The Good and the Bad
by Kaylee Kroyer, RD, LD, Healthy Living Coach, YMCA of Central Kentucky
“The gut” has been a hot topic recently in the health industry as more and more research uncovers the exact role of the gut in our overall wellness. In this post, when I refer to “the gut”, I’m referencing the large intestines, or the colon. The “gut microbiome” refers to the collection of over 100 trillion bacterial cells that we have living in our colon.
Just as there are bacteria in the gut that promote health and wellness, there are bacteria that can be harmful. There are hundreds of different species of bacteria that could be found in the colon, each with unique health benefits and roles. These organisms are responsible for creating certain vitamins, such as folate and vitamin K, regulating our digestive system, regulating our blood pressure, utilization of glucose, as well as protecting us from harmful bacteria that we may come in contact with. In fact, about 70% of our immune system strength comes from the bacteria within the gut.
A “healthy” gut is one that has a diverse population or contains a wide variety of different species. The term “dysbiosis” describes a state when the population of the gut bacteria becomes imbalanced, this could be due to high stress, antibiotics, or low fiber diets. Dysbiosis can lead to low energy levels, poor sleep, weakened immune system, and weight-gain.
The development of our gut microbiome begins at birth and is impacted by our genes, our environment, our diet, and our lifestyle. While yes, you can be born with a “good gut” or a “bad gut”, the population of bacteria in your gut is not set in stone and it can be impacted by the foods that we eat. If a label says that a food contains “probiotics” or is packaged “with the mother”, this means it contains live bacteria. If a food contains “pre-biotics”, this means it has additional nutrients that are intended to feed the healthy bacteria currently living in the gut. Fiber sources such as inulin and oligofructose make it to the colon undigested and therefore serve as a feeding source for the bacteria in the colon.
What are Fermented Foods?
In order to understand the context of this post on Mother’s Day weekend, it’s important that we talk a little bit about the process of fermenting foods. Foods have been fermented for hundreds of years. It’s actually the oldest form of food preservation. Before we even knew about microorganisms, “good” bacteria, and “bad” bacteria, we were able to observe that some foods spoiled quicker than others, and we began to learn how we could prevent food spoilage. For example, the process of canning creates an environment for the “good” bacteria on fresh produce to thrive. These bacteria naturally creates lactic acid which prevents the growth of bad or harmful bacteria. This lactic acid is what allows us to keep and enjoy home-canned tomatoes for long after the tomato growing season has passed.
For products such as white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or kombucha (a pro-biotic tea beverage), these products don’t naturally have the good bacteria and require an outside source – this is where “the mother” comes in. A “mother” or “scoby” is a term that refers to a colony of bacteria and yeast that are used to ferment liquids such as vinegar and kombucha. The mother holds the probiotic, or live bacteria, goodness that we look for in fermented foods. A “mother” is needed to make anything from vinegars used in cooking to kombucha, which is a probiotic enriched tea beverage.
We talk about fermented foods because some research supports that eating foods that are rich in “pro-biotics” can help to populate the good bacteria within the gut. It’s also an added bonus that probiotic rich foods such as vegetables, yogurts, and cheeses are nutritious and delicious foods that can be incorporated into our current diets.
Ways to Improve Gut Health
Eat a diet that supports that nourishes the gut.
Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fermented foods help to nourish the gut and increase the population of the “good” bacteria. Whatever we eat, the bacteria in our gut eat as well. However, most of our food is completely digested by the time it makes it to the colon except for fiber. Fiber is tougher for our bodies to digest and we need the help of the bacteria within our guts to break down these foods. It’s recommended for women to eat 25 grams of fiber per day, and men need about 35 grams of fiber today. If you’re worried about experiencing some of the “side effects” of a high fiber diet, start by gradually increasing your fiber intake by about 5 grams per day at a time.
Get enough sleep.
Rest is so important to our overall health and well-being. Inadequate sleep and high levels of stress can kill off our good bacteria and cause the bad bacteria to overrun our colons. Our bodies have a natural wake/sleep cycle known as the circadian rhythm and this consists of a natural ebb and flow of regulatory hormones within the body causing us to sleep, wake, and experience hunger. Not getting enough sleep or having an irregular sleep pattern can impact this natural cycle and therefore impact our gut microbiome population. The gut also follows this pattern by increasing digestion at meal times and allowing for rest during the other times of the day. When we have irregular eating and sleeping patterns, our bodies have a difficult time responding appropriately.
Incorporate physical activity into your regular routine.
Research shows that physically active individuals have more diverse gut microbiomes and greater populations of good bacteria. The regular physical activity is believed to stimulate the growth of the healthy bacteria.
Word, to Your Mother
When it comes to your gut microbiome, you may have gotten it “from your momma”, but it’s now our job to nourish and cultivate the flora of bacteria within our colons. There is not a single magic pill that we can take which will solve all of our gut insufficiencies, but by incorporating more fruits and vegetables, making time for rest, and making physical activity a part of your regular routine, we can begin to promote a healthy and diverse
Mother’s Day is a wonderful time to celebrate all the incredible women in your life and tell them that you appreciate them for all that they do. Take time this weekend to say “thank you” and to take care of the mothers, grandmothers, and mother-figures in your life – maybe even share some fermented foods with them!
Cucumber Salad with Greek Yogurt Vinaigrette
This recipe is rich in gut-nourishing fiber and a wonderful source of probiotics from the Greek Yogurt dressing. Enjoy as a side for your Mother’s Day dinner this weekend!
3 c. halved cherry or grape tomatoes (quarter the tomatoes if they are larger)
2 large cucumbers
1 large green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 c. diced red onion
1 c. pitted and roughly chopped Kalamata olives
1/3 c. chopped fresh parsley (1 TBSP dried)
1/3 c. chopped fresh oregano (1 TBSP dried)
1 8-oz. block of feta, diced (or use crumbled feta)
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 Tablespoon honey
salt & pepper to taste
Chop vegetables and place in a large bowl, sprinkle with seasonings.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the Greek yogurt, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, mustard, honey, salt and pepper.
When ready to serve, pour dressing over vegetables and stir to combine. Enjoy!
Recipes adapted from and photos used from: