Human beings have evolved in a perfect symbiotic relationship with millions of micro-organisms (a.k.a. friendly bacteria or probiotics) living in our bodies and on our skin. In fact, it is believed that at least 3-5 lbs. of our body weight is attributed to these micro-organisms that we are interdependent with for life.
These micro-organisms help us with a multitude of functions throughout our bodies, from help with digesting our food, to the transporting of nutrients throughout our cells. They even have a strong influence over our moods and cravings. In fact, the good guys actually increase receptor sites for more feel good hormones. This is something that we all want more of, right? So probiotics are a really good thing to keep us functioning as we were designed to function.
You can think of these little life forces as the army within you, because when foreign invaders make their way in and start to attack our bodies, it’s our healthy bacteria that’s part of our first line of defense. Unfortunately, many of us have depleted our army due to antibiotics, poor diet, stress, and unhealthy lifestyle choices. A weakened defense system can subject your genetic weak spots to an attack and allow for the proliferation of sickness and disease. Chronic examples of this could be expressed through skin conditions such as rosacea, digestive disorders like IBS, various allergies, and much more serious ailments and chronic disorders.
So how do we rebuild and strengthen our army to restore us to vibrant health?
Simple: by increasing our intake of fermented foods and beverages. Eating our probiotics trumps a pill any day as the most efficient and viable source of probiotics for our bodies. There are many easy, delicious, and healthy ways to add these life giving foods into your daily diet. Here are a few options for you:
Pickles, sauerkraut, mixed vegetable varieties, and kimchee: Fermented varieties are NOT the shelf stable ones. Real probiotic ferments are never heated and not pasteurized, which means they are still alive with all the bacteria goodness that created them. Real ferments can be found in the refrigerator section of your local grocery or health food store.
Read the label. If the ingredients contain only salt and the vegetable that’s being ‘pickled’, (for example pickled cucumbers contain salt and cucumbers, and maybe some added flavor from garlic or dill, but not vinegar, it does not have the probiotic benefit. Keep in mind that vinegar is not needed for a traditionally fermented product. The only reason pickles ever switched to vinegar for production is because it’s cheaper, faster, and allows for shelf stability (because they get pasteurized), BUT it renders a product that’s void of any probiotic benefit. They might taste good, but they aren’t populating your beneficial bacteria. So stay off the dry shelves if you’re going for probiotic benefits and scout the refrigerator section.
Yogurt: Hold the sugared varieties and artificially sweetened ones, please! Opt for plain and then you can add your own flavors and control the amount and quality. Don’t just limit it to sweet though. Savory yogurt condiments like Indian style Raita or the Greek Tzatziki are just a few examples of the wonderful accompaniments yogurt can make to a meal. Get creative.
Kefir: Kefir is another great probiotic food. Some say it’s like yogurt on steroids because it has the ability to colonize in your digestive track. Whereas yogurt does its job and dies off, Kefir hangs around and repopulates. Again, look for plain varieties where available and consider adding in your own sweeteners sparingly. Coconut and other non-dairy kefirs are now becoming more readily available. Look for them as another option if you are dairy free.
Kombucha: Kombucha is a fermented tea and it contains lots of beneficial probiotics from yeast and bacteria (the good variety) that not only aid in the digestion of the food in your stomach, but carry it through your entire digestive track. This stuff tends to be caffeinated, so watch out for any late day consumption of it. Kombucha is a wonderful digestive aid and can take the place of mild antacids if you are in need of a little help down there. It’s even been shown to ease a slowed digestive system, like the kind that come along with pregnancy.
The bottom line on probiotics is get to know them and use them. Keep in mind that a little can go a long way. A few bites of a probiotic rich food can have as many as 200+ times more probiotics than even the best pill. There’s really no comparison AND it’s way more cost effective. In addition, probiotic rich foods, like sauerkraut, have a nutrient content that’s actually higher than if the cabbage was eaten fresh. Vitamins C is increased by 20 times and B vitamins are actually made in the fermentation process. Is it any wonder why traditional cultures around the world all have some sort of fermented food in their everyday diet?
Think about looking for new sources when you’re out shopping. There are wonderful hot sauces and new combinations of vegetables showing up all the time on grocers shelves. Or you can get creative and make your own. It’s not that hard, really. It just takes a little know how and a few days on your counter top. There are ample video instructions and books available for the adventurous.
But really, just think about getting them into your diet and know that your body will thank you while reaping their many benefits in return for your better health.