A few days ago I was having lunch with a friend of mine and I had brought a bottle of kombucha. As she looked at the bottle, she commented that “everything has probiotics now!” It’s true: there are a variety of foods you can get that have the words “live probiotics!” enthusiastically plastered all over the labels. Pharmacies and health foods have entire aisles devoted to probiotics, prebiotics and combos of both. Obviously there is a huge market for these now, but in reality, probiotic foods have been around for centuries.
Pretty much everyone now knows that yogurt’s live bacterial cultures are actually probiotics. That’s one of the reasons yogurt is good for you, aside from the calcium and protein in it. Looking back at some of my most favorite foods, there are a lot of them that are probiotic: yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, etc. Essentially, these are foods which have been fermented in order to make them. We add some bacteria to milk and let it sit in the right conditions: voila! yogurt or kefir! We do the same thing to cabbage and we end up with either sauerkraut or kimchi, and when we do it to cucumbers, we end up with pickles! Even if we don’t add the bacteria, by leaving it where bacteria can get in, we still end up with the same result.
I am sure there are some of you are thinking “Ewwwww!! Spoiled food!” The truth is that by fermenting the foods, we are preserving them. While the food will eventually spoil, the fermentation not only adds a little shelf life, but it provides some necessary and healthy bacteria.
But in today’s antibacterial world, the idea of bacteria can seem unhygienic. On the surface it appears ironic: everything is antibacterial but everyone is taking probiotics! Unfortunately, there is more than a little correlation. But first: why is bacteria important to our health instead of bad for it?
The new buzzword for “healthy bacteria” is microbiome. Our intestines and pretty much the rest of our bodies are covered with bacteria. (There is even a body wash being marketed as ‘good for your skin’s microbiome!’) However, it’s the bacteria in our intestines which are necessary for our survival. No exaggeration here: these bacteria break down the food we eat so our intestines can absorb it. No bacteria= no breakdown= no absorption= no you. It’s that simple! They also protect us from some of the toxins we ingest as well. If our gut bacteria aren’t healthy, we aren’t healthy. This is why the stores and internet are full of probiotics (healthy bacteria) and prebiotics (food for that healthy bacteria). Everyone is very concerned with keeping our gut bacteria healthy because unfortunately, so many of us have problems with our gut bacteria aka digestive issues.
Remember: everything is antibacterial these days! Those antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers and antibiotics do not discriminate against “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria.” If you take something for an ear infection, you are killing not only the bacteria causing your infection, you are killing your gut bacteria too! We don’t seem to realize that when we are ‘waging war’ on bacteria, our healthy bacteria end up being collateral damage, but until we start having issues with our health, we don’t realize that we are also part of that collateral