Exploring the Many Health Benefits of Probiotics & Fermented Foods
Our digestive tract contains hundreds of different species of bacteria that may be either beneficial to our health or harmful.
The good bacteria are involved in many functions including the production of vitamins, maintaining the growth and health of gut cells and boosting immunity.
The harmful bacteria can contribute to candida (thrush), weight gain, immune and behavioural disorders.
More than 70% of our important immune cells live in the gut and are dependent on healthy bowel flora!
History of Fermented Foods
Most cultures around the world include some fermented foods in their traditional cuisine. From fermented dairy in Europe to lacto-fermented pickles such as sauerkraut in Germany, kimchi in Korea and miso soup in Asia. Any properly fermented food generally contains bacteria that are beneficial to health.
Unfortunately, our culture has slowly moved away from sourdough breads to yeasted breads and our diet contains very few foods rich in healthy flora – other than yoghurt.
You only have to walk down the refrigerated aisle at the supermarket to see the massive range of yoghurts and cultured dairy products. However, it is essential to know that there is a big difference between many of the yoghurts on the market!
Most of the commercial yoghurts contain sugar, fruit or artificial flavours and may or may not contain any added bacteria. Always look for a natural yoghurt that has no additives or sugar and has added probiotics, such as acidophilus and bifidobacteria.
Sugar is added to improve flavour but may cause a decline in the potency or health benefit of yoghurt. Many yoghurts (especially low fat ones) contain as much as 10-15% sugar which has the potential to contribute to weight gain and aggravate diabetes.
Children and adults alike, can sometimes be reluctant to enjoy a sour taste when they are used to sweetness. If you are weaning children off sweeter yoghurts on to a healthier natural yoghurt, you can always add a small amount of freshly diced fruit or honey to add sweetness until they acquire a taste for sourness.
It may also be worth trying different brands of natural yoghurts as some are creamier and less sour than others. I find my homemade yoghurt to be delicious and naturally sweet and creamy without the intense sourness. My kids are happy to eat it plain – it is normal yoghurt to them. They find it hard to stomach much of the regular sweetened yoghurts when they have them occasionally (at the grandparents)!
You can also use probiotics supplements to restore the healthy gut flora. Probiotics contain either a single species or a range of live microbial agents to help colonise the gut and restore balance in the body. These are essential following any gastric disturbance such as diarrhoea but are also essential following antibiotics when good and bacteria are destroyed. Because probiotics are living organisms that are sensitive to heat and light, they should be kept refrigerated and most types should be sold from a fridge in the clinic or shop (except freeze dried preparations).
There are specific health conditions and illnesses that have been shown to improve with probiotics.
These include the digestive disorders:
- ulcerative colitis
- Crohns disease
- irritable bowel syndrome
- colon cancer
- gut infections
It seems obvious that the function of the bowel may be improved with correct levels of bacteria, however there are other conditions that are also benefitted by probiotics. These include autoimmune diseases such as MS and rheumatoid arthritis and behavioural issues such as ADHD and autism.
Allergies can also be improved when the bowel flora is correct and studies have shown that pregnant women can prevent allergies in their babies by supplementing with probiotics during pregnancy. Babies are naturally exposed to flora in the birth canal that help to colonise their immature guts after birth. Thus with caesarean birth, the baby misses out on this exposure and is more prone to allergies and gut issues.
Interestingly, breastfeeding also helps to colonise the infant gut with good flora and will go a long way to improving and preventing allergies, gut disorders and will boost generally immunity.
Clearly our overall health is directly related to bacteria in our environment and our gut. While some bacteria are harmful, the vast majority play an essential role in maintaining and supporting our health.
Try some traditional lacto-fermented condiments or natural yoghurt to boost the good guys in your gut on a daily basis and supplement with a probiotic if you have a health complaint that might benefit from this.