There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to your gut. And that’s for good reason. While we’re still learning a lot about how the interaction between the digestive system and the rest of the body works, we do know that the delicate balance of intestinal flora in your digestive system can affect the body’s ability to to perform the critical functions that affect our overall health, such as:
- Absorbing and producing vitamins and minerals
- Regulating hormones
- Digesting effectively
- Responding to the immune system, and
- Eliminating toxins
For those of us who already suffer from gastrointestinal or bowel disorders such as IBS, Celiac disease, or leaky gut syndrome, the link between gut and mental health become more pronounced. And, our gastrointestinal (GI) health even be the root cause of many symptoms throughout the body – including your mental health!
Given how extensive the influence of the gut is on these essential bodily functions, it’s clear that gut health is one of the most important ways we can look after our overall health. While there are many ways to take care of your gut, there are two factors that influence gut flora directly: prebiotics and probiotics.
How does the connection between gut and body work?
Well, in between the layers of your digestive tract is something called the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is made of two thin layers of over 100 million nerve cells lining your GI tract literally from top to bottom.
The ENS sends messages between the gut and the brain. That’s why the gut is often called the “second brain.” And as you’ll see from the symptoms listed below, the messages that the second brain sends can be very persuasive!
How can you tell if your gut is imbalanced?
The ideal balance of gut bacteria is about 85% good bacteria to 15% bad bacteria. And that’s out of about 100 trillion bacteria that naturally live in our gut all the time!
But this balance can be upset in the course of daily life, by caffeine, processed foods, stress, long-term use medications and even antibiotics. In fact, one course of antibiotics can leave your gut bacteria weaker for up to four years!
And as we age, the natural decrease in our stomach acid – which plays an important role in the growth of good bacteria – enables bad bacteria to get stronger.
The main culprit of a bacteria imbalance; though, is overconsumption of sugars. To make a real and immediate positive impact on your gut health, it’s essential to limit simple carbohydrates like sugars found in sodas, desserts, and processed foods like breads and flour products.
There are all kinds of indicators of an imbalanced gastrointestinal system – we just have to pay attention to them. Symptoms like:
- Bloated, gassy and distended abdomen
- Extreme bowel movement patterns like diarrhea or constipation (or a fluctuation of both)
- Skin conditions including acne, irritations, and eczema flare-ups
- Constant fatigue despite getting an adequate amount of sleep
- ‘Down’ or sad emotions, irritability
- Candida or yeast overgrowth
- Weight loss due to lack of an appetite or gain weight due to cravings for malabsorbed nutrients
How can we help our gut communicate best?
By providing it with what it needs to keep the a balance of necessary good and bad bacteria we can help the gut take care of its biggest job – regulating digestion. That way, the gut’s messages to the body and mind are clear, efficient, and healthy.
But how? It comes down to maintaining a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and high quality rest, and supporting your gastrointestinal health with both prebiotic and probiotics!
Prebiotics vs Probiotics – What’s the difference?
Probiotics: Strains of healthy, “good” bacteria that naturally live in the colon of our digestive systems. When consumed in the right amounts, probiotics can have great benefits to our health overall. Once in the colon, probiotic bacteria multiply, helping to regulate the balance between the good and bad bacteria that live there. You might be familiar with certain kinds of probiotics, as there are a few that have specific health benefits – and that’s why it’s important to consume a variety of strains of healthy bacteria.
Because they’ve been made so popular over the past few years, we know there are a variety of natural food sources for probiotics, largely stemming from fermented foods. A few fantastic choices are:
- Sauerkraut natural, made with salt not vinegar
Prebiotics: Prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrates that help probiotics grow and remain in your digestive system, which is why they’re known as “food” for probiotics.
Less information has been publicized about where you can find prebiotics, but that could be because you’ve been eating them this whole time! Prebiotics are are a non-digestible fibre source that’s plentiful in lots of raw foods:
- Onions (which still contain prebiotics once cooked)
- Chicory root
- Dandelion greens
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Jicama (my personal favourite!)
- Under-ripe bananas
Taking probiotics alone is a good beginning, but because we want to encourage the colonies of bacteria to grow and support a healthy gastrointestinal system, it’s important to eat properly to ensure that the probiotics can multiply and do their work effectively.
The key is consuming a combination of prebiotic and probiotic foods on a daily basis, to help replenish and maintain a healthy digestive system for overall health.
Is a supplement necessary to have enough prebiotics and probiotics?
Getting your nutrition from whole foods is always the preferred route to optimal health, but sometimes you need a little help. In that case, look for:
Prebiotic supplements: Prebiotics are actually really easy to get in a well-balanced diet, and due to the nature of the fibre they contain, that’s really the best way to get them. But if you are looking for a little extra push, try using chicory root as a coffee substitute, or using a powdered acacia gum (gum arabic) in a morning smoothie. Having these kinds of foods in your diet can assure you that your gut bacteria is well fed and well cared for.
Probiotic supplements: You should be looking for a supplement containing CFU (Colony Forming Units) in the billions. The generally recommended dose can vary between 1 to 10 billion CFUs per day, taken in up to four doses. About 10 million above a food serving is what you should look for in a supplement. And of course, aim to supplement with different stains of good bacteria.
You can stay on probiotics indefinitely, and we recommend them if you’re on, or coming off, of antibiotics, the birth control pill, or radiation treatment.
If you choose to supplement, remember to take it at dinner when the bacteria have the best chance of surviving the acidic environment of the gut. And – whether or not supplementation is a regular part of your nutrition remember that taking probiotics after a course of antibiotics is one of the best ways to ensure your full and healthy recovery from the inside out.
Just as we take care of our muscles and our minds by feeding them the things they need to stay strong and healthy, so too must we take care of our “second brain”, our gut health, by feeding it what it needs to perform in optimal health.
Prebiotics and probiotics are the two primary ways of keeping your gut healthy, happy, and functioning optimally! Remember, while everyone should be taking prebiotics and probiotics, from children to pregnant people, to the elderly – everyone is unique.