We spend so much time and energy trying to keep all the different parts of our bodies healthy – from our bones to our brains to our hearts – that we seem to forget about one that’s crucially important – the gut. And perhaps the most interesting thing about the gut is that it isn’t composed solely of human cells – it’s full of trillions of bacteria. In fact, bacteria literally cover our bodies, from our intestines to our mouths to our skin – and they outnumber our cells by a factor of ten to one. But, alas, don’t be concerned – this doesn’t mean that you are one giant microbe – by weight alone, you are overwhelmingly human! Even so, that donation you make every morning to the porcelain god contains billions of tiny bacteria – and hundreds of different species of them. But these tiny moochers aren’t parasites – we’ve evolved together over millions of years to form a mutually beneficial relationship – and they are essential to our existence. In exchange for a free place to stay, they digest food that our bodies are unable to break down, synthesize vitamins that we can’t, protect us from invading pathogens, regulate the energy we harvest from food, and play a crucial role in the development and maintenance of our immune system. In fact, our flora has been colloquially referred to as “the tenth organ” for just this reason!
SO what does all this mean? In a nutshell, keep your gut as happy and healthy as possible – and it’s easier than you might think. Here are four things you can do to keep your gut flora happy:
- Replenish your gut bacteria. Believe it or not, those annoying Activia commercials are actually right – eat your yogurt! Basically, you want to eat foods that contain live and active cultures that can survive the trip to your intestines and set up shop there. These probiotic microorganisms are found in yogurt, sourdough bread, soft cheeses, saurerkraut, miso soup, and, my personal favorite, kombucha! This fermented Chinese tea contains billions of good bacterial and yeast cultures, as well as beneficial polyphenols, enzymes, and antioxidants. You can also take a probiotic in pill form – my favorite are the Acidophilus Pearls made by Enzymatic Therapy – they’re so tiny you barely know you’re swallowing a pill.
- Eat plenty of fiber. The best way to do this is to eat plenty of whole, unprocessed foods – beans, peas, fruits, veggies, and nuts are all great sources of fiber. Fiber is just the parts of plants that our bodies can’t digest, so bacteria digest them for us. This helps to regulate how nutrients are absorbed and prevent constipation.
- Get lots of good fat. Take an omega-3 supplement, which helps relieve inflammation in the gut.
- Avoid overusing medication. Antibiotics will kill the good as well as the bad bacteria, so avoid them if you can. Keep in mind that most upper respiratory infections are viral, so antibiotics won’t help. Also, acid blockers such as Nexium and Prilosec block normal digestive function, so stay off of them (acid neutralizers like Tums are fine).
Follow these easy steps and reap the benefits of a happy and healthy gut!