According to a 2012 National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate, 90% of cells in the human body are bacterial, fungal, or otherwise non-human. Luckily, this overwhelming number of “non-human” cells is not a threat, but rather contributes to vital processes necessary for life.
The microbes in our gut are of particular importance. Much of the focus in a naturopathic plan revolves around supporting and balancing the life-sustaining bugs that live in our digestive systems.
This army of complex microbes contributes and controls metabolic, digestive, immune, and protective processes. Many factors, such as diet, food poisoning, infections, antibiotic therapy, stress and ageing negatively impact the microbial population and contribute to gastrointestinal imbalances. These imbalances cause symptoms and illnesses that range from mild (ex. cramps, gas, diarrhea) to life threatening (ex. inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers, cancer).
Traditional diets and cultures were not afraid of a little bacteria and encouraged consumption of raw and fermented foods that contain lots of them. Modern society’s fear of infection has resulted in foods being pasteurized, irradiated, and processed. We’ve also been encouraged to fear the bugs around us, use antibacterial soap, sterilize our environments, and teach our children to avoid their natural instincts that result in them putting everything they touch, including dirt, in their mouths. These instincts help to naturally supplement probiotics and encourage healthy digestive tracts. Children who grow up in “sterile” environments are more prone to allergic conditions such as asthma and eczema.
Luckily, there is a growing awareness of the important relationship between microbes and human health. We can no longer take these invisible-to-us bugs for granted.
Considering we are only 10% “human”, it may be worth the time and effort to get to know the bugs in and around us that are essential to our survival and wellbeing and what we can do to keep them happy.
“All disease begins in the gut.” Hippocrates
- Unpasteurized, fermented and cultured foods and drinks such as sauerkraut, miso, Kombucha tea, natural yogurt, aged cheeses, and kefir contain probiotics and can help support healthy digestion. There are many resources on how you can make your own fermented foods. Some of my favourites:
- Fermented foods For Health by Deirdre Rawlings
- Delicious Probiotic Drinks by Julia Mueller
This is a great replacement for dairy sour cream—it’s so simple to make! Use it to top bean soups, enchiladas, or tacos—basically anywhere sour cream is called for. Be sure to use the full fat coconut milk, not the light variety.
2 cans coconut milk, chilled1 teaspoon probiotic powder (Genestra HMF Forte available at The Pear Tree)pinch sea salt
Place the two cans of coconut milk in the refrigerator for about 24 hours. Then open the cans and scoop off the thick white cream at the top. Pour off the water into a jar (use it to make smoothies).
Heat the coconut cream in a small saucepan over the lowest heat to about 97-98 degrees F. Then remove pan from stove and whisk in probiotic powder. Pour into a clean quart jar, cover with a clean dishtowel secured with a rubber band.
Let the jar sit out for about 24 to 48 hours on your kitchen counter to culture. Then stir in a pinch or two of sea salt, cover jar with a lid, and place into the refrigerator to solidify.
Yield: 1 to 3 cups (varies depending on how much cream is in each can)
- Other foods contain pre-biotics, foods that have been shown to feed the good bacteria already existing in your digestive system. Prebiotic containing foods tend to be high in fiber and include chicory root, garlic, onion, banana, dandelion greens, and apple cider vinegar. A diet high in whole foods, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, naturally contains the fiber and nutrients that support healthy digestion and helps to feed good bacteria.
- Sugar and excess refined grains deplete beneficial bacteria, create inflammation, and suppress immune function. For many reasons, including the negative impact on the bacteria in your digestive tract, reducing or eliminating refined sugars is an important health choice.
- Antibiotics are amazing and effective drugs – however, there are many side effects associated with their use. Antibiotics deplete all gut bacteria, including the beneficial strains. Side effects including diarrhea, candida infections, and immune suppression, can be reduced with an integrative approach that includes the use of probiotics during and after antibiotic therapy.
When Supplementation is Necessary
Many people need more support in the probiotic department than what a healthy diet can provide. One popular strategy to support these amazing bugs is to take a supplement that contains specific strains and high doses of probiotics. The most widely adopted definition of probiotics is ‘live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer health benefits on the host’ (Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation, 2001). Probiotic supplements are available in various doses and strains in capsules, powders, and liquids. Research has proven the benefits of probiotic supplementation for a wide variety of health concerns including:
- Oral Health - Probiotics have been shown to prevent and treat oral infections such as gingivitis. Research has also suggested a link between oral health and cardiovascular disease – suggesting a balanced oral flora contributes to systemic health benefits.
- Stomach Health - H. pylori is a common bacterial infection in the stomach. It is associated with increased risk of ulcers, cancer, and lymphoma. Common treatment is antibiotic therapy. The integrative approach to combine antibiotic treatment with probiotic supplementation has shown significant reduction in both recurrence and side effects.
- Intestinal Health –
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a non-specific illness that is often characterized by abdominal pain and alternating constipation and diarrhea. Various factors have been associated with IBS, including altered gut environment. Along with other naturopathic treatment options, IBS patients typically respond very well to probiotic therapy.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), includes Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis, and involves significant, chronic inflammation along the digestive tract. Many controlled clinical trials prove that probiotic therapy is useful in the treatment of IBD and have been shown to induce remission states, reduce the number of relapses, and increase the length of time between relapses. For such a safe therapy, probiotics have significant benefits.
- Allergic and Immune Conditions - The many beneficial actions of probiotics are the result of their ability to balance immune function and reduce inflammation in the body. A healthy gut flora has been linked to reduced occurrence of allergic illness – including eczema and seasonal allergies as well as general immune support. Persons with balanced gut flora are less susceptible to colds, flus, and other types of infections.
Aside from all the amazing benefits of probiotics, evidence proves they are extremely safe and, when taken properly, have not been associated with any adverse events. It is important to determine which strain or strains of probiotics are necessary for your concerns and to ensure the appropriate dosing. Consult a naturopathic doctor for specific ways probiotics could benefit you.
Plummer N, Plummer S. (2013, April 14). Probiotics and the Gastrointestinal Tract. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from Modern HCP website: http://modernhcp.com 2013.
National Institutes of Health. (2012; June 25). The Healthy Human Microbe. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from National Institutes of Health website: http://www.nih.gov/researchmatters/june2012/06252012microbiome.htm
Cain A, Dowhower Karpa K. (2011). Clinical Utility of Probiotics in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Alternative Therapies, Jan/Feb 2011, Vol. 17, No. 1, 72-79.
Huffnagle, Gary. The Probiotics Revolution. Random House Publishing Group. (2008).