Part of being the best chiropractor I can be for my patients is keeping myself educated on current research. The other day I came across a study on gut health, which — if you’ve been following “Wellness Wednesday” for any length of time, you know — is a favorite topic of mine.
That might seem like a strange core topic for a chiropractor, but as we’ve talked about here many times, wellness is a multi-faceted topic. If your spine is aligned, but your gut is out of whack, you’re not really healthy.
A Quick Gut Primer
When I talk about your “gut,” I’m not referring to the spare tire around your waist. I’m referring specifically to your digestive tract, especially your intestines. Inside your intestine is a bacterial colony with about 3 trillion individual cells. Now, don’t get grossed out — these are mostly good bacteria, and they serve several important functions in your body (there are bad bacteria in there as well, and we will talk about them later, but for now we’ll focus on the ones you need).
The first and most obvious function of the gut bacteria is digestion. These bacteria break down the food particles you swallow into their core elements – nutrients and waste material. The nutrients slip into your bloodstream and the waste goes on to your bowel. That’s fifth-grade health in a nutshell.
The second function of the gut colony in your intestine is to serve as a command center for your immune system. These bacteria not only process food, they also process every other cell that enters your system, including viruses, broken and defective cells, and inflammatory cells. When the bacteria colony in your gut (also called the “gut flora” or “microbiome”) is weakened, your immune system’s ability to fight foreign invaders is compromised. When that happens, toxic cells have free reign over whatever other cells they decide to attack. We call this process by its more common name: “disease.” You can read all about this battle here to get up to speed.
- There are lots of malignant factors that are constantly at work against your gut bacteria:
- Some viruses are so powerful that they overwhelm and destroy parts of the gut flora.
- Antibiotics kill good and bad bacteria indiscriminately.
- Drug and alcohol abuse can deplete the gut flora.
- Unhealthy food choices — especially sugars and preservatives — can ravage your gut flora.
How To Protect This Important System
Naturally, knowing the importance of the gut flora, you would want to do everything you can to protect it. The more people understand their gut flora, the more you see them buying probiotics. Probiotics contain large amounts of the different good bacterial strains that reside in the gut, usually in a powder form (or a capsule). Probiotics are good for replenishing your gut bacteria when they have been depleted. In fact, I usually encourage patients who are taking an antibiotic to follow it up with a probiotic. Because probiotics contain only specific bacterial strains from specifically-cultivated sources, they can rebuild the gut flora without recharging the virus or infection the antibiotic was sent in to destroy.
Where this becomes complicated is in the fact that there are numerous brands of probiotics, each with their own formula and composite of different strains. How can you know which formula is going to serve your gut best?
Whenever possible, I encourage patients to get their good gut bacteria from natural sources — their food. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if your food came from the earth (either directly or indirectly through an animal), your body knows what to do with it. If it came from a test tube, your body will treat it like poison. Another way to think of it is this: if it was available before 1800, chances are it’s OK. It was during the Industrial Revolution that businesses began tinkering with the food supply, to find ways to manufacture “food.” Their motives may have been noble: to prevent crop failure, to make it last longer on store shelves, or to make it available to places where famine was causing starvation. But the result has been a whole industry of “Frankenfoods” that are more chemicals and less food. But that’s a rant for another time.
Let’s focus on foods that will build up your gut flora.
One of the most powerful groups of foods that promote the growth of the gut flora are fermented foods, like kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, apple cider vinegar, yogurt, and others. Many of them are formed from the fermentation of milk or vegetables and contain a SCOBY (“symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”), a living community of active bacteria.
While most fermented foods are an acquired taste, the health benefits are worth adapting yourself to the pungent odor.
The more we learn about the role of fats as a critical part of our diets, the more we discover that the media campaign to demonize fats since the 1950s has been a complete lie. Saturated fats are not only critical for brain, heart, muscle, and joint health, the contribute positively to the maintenance of the gut flora. One study demonstrated that fish-based Omega-3 fatty acids foster the growth of several strains of gut bacteria, including lactobacillus and streptococcus.
Research has shown that animal-based proteins, and whey and pea protein contribute positively to the health of the gut flora. And since most meats are also high in saturated fats, you have twice the impact.
A high-fiber diet has been shown to foster a good environment for good bacteria to grow, while a low-fiber diet shows the opposite. Fiber is an important part of any diet, especially plant-baed fiber, although there is some disagreement about the balance of carbohydrates, as well as the number of people who have a sensitivity to gluten or insulin resistance. Apples, legumes (beans and lentils), walnuts, celery, and strawberries are all good places to get yourself some good dietary fiber if you have a hard time digesting oats, barley, and sprouted grains. Incidentally, if you’re dealing with food sensitivities of any type, come to my office and ask me about the 28-day cleanse I do with many of my patients. The results we are seeing are beyond debate.
This is not one you’re going to find on the label of most foods, but more research is pointing to their importance. Polyphenols are a group of over 500 phytochemicals that occur naturally in plants. They give plants their color and can help to protect it from various dangers. You may have heard about resveratol, curcmin, and quercitin as beneficial agents in more and more cancer studies. Flavinoids are a type of polyphenols that are gaining recognition for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. You can find them most commonly in grapes, berries, kiwi, plums, apples, cherries, coffee, tea, and red wine, just to name a few.
You don’t necessarily need to make sweeping changes to your diet. Nor should you spend a bunch of money on probiotic powders and pills. You can have the benefits of a probiotic diet just by nudging up the amounts of these foods you eat each day.
Nine times out of ten, I would rather encourage you to eat right than to buy a nutritional supplement. That said, there are some that are very well-made and have significant benefits. We’ll talk about that another time.
What Does This Look Like In The Real World?
So, let’s build a probiotic meal:
Let’s start with a nice bed of mixed greens: lettuces, spinach, and arugula. Add some sliced strawberries, blueberries, and apples (maybe some dark red cherries for pizzazz) and some chopped walnuts. You can throw in some dark red kidney beans or lentils. And we’ll top it with some grilled wild salmon. Add a side of sauerkraut or a dressing made with apple cider vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.
You can experiment with the foods I mentioned above and find a flavor balance that you love.
It’s not difficult to give your gut the best.
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“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas