There is a lot of talk of probiotics in the media and nutrition world and with good reason – probiotics are essential to digestive health. They aid in breaking down our foods and help transform them into the vital substances that give us energy and the ability to heal.
With and increase in prebiotic and probiotic in diets we see a marked improvement in health and the decrease in disharmonies including:
- Allergies, sinusitis, rhinitis
- Autoimmune disorders
- Bowel disorders problems – Irritable bowel, Crohn’s, loose stools, constipation and SIBO
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic infection
- Chronic inflammation
- Chronic pain syndromes
- Digestive complaints: gas bloating, nausea, slow digestion
- High blood pressure
- Hormonal imbalances
- Low energy
- Menstrual issues
- Weak or compromised immunity
Let’s face it, what doesn’t improve when your digestion is better? Both Eastern and Western medicine hold that the digestive vitality is base of overall health. What you eat and how well you can absorb it and transform it into Qi, Blood and other essentials the body needs come from your digestive vitality. Be wary if your practitioner doesn’t hold views that nutrition is primary in health and treating illness.
Considering all these benefits it seems important to keep prebiotic and probiotic foods in the in our diets. However, millions have unwittingly, tossed out ferments and probiotic foods. Why? There are number of reasons including manufacturing and production of ‘inert’ or ‘dead’ foods. Loss of heritage growing and food preparation processes – especially after WWII, it became more fashionable to eat packaged and processed foods. Another, more current reason is the vilification and confusion around carbohydrates.
“I don’t eat carbohydrates.” This statement, which I’ve heard hundreds of times of clients, students and friends, always raises a few red flags for me. First, from my perspective as a nutritionist, eliminating any category of food – a real food – for a length of time from a macro standpoint (all carbs, all protein, etc.) is dangerous. Second, it brings up just how confused our society has become around what a carbohydrate is and what it does in the body. I will tackle the details of digestible carbohydrates another day. For this blog we need to understand that probiotics will not thrive in your body without prebiotic foods which come from semi or non digestible carbohydrates. Now don’t panic yet or run for the muffins and donuts. Let’s get a clear picture of what prebiotics are so we can understand the type of carbohydrate essential to our diet.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are found in non-digestible carbohydrate or semi-digestible carbohydrate portions of fibrous vegetables. We either can’t break them down (non-digestible) or can only break down portions (semi-digestitible) of these foods. Prebiotics generally provide no direct nutritional value to our bodies, so why bother eating them? Simply put, prebiotics are like the housekeepers in your digestive tract, they clean and create an environment where healthy gut flora can thrive. Without them, even if you take or eat a lot of probiotic supplements, your digestion may still be slow or you may suffer from nutritional impairment and slow healing.
Let’s follow a couple prebiotics through our digestion.
Inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) are two common non-digestible prebiotics. They cruise through the stomach and small intestines without being broken down. Once they reach the colon, however, they act as catalysts that stimulate the healthy growth of probiotics (bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus rhamnosus, etc.) which break down food in our gastrointestinal tract. Roughage forms (cabbage, rough vegetable fibers) of fiber gently scrub the colon releasing build up and toxins. Mucilaginous forms (chia seeds and aloe) moisten and regulate mucus properly in the colon, thereby allowing the probiotics to increase and thrive. This increase in probiotic health benefits the body in a number of ways, from increased energy, boosted immunity, faster healing and to better absorption of minerals like calcium.
Where can you find prebiotics? Simple answer – fiber rich foods and complex carbohydrates. If you’ve eliminated complex carbohydrates from your diet for too long a time, you will start having digestive problems.
Whole Grains–Prebiotics are naturally occurring and abundant in whole grains. Truly whole grains. Meaning those that still have their endosperm, germ and bran. These guys usually need to be soaked and take time to cook down. What you find in “whole grain” breads is most likely milled, cracked or stripped of its bran and endosperm like parboiled or instant rice for example. Stripped of much of their nutrients and their health giving bran, they become harmful foods, not healing foods. Whole grains take time. They take time to cook and the time for the body to break them down. As a result, they regulate blood sugar rather than spiking it. Give whole grains like rye, millet, barley and teff a whirl. Avoiding gluten? No problem. There are many gluten free grains.
