When we think about improving our health, our minds probably navigate toward old standbys like getting to the gym more often or going on a diet. And while there’s nothing wrong with those options, a big component of our health – our immune system – actually lies in our gut. Although the term “gut” tends to conjure up images of crunches, muffin tops, or six-pack abs, it essentially has nothing to do with any of those.
Gut health actually refers to the inner workings of your gastrointestinal tract which, as it turns out, has a bigger impact on your immune system than you might imagine. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, about 70 percent of our immune system resides in our gut. So, even if you don’t have stomach issues, a lowered immune response from your gut can be the reason you’re more susceptible to catching those seasonal bugs.
Purchasing probiotics is often recommended to boost gut health, but this can be tricky. It’s impossible to know if the bacteria in the probiotics have been damaged or killed during processing or transport. Plus, at best we’re talking about dehydrated little bugs that have to revive only to try to survive long enough to do us some good. When you grow your own strains of bacteria via fermentation in food, however, you know you have live, active cultures. Another benefit of food-based probiotics is that components in the foods themselves have built-in resistance that helps the healthy bacteria withstand the intensity of stomach acid so they can do their job of creating a healthy gut microbiome.
Another thing to bear in mind is prebiotics. You wouldn’t put fish in a fishbowl and not feed them, and in the same way, we need to make sure we provide food for our probiotics. Fortunately, prebiotics are easily found in many foods we already enjoy, including garlic, onions, asparagus, oats, bananas, and even cocoa. Hello, chocolate!
So, it can get a little confusing to try to understand probiotics. Words like “multiple strains,” “CFUs,” and other terminology, added to the need to incorporate prebiotics, can make establishing a healthy gut seem like a bothersome and even daunting task.
To make things simpler and give us some insight, Piper Gibson, a board-certified doctor of holistic nutrition, founder of Regenerating Health in Las Cruces, and corporate clinical educator for GX Sciences, offers some great tips. Piper advocates having a diverse population of bacteria in your gut to ensure the broadest range of benefit to overall health. She also encourages probiotic and prebiotic consumption on a daily basis. But as she’s quick to point out, this doesn’t need to be hard or overwhelming. “Don’t overthink it,” she advises. “Find a balance by eating a variety of fiber and probiotic-rich foods.” This can be as simple as having four ounces of kefir alongside your banana-topped oatmeal for breakfast, or adding a quarter cup of sauerkraut to your lunch.
While many are familiar with yogurt, kefir may be something new. Why should you consider a swap (or at least an add)? The answer is threefold. First is potency. Kefir contains around 15 – 20 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) of bacteria, while the same amount of yogurt contains only about six billion.
Second is digestibility. Since those ravenous bacteria feast on milk sugars, most of the lactose is eliminated from the final product. This means kefir, unlike yogurt, is well tolerated by many who are lactose intolerant. Third is versatility. Kefir can substitute for many other foods. As is, it’s a perfect substitute for buttermilk. But by simply draining off some whey, you get a consistency of sour cream, perfect for making things like ranch dressing, dill sauces, and all things rich and creamy.
Drain off some more whey and you have a substitute for Greek yogurt. And, with still a bit more whey removed, you get a cream cheese consistency that you can enjoy plain or embellish with your favorite herbs and spices to make a savory spread for crackers. Just remember that store-bought kefir can contain all kinds of added ingredients you may not want, while homemade kefir only contains things you add to it. All you need to make homemade kefir is milk and milk kefir grains. Grains can be purchased online, and as long as you keep them fed, they multiply! So, it’s really a one-time buy. In fact, you may end up with enough grains to share with others.
Sauerkraut is generally met with either a hard pass or a resounding “Yum!” If you’re in the group that passes and have never tried homemade sauerkraut, you may want to give it a whirl. It’s actually quite different from the store-bought kind. Not only is sauerkraut easy to make and teeming with good probiotics, it keeps for months in the fridge, so you can make a big batch and have it at the ready. Sauerkraut is so much more than just a hotdog topper. Its tart taste and pleasing crunch make it a fun addition to lots of foods, like sweet potatoes or even eggs. You’re only limited by your imagination!
Sourdough is a great bread option, and who doesn’t love bread? While probiotics do actually die off during baking, sourdough bread still has value as a good source of prebiotic fiber. Because of all the work done by the probiotics, it’s easier to digest and has a lower glycemic index than commercially yeasted breads.
I hope these ideas have sparked your interest in gut health, boosting immunity, and finding ways to keep you and your family healthier. In case you’re concerned about how to incorporate fermented foods into the diet of a picky kiddo, try this tasty blueberries-and-cream popsicle recipe. Just remember to be creative and don’t overcomplicate it. Before you know it, you’ll have plenty of healthy, delicious recipes of your own, sure to please the pickiest of eaters!
2 cups whole milk kefir
2/3 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
¼ cup honey
Dissolve honey in kefir, which is easier if kefir is at room temperature. Add blueberries. Pour into popsicle molds and freeze until solid. Enjoy!
Written and photography by Jillian A. Mills
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead