotics as, “Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”6
- Prebiotics are what healthy bacteria (probiotics) eat – essentially a type of fiber that feeds and nurtures the right strains of bacteria.
When the bad kind of bacteria takes over it disrupts the balance of the microbiome. That can cause some uncomfortable symptoms, including digestive issues, bloating, ongoing fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, congestion, and depression.7 But, when the probiotics flourish, they provide us with amazing benefits.
The Benefits Of A Healthy Gut
In a series of studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Jeffrey Gordon found that introducing intestinal bacteria from lean donors was causal in preventing the development of obesity in mice. In the most extreme versions of the study, Gordon’s team took bacteria from lean populations and gave it to obese-leaning mice, who then developed a healthy weight.8 Kind of weird, but really awesome.
Better brain function
Researchers at UCLA recently found evidence that bacteria ingested in food can affect brain function. “There are studies showing that what we eat can alter the composition and products of the gut flora,” writes Dr. Emeran Mayer, the study’s senior author. “In particular, people with high-vegetable, fiber-based diets have a different composition of their microbiota, or gut environment, than people who eat the more typical Western diet that is high in fat and carbohydrates. Now we know that this has an effect not only on the metabolism but also affects brain function.”9
Higher levels of serotonin (the feel good chemical)
The gut contains a network of more than 100 million neurons, communicating directly with the brain and producing 95 percent of the serotonin in the body.10 It’s one of the reasons why scientists are now calling the gut the second brain.
“Your gut’s brain makes more serotonin—the master happiness molecule—than the brain in your head does,” writes David Perlmutter, MD. “Many neurologists and psychiatrists are now realizing that this may be one of the reasons why antidepressants are often less effective in treating depression than dietary changes are. In fact, recent research is revealing that our second brain […] can act independently from the main brain, and control many functions without the brain’s input or help.”
Skin may be our most obvious barrier with the world, but it’s the intestinal wall where our bodies have the most chances of encountering foreign material and organisms. Because of this, the “gut has its own immune system, the ‘gut-associated lymphatic tissue’ (GALT),” writes Dr. Perlmutter. “It represents 70 to 80 percent of your body’s total immune system. This speaks volumes about the importance—and vulnerability—of your gut. If the events that take place in the gut weren’t so critical to life, then the majority of your immune systems wouldn’t have to be there to guard and protect it.”
Dr. Frank Limpan adds that, “The gut’s lining is extremely thin, often just one cell thick. […] When this delicate lining is damaged or worn down by a poor diet or large food particles, bacteria and toxins that should normally stay in your gut’s inner tube pass through it into the bloodstream, where the immune system must deal with them. […] Thus, with a poorly functioning digestive system, you don’t just get digestive symptoms, you also get an exhausted immune system.”
Healthy gut bacteria supports an increased metabolism, lower weight, better brain function, higher levels of serotonin (good moods!), and a stronger immune system
Let’s explore how to rock it.
3 Keys to Healthy Gut Bacteria
When we consume probiotics, feed those probiotics with lots of prebiotic rich foods, and work to eliminate damaging substances, we positively shape our gut microbiota. While our genes do play a small role, what we eat is almost 5 times more important. According to researchers in Canada, “dietary changes could explain 57% of the total structural variation in gut microbiota whereas changes in genetics accounted for no more than 12%.”
1. Regularly consume probiotics
How? By eating fermented foods and taking a probiotic supplement. “I recommend that most people include a serving of fermented food each day,” writes nutritionist Keri Glassman “and take a probiotic as insurance for good gut health.”11
As a result of the fermentation process, fermented foods are naturally rich in probiotics. Kombucha (like Kristen’s) is a great example. While the tea ferments, the bacterial culture living in it (called a scoby), eats the added sugar from the tea and “infuses its goodies into the beverage.”12
Popular fermented foods include:
2. Eat prebiotic foods to feed your probiotics
As Dr. Perlmutter writes, “We really have to pay attention to how our gutsy tribes are fed and nurtured.”
- Allium vegetables – garlic, onion, leeks, chives, and scallions. (Highest prebiotic punch when added to food raw.)
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Chicory Root
- Dandelion greens
- Apple cider vinegar
3. Avoid microbiome damaging substances
“Would you be surprised if your car didn’t run well after you peed in your gas tank?” writes J. Michael Zenn in The Self Health Revolution. “Or what if I put sawdust in your oil? Better yet, what if I shoved mud up your tailpipe? Would you be shocked if your car didn’t crank after such abuse? Our bodies are much more complex and sensitive than our cars.”
A little “abuse” every so often isn’t the end of the world, but we run best when we avoid damaging substances. For gut health, that includes minimizing:
- agricultural chemicals (which are created to destroy bacteria)
- processed foods
- foods with chemical additives
- excessive chlorine exposure (“Drink filtered water. Chlorine is one of the gut-busting toxins in our environment. Solution: Filter!” – Dr. Perlmutter)
You + Bacteria = Win Win
Each of us is the host and home for a teeming microbial universe. When we show it love, it shows love right back.
Maintaining the right bacterial balance helps us is more ways than one. As Matt Lancor responded when asked why he created his athletically-geared kombucha company, “Kombuchade was started with the intention to heal and balance the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual bodies of all those who consume our kombucha.”
Be good to your gut by doing things like drinking kombucha, taking a probiotic supplement, and eating fibrous vegetables – then reap the rewards.
If you really want to go nuts and home-brew your own kombucha, grab a starter kit and start cultivating. Or, if you’re in the Chicago area, contact Kombuchade to have them nurture a scoby for you and hand deliver a home-brew setup.
- http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2016/01/06/036103 [↩]
- The Microbiome Diet [↩]
- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2866150/ [↩]
- http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/02/03/how-breast-milk-engineers-a-babys-gut-and-gut-microbes/ [↩]
- First found in Michael Pollen’s documentary In Defense of Food http://www.pbs.org/food/shows/in-defense-of-food/ [↩]
- http://www.who.int/foodsafety/fs_management/en/probiotic_guidelines.pdf [↩]
- http://www.wellandgood.com/good-advice/dr-frank-lipman-yeast-overgrowth-fatigue/ [↩]
- http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-gut-bacteria-help-make-us-fat-and-thin/ [↩]
- http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/changing-gut-bacteria-through-245617 [↩]
- Alberto Villoldo, One Spirit Medicine [↩]
- http://nutritiouslife.com/probiotics-q-a/ [↩]
- The language of Daina Trout, CEO of Health-Ade Kombucha, in a podcast with the hosts of That’s So Retrograde http://www.thatssoretrograde.com/podcasts/ [↩]
- http://www.wellandgood.com/good-food/8-surprising-good-for-your-gut-superfoods-you-should-be-eating/slide/8/ [↩]
- http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-18746/18-prebiotic-rich-foods-for-a-gut-friendly-diet.html [↩]