What is gut flora?
Most people think of their gut merely as a simple mechanism to digest food, not realizing that 80 percent of their immune system is located in their gut. The “inner ecosystem” which consists of various micro-organisms in digestive tract influences countless aspects of health. The quantity and type of organisms in the gut interact with body in ways that can prevent or promote many diseases. Thus having a healthy gut is essential if you want to have strong immune system to prevent a common cold or other infectious diseases – and to maintain optimal health in general.
Since the gut bacteria are an integrated part of human body they are also affected by our lifestyle. For example eating a lot of processed foods and refined carbohydrates can compromise intestinal bacteria because many of the processed foods can destroy healthy microflora in the gut. And on the other hand refined carbohydrates can feed bad bacteria, fungi and yeast. These pathogenic anaerobic bacteria, fungi and yeast then produce metabolic waste products causing your health to deteriorate. Gut bacteria are also very sensitive to antibiotics, chlorinated water, chemicals and pollution. For example antibiotics don’t make any difference between good and bad bacteria. When we take antibiotics to kill off infectious bacteria which they are prescribed, we at the same time destroy large amounts of the beneficial flora in our gut and thus severely impair digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
Some of the most common signs telling us that there is something wrong with our intestinal bacteria balance include:
- constipation or diarrhea
- gas and bloating
- sugar cravings
Constantly experiencing any of these symptoms and/or having weak immune systems tells us that we need to address some attention to our gut.
Balancing your gut flora
A healthy ratio of good to bad gut bacteria is essential, not only for proper development and function of immune system, but also for digestion and absorption of nutrients, production of vitamins and keeping the bad bacteria under control. First step in optimizing gut bacteria is avoiding consuming sugar (including fructose) and processed foods in order to inhibit the growth of bad bacteria, yeast and fungi. Some people benefit also from leaving grains out of their diet, at least for some time.
Second step is to increase the amount of good bacteria in the gut by eating probiotic supplements or by eating fermented foods.
Main features to look at when purchasing probiotic supplements are:
- multi-strain formulation
- amount of live organisms at least 2 billion
- type of strains; at least species from Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria family should be included
- no need for refrigeration
- long shelf life
- can survive stomach acid
Even better way than using probiotic supplements to get healthy bacteria in to your gut is to include fermented foods in to your diet. Fermented foods such as kefir, natto, yogurt and pickled fermentations of cabbage, cucumbers, onions etc. have been used by people for ages all over the world to support intestinal and overall health.
There are multiple benefits for eating fermented foods:
- Fermented foods improve digestion
- Fermented foods help to restore the balance of bacteria in the gut
- Raw fermented foods are rich in enzymes
- Vitamin content of the food is increased in fermentation
- Eating fermented foods help us to absorb the nutrients were consuming
- Fermenting of food helps to preserve it for a longer time
- Fermenting food is inexpensive
Easiest way to include fermented foods in to your diet is to buy them ready from store. Please note that for example modern pickles and sauerkraut are made with vinegar instead of the traditional method of lacto-fermentation using salt. Thus they do not provide any of the health benefits that traditional fermented foods provide. Many health food stores nowadays sell traditionally fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, salsa, ketchup, and kim chi as well as fermented beverages like kefir and kombucha. You can even find naturally fermented bread (sourdough bread) from some stores and bakeries.
Making fermented foods yourself is easy and inexpensive. Usually you only need some starter cultures and mason jars and you’re good to go. For example for making kefir all you need is kefir granules and a quart of milk (raw milk from grassfed cows is preferred). A quart of kefir has far more active bacteria than you can possibly purchase in any probiotics supplement, and with just one starter package of kefir granules you can basically convert endless amounts of milk to kefir. And if you don’t like milk, you can use water kefir grains to make water kefir which is more or less like homemade soda.