Before I decided to stay home with my children, I worked as a microbiologist. I LOVE microbes and find them fascinating. My absolute favorite bug to watch under the microscope is Campylobacter jejuni, a corkscrew shaped bacterium that spins around like confetti. Those little guys look like they are having SO MUCH FUN.
No one wants a Campylobacter party going on though because these fun-loving party animals are the number one culprit of food poisoning in the United States.
I bring this up because most people think of bacteria as the bad guys. Germs cause illnesses and wreak havoc on our lives, like our partying friend, C. jejuni. However, it turns out you have more bacterial cells in and on your body than you do human cells. And the vast majority of these bacteria are beneficial.
Why care about our bacteria?
All these microbes produce more genes for your survival than your own human cells do. We find these bacteria on our skin, in our mouth and nose, and in our gastrointestinal system. You literally cannot live without your microbes.
Usually all the varying populations of bacteria work together, helping us as they help themselves. However, sometimes the populations become imbalanced. New research comes out every day trying to connect the dots between changes and imbalances in your microbiome with your health.
Changes in our microbiomes have been associated with anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, Crohn’s disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Your gut and your brain are connected, and a healthy gut microbiome is important for your immune system.
I could go on forever pointing out all the neat things discovered so far, but I’m going to try to keep it brief and focus on how your diet impacts all the little buggers in your GI tract.
How can our diets affect our gut bacteria?
Remarkably, changes in our diets can show up in our microbiome within 24 hours. However, long-term dietary changes are most effective in changing the populations of various bacteria in our microbiome.
Short-term dietary changes set in motion gut microbiome changes that require lifestyle dietary changes to keep. The best thing we can do for our gut is to include both probiotics and prebiotics in our daily diets.
What are probiotics?
Yogurt is the first food most people think of when hearing the word probiotics; however, yogurt is not the only food rich in helpful bacteria. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, miso, pickled vegetables, and tempeh all contain these good-for-you bugs.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are substances that those good bugs use to grow and multiply. Consuming prebiotics increases good gut bacteria and reduces risk of gastrointestinal infections, reduces incidences of allergic symptoms such as atopic eczema, and promotes hunger regulation.
One of the best prebiotics is resistant starch, a non-digestible carbohydrate. Examples of foods with resistant starches are grains, seeds, beans, raw potatoes, green bananas, and plantains.
Cooking potatoes, bananas, or plantains reduces the amount of resistant starches by changing the starch during the heating process.
However, you can also increase resistant starches in rice, potatoes, and legumes by allowing them to cool completely after cooking. The cool part of this trick is that their starch content remains increased even after reheating them.
Other foods containing prebiotics include onions, leeks, garlic, raw dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, soybeans, and whole wheat.
Ideas to incorporate probiotics and prebiotics in our daily diets:
- Snack on yogurt (remember to check for added sugars!) with a chopped banana.
- Snack on pickled vegetables.
- If you are planning to have rice for dinner during the week, make a big batch over the weekend and refrigerate. Refrigerating will increase resistant starch content. You can do the same with a big batch of potatoes or black beans as well.
- Try having a probiotic drink like kefir or kombucha in the afternoon as a replacement for soda or an unhealthy snack.
- Use raw onions in salads.
- Use raw garlic in homemade salad dressings.
Hooray for bacteria! What an amazing part of life! Let’s take care of our little buddies by eating for them too. 🙂
And last, if you are ever interested in finding out the bacterial composition of your own gut, check this out. I know what I’m asking Santa for Christmas next year. 🙂