Understanding the complexity and power of human gut, called the microbiome, is a popular topic in medicine and health today. We have learned that taking probiotics and consuming fermented foods can help keep our gut flora in check. But navigating the world of microorganisms can get confusing, and many products, even cereal, are sold to the public with the promise of probiotics in them. Do we need all these different sources of probiotics each day, and how much is too much?
The New Hot Trend: Kombucha
We live in a culture that’s infatuated with fizzy drinks, so of course when fizzy kombucha, with its powerful gut flora benefits, came on the scene, the marketed exploded. And why not? If you have tried Kombucha before or are a regular connoisseur of it, then you know how delicious it can be!
The demand for store-bought kombucha and other probiotic drinks have taken this fermented tea and SCOBY from the small health food store all the way to Walmart and every gas station in between. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that kombucha is marketed to the masses, but recent research has found that too much of a good thing can end up being pretty harmful to your health.
That’s right — you need to be mindful of how much kombucha you drink! Have you ever noticed that store-bought bottles of kombucha contain two servings? It’s not something many people pay attention to--especially if you love the taste of kombucha, but a bottle of kombucha is twice as much as a recommended serving. Drinking bottle after bottle of kombucha has the potential to cause lactic acidosis in people who have kidney problems or people who are taking certain medications. Drinking it in excess has been shown to raise the level of inflammation in the liver, decreasing its ability to efficiently detox the body of toxins. The FODMAPs (a short-chain carbohydrate) and natural effervescence from it can also cause bloating and gas if you overdo your kombucha consumption.
It’s also important to be mindful of how much sugar your probiotic drink contains. Probiotic drinks like kombucha typically have small amounts of sugar left over from feeding the SCOBY during fermentation, but some companies add extra sugar, so look out! Sugar feeds undesirables in the neighborhood likecandida albicans. Candida albicans is a type of yeast that naturally lives in and on our bodies, but it can cause serious health problems when it is allowed to gorge on sugar and processed foods.
The top critique for store-bought probiotics is that there is no guarantee the bacteria will be alive by the time you purchase and consume them. Even “shelf stable” probiotics must be kept at a certain temperature and probiotic drinks need to stay cold. In fact, most store-bought kombucha has been heated or pasteurized. So a lot of the time, you’re not drinking live organisms when you crack a kombucha bottle. The journey from the factory to your shopping cart can end up being fatal to your probiotics.
There are other healthy trends that need a little moderation and balance incorporated as well. Let’s look at a few of those, as well as other gut-healthy habits and foods.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar. Those three words are seen all over the internet, including here at Smarter Nutrition, along with an impressive list of health claims. Like other fermented foods, there arebenefits to taking ACV, but taking too much can cause problems as well. ACV has the potential to wear down tooth enamel, lower potassium, raise liver and kidney values and make candida overgrowth worse.
ACV is versatile, and good for you, so we’re not telling you to avoid it. Like everything, it’s all about balance! Sip ACV in moderation. A good start would be to try 1-2 tablespoon a few times a week. Diluting it in water and drinking your ACV cocktail can help prevent the vinegar from wearing down your enamel, too, or try some of these othergreat ACV recipes.
Your good gut flora needs nourishment too! These flora thrive on something called prebiotics. When we set out to establish a healthy gut, part of our duty is to create a good environment for probiotics to live in — prebiotics are part of that. Prebiotic fibers can come from sources like bananas, chicory, or artichoke. However, if you’re struggling with an unhealthy overgrowth in your gut, then prebiotics can potentially end up feeding yeast and bacteria you don’t want to help. Take care to identify an overgrowth of these pathogens (harmful yeast, bacteria, and/or parasites) and treat it with the help of a medical professional like a naturopathic physician or other holistic practitioner.
Foods That Contain Probiotics
Along with feeding our healthy flora with prebiotics, getting our probiotics from homegrown fermented foods is ideal, as well as supplementing with a hearty, stable probiotic supplement such asSmarter Gut Health. Fermenting your own foods at home can help you cultivate good flora that already inhabit food and your environment. Foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, non-GMO miso, and kefir are all fermented (with the exception of most commercial products sold at large grocery chains) and can all be made at home with ease. When you use your hands while you chop, squeeze, and mix food, your own microbes are being integrated into the fermentation process too. Pretty neat, right?
It’s important to learn about at-home fermentation before you attempt a recipe. Learn in a controlled environment with an informed chef/fermenter.
When the cabbage in kimchi and sauerkraut are fermented, they produce the gut-healthy amino acid glutamine. Glutamine provides nutrition for intestinal cells and helps battle inflammation by helping the immune system. This is in addition to the beneficial yeast and bacteria produced during fermentation.
People sometimes associate kefir with milk, but you don’t need dairy to make kefir! Many delicious variations of kefir can be made with plant-based milks or water. Buying kefir grains or cultures is the easiest way to start making the probiotic drink at home and is great for beginners. If you’re trying to avoid dairy, make sure your grains arenotkefir milk grains before you start the exciting process of fermentation.
Giving Soy Another Chance
If you’re going to eat soy, make sure it’s non-GMO and fermented. The fermentation process transforms soy into a healthy, high protein food. A few examples of fermented soy products include miso, tempeh, and natto.
This yummy immune system booster can also be fermented and has been studied for its potential to treat mild liver disease. A 2017 study published inEuropean Journal of Nutritionconcluded that fermented garlic extract has the potential to be used as a safe treatment to lower mildly elevated liver values. Garlic can be fermented in honey to add extra immune-boosting power to tea during flu season, or simply added to any food that could use a touch of sweetness with a garlic punch.
One of the biggest concerns facing fermented foods is the fact that there aren’t specific recommended doses, making it easy to overdo it. Some people can tolerate more fermented foods than others. Age, illness, weight, and other factors must be taken into consideration when you’re looking for a safe amount to consume. If your immune system is compromised, always consult a medical professional before you start experimenting with fermented foods and probiotics.
Knowing how much fermented food you should eat or how many probiotics to take can be complicated. A good way to see how much your body can tolerate is by incorporating them into your diet slowly. For fermented foods, try ¼ cup of kefir or 1 tablespoon of kimchi one day and slowly increase your dose only if you don’t experience cramps, bloating, gas, or diarrhea. Those are good indicators that you’ve had too much or that your body isn’t able to digest the foods properly. Underlying flora imbalances or illness could be to blame, as we all metabolize foods differently. What works for your best friend might not work well for you. Our individual microbiomes are as unique as our fingerprints!
We Are An Ecosystem
We are transforming from a society that overused antibiotics and antibacterial soaps to one that respects microbes as complex creatures. That explains why many people are hesitant to intentionally grow microorganisms in their kitchens! But knowing that humans are complex ecosystems that benefit from symbiotic relationships with microbes can help with the transition. Remember that balance is always key. If you do enjoy your Kombucha great! Just consume it in moderation and enjoy a serving or two each week. The best way to feed the gut with good-for-you foods and drinks is to choose from organic fruits and veggies most of the time, hydrate with good, clean, filtered water, manage your stress, engage in regular exercise and get 7 - 8 hours of sleep each night. These habits will allow your body to optimize and run its best.