Fiber rich vegetables – Look for roughage – remember this term? High fiber vegetables will be high in prebiotics. Some of the best sources were once abundantly eaten but have lost favor to our modern, very picky tastes. These include the cruciferous vegetables of broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, rutabaga and kale. Others include: Asparagus, bamboo shoots, burdock, chicory, dandelion root, Jerusalem artichoke, leeks, garlic and the onion and radish family and winter squashes like pumpkin. All of your leaves provide roughage as well, the tougher the green the more prebiotic qualities it will have. Time to chew on some shrubbery. Chew, chew, chew… On a side note – if you suffer from low thyroid, avoid eating too many of the cruciferous vegetables as they naturally inhibit proper thyroid production, so be cautious of the broccoli family until your thyroid is stable.
Lentils and legumes– More fiber friends. High in protein, lentils and legumes stabilize blood sugar and deeply nourish Qi and Blood. Sensitive to a particular legume, such as kidney or white beans? Rarely are people with food allergies and sensitivities allergic to the entire family of any given food. Check out mung beans, adzuki and the more ‘uncommon’ legumes. Of course, use caution, try a small amount at a time. Lovely lentils and legumes make a complete protein when combined with the proper grain.
Chia seeds – Gently stimulate the bowels and regulate colon mucus.
Aloe Vera – Cellulose dense aloe is a strong colon stimulate. It is very useful in hot conditions of the bowels. However be cautious, its nature is very cold and may cause cramping.
Milk – Well, not really. Although it is true that many sites list milk as a prebiotic, it’s a little misleading. Our bodies contain enzymes (renin) that can covert the lactose in milk to the prebiotic GOS…but only if you absorb and process milk well. After about the age of 3 most humans have little renin in their system. Fermented milks like kefir with FOS and aged cheese are more absorbable and will provide better prebiotic.
These are just a few. Remember if it is high in fiber, it will aid your probiotics.
Many prebiotic products have popped up over the last few years. Although these may be beneficial for a while, I strongly encourage getting prebiotics as a whole food, which requires chewing, another habit essential to good GI health. In their whole form, foods also carry the nutrients and the beneficial energetic temperature and flavor of the foods.
Probiotics are microbes or micro-organisms like bifidobacteria and lactic acid bacteria that reside in the gastrointestinal tract and help us break down our and absorb our food and vital nutrients. These little critters appear in naturally yeasted and naturally fermented foods like sauerkrauts, kefir, kimchi, kombucha and yogurt. Most traditional food cultures regularly consume live enzyme foods on a daily basis, but it is something that is often missing from many American’s diets.
Bonus! Most probioitic foods have B Vitamins and aid in the absorption of Vitamin K, Vitamin B12, folic acid and calcium.
Where to find probiotics – look for live enzymes
- Dairy ferments kefir, yogurt, cottage cheese.
- Miso–there are hundreds of varities and flavors
- Naturally fermented beer and wines
- Naturally pickled vegetables – avoid those that use a lot of sugar in the pickling process. And those with high blood pressure may need to be cautious of foods pickled in salt.
- Oshinko (Japanese pickles)
- Soy sauce
- Water kefir
Want digestive enzymes, prebiotics and probiotics in one dose? Sauerkraut and kimchi (both fermented forms of cabbage) are excellent examples.
Sour and the digestive system – All fermented foods have a sour flavor. In Asian food energetics, the sour flavor aids the digestive system by breaking up stagantion, helping to break down fats and stimulating the bile.
A couple notes of cautions
Candida – Although naturally occurring in our bodies – candida albicans may run amok, especially if you eat a lot of refined grains and sugar. If you are battling with candida albicans (yeast) overgrowth, avoid using even naturally fermented yeasted foods like breads and beer until you get the candida back under control.
Antibiotics have saved millions of lives, and they do hold a place in medicine. However, they have been overused and should be used with caution. They are non-selective and eliminate both beneficial bacteria and harmful bacteria. This killing off of beneficial bacteria can lead to increased digestive problems, UTI’s and yeast infections to name a few.
Here’s to your happy gut.