Buddy Up with Bacteria
Wash and sanitize your hands, take this prescription antibiotic, clean with bleach, but eats lots of yogurt.
Talk about mixed messages on bacteria.
The fact is, for better or worse, we have trillions of microbes living in our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts that impact our metabolism, immune function and health. Our goals should include avoiding pathogens, like salmonella, that keep us close to the bathroom for weeks, while we introduce lots of probiotics, like lactobacillus, that may help prevent disease, enhance quality of life, and may even improve mental and athletic performance.
A quick vocabulary lesson:
- Microbe: Another word for microorganism, some examples include bacteria, virus, fungi, algae and yeast.
- Microbiota: The community of microbes in a specific environment.
- Pathogen: A bacterium, virus, or other microorganism that can cause disease.
- Probiotics: Microorganisms that when present in adequate amounts improve health.
- Prebiotics: The ideal food for probiotics.
We avoid pathogens by using good hand hygiene and food safety techniques, which is a topic we should probably devote a blog post to on its own. Always wash your hands before cooking, after handling raw meat, if you find yourself scratching our rubbing your face, or after touching your hair.
Never let ready-to-eat foods touch the same surface as raw meat. Use a thermometer, cooking all meats to their appropriate internal temperatures. Wash produce, and avoid re-heating and cooling the same food multiple times, and throw out any remaining left-overs after four days. These are just a few key reminders when it comes to safely approaching food preparation.
Probiotics are used to ferment foods. In order to get probiotics into our GI tracts, we need to eat fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, sourdough bread and soft cheese like Gouda. To significantly change the microbiota of our GI tract we have to eat high-dose probiotics regularly. The food industry has made it a little easier for us by adding probiotics to everything from frozen yogurt and smoothie drinks to breakfast bars, snack crackers and cereal.
There are of course the over-the-counter supplements as well. Remember probiotics are living microorganisms so they must have an appropriate environment to survive, so your best choices are to eat those foods in which they are naturally found. Once the probiotics have made it to the gut, we still need to keep them alive and happy, which is where prebiotics come in. Prebiotics are a non-digestible fiber that reach the colon nearly intact and serve as perfect snacks for our new probiotic friends. They are present naturally in a wide variety of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, artichokes, onions, garlic, asparagus, leeks, berries, bananas, flax seed and legumes.
I once heard a comparison between the microbiota of your GI tract and your lawn in the spring that made perfect sense. I must start by taking a step back and saying that a vast majority of the microbes in our GI system are just “there” – they are ordinary inhabitants, not particularly good or bad. Consider these ordinary microbes as your soil.
We all want a beautiful, plush vibrant green lawn, so we plant specific seeds (the probiotics.) We have to keep the grass watered, which would be comparable to the healthy eating, water drinking and exercise that we all should be doing regularly. We then can go above and beyond by using a fertilizer (prebiotic) to really help the grass flourish. Of course we run the risk of weeds (pathogens), which if treated (antibiotics) tends to kill more than just the weed itself.
Although caring for your GI tract won’t win you a green thumb yard of the month award, it does have real potential for cultivating good health. You can start your day with a pre- and pro-biotic punch with this recipe for overnight kefir oats.
- ⅔ cup kefir (Plain kefir is best, but you can use flavored to cut some of this fermented milk’s tang)
- ⅓ cup old-fashioned or steel-cut oats
- 1 teaspoon honey
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 cup berries
Additional optional toppings include ground flaxseed, chopped nuts or toasted coconut.
- Combine the first four ingredients in a sealable container.
- Cover and refrigerate overnight.
- Stir and then add toppings as desired.