Let’s just take a moment to appreciate germs. In our society, “critters,” such as bacteria, viruses, and fungus are often demonized, as we are told to wash our hands and slather on the hand sanitizer every time we enter a new building. But not all critters are bad! Our gastrointestinal tract contains more than 500 species of bacteria (weighing as much as 4 lbs!). Although some of these bacteria are harmful, many of them are beneficial and essential for digestion. We live in symbiosis with these microorganisms, providing them with food and shelter in exchange for a variety of services. Here are just some of the functions these critters perform:
- Protecting against overgrowth of pathogenic organisms such as Candida yeast, e.coli, h. pylori bacteria through crowding out these harmful organisms and creating an acidic environment to discourage their growth
- Speeding up digestion through increasing peristalsis and bowel transit time
- Producing enzymes to help digest our food and support our immune system
- Manufacturing additional nutrients, specifically B vitamins
- Increasing production of white blood cells and other infection fighting immune cells
- Acting as antioxidants, scavenging for free radicals and cancerous cells
Unfortunately, however, these good bacteria are constantly threatened and depleted by a variety of environmental contaminants, including antibiotics, poor diet (refined sugar, food additives, toxins), prescription drugs (especially nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin), food intolerances (gluten, dairy, etc.), alcohol, cigarettes, and other stressors. As a result, most of us can benefit from replenishing these bacteria through probiotics and fermented foods, especially anyone with digestive complaints such as gas, bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, food allergies or any chronic illness.
Probiotics are live strains of beneficial bacteria that we can ingest to reintroduce and recolonize in our intestines. There are a variety of probiotics available on the market, with varying potencies and strains. It’s best to buy probiotics that have been refrigerated and are packaged in dark glass bottles, which prevent the bacteria from dying. I also recommend buying a probiotic with a variety of bacterial strains, such as: Lactobacillus acidophilis, l. casei, l.bulgaricus, l.rhamanosus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, b.longum, etc.
Fermented Foods…Brewing Your Own Critters at Home
Fermented foods have been a part of the diets of a variety of cultures all over the world since ancient times. In fact, before there were freezers and canners, fermentation was a primary method of food preservation. Essentially, fermentation is the process of harnessing microorganisms, such as lactobacilli bacteria and yeasts, and allowing them to proliferate, producing alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid, which all act as natural “bio-preservatives” that help prevent spoilage and retain nutrients. This pre-digestion saves our guts both time and energy. If you are interested in doing some home fermenting, I highly recommend Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions as well as Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation. Both books are incredible resources. Below are some of my favorite fermented food recipes: