Gut health: Exploring the rainforest within

Imagine a lush tropical rain forest filled with a rich diversity of plant and animal life. This represents the complexity of our gut microbiome, an ecosystem residing in our digestive tract. Scientists are only beginning to unravel the far-reaching effects of gut health.

With surprising roles ranging from influencing our waistline and mood to promoting dental health and a clear complexion, the microbiome is a promising new frontier in medicine.

Increased awareness of how certain foods keep gut flora flourishing has sparked shifts in grocery store shopping and there’s a rising demand for probiotic-powered foods. Here’s what you need to know to nurture your gut microbiome.

Know the difference between probiotics and prebiotics

This dynamic duo has a harmonious relationship in the gut, working together to promote digestive health. Prebiotics are power food for probiotics. Probiotics are beneficial, living organisms that improve our immune system by helping to crowd out bacteria that can make us sick.

In addition, probiotics enhance absorption of nutrients from food and even help make energy-producing B vitamins.

Prebiotics are fibers in food that resist digestion in the upper digestive tract but are used as fuel by probiotics in the lower digestive tract. Probiotics rely on a steady supply of fuel from prebiotics so they can flourish. The best way to ensure that your probiotic population is happy and well-fed is to load up on fiber-rich plant foods.

Top sources of prebiotics include bananas, garlic, onions, leeks, artichokes, asparagus, whole grains and legumes like lentils, beans and peas. Be sure to gradually incorporate these foods into your diet and drink plenty of water to help your digestive system adjust to the increased fiber intake as it helps move things along.

Separate health from hype when shopping

Foods that are cultured or fermented naturally contain probiotics, but food companies are adding probiotics to processed foods such as energy bars and frozen yogurt. The potency of probiotic cultures can be drastically weakened when they are removed from their original source and added into these processed foods.

Kefir
Kefir has diverse probiotic strains that may improve lactose digestion among those who are lactose intolerant.

Sip the champagne of dairy

Cultured dairy products such as yogurt and kefir reign supreme as the most potent probiotic sources. Known as the champagne of cultured dairy because of its slight fizziness, kefir is a low-lactose, creamy drink made by adding “kefir grains” to milk, which cause a very unique fermenting process. 

Originating centuries ago in Eastern Europe, keifer has only recently become commercialized in the United States. While yogurt and kefir both contain beneficial bacteria, kefir hosts a more diverse population of probiotic strains, meaning it could offer added probiotic benefits, such as improving lactose digestion among those who are lactose intolerant.

Check the yogurt container

To make sure your yogurt really does have probiotic power, check for the “Live and Active Cultures” seal. Yogurts that say “heat treated after culturing” on the label mean the yogurt was pasteurized after the live strains were added, which deactivates the beneficial bacteria.

Check sugar content since sugar can work against probiotic benefits. Flavored yogurts that list sugar as the first or second ingredient can pack more sugar than a candy bar.

Choose food over supplements

Think twice before choosing a supplement over food. The journey probiotic supplements make from the lab to the gut is long and full of variables. The best and least expensive option for promoting good gut health is to enjoy foods that naturally contain live cultures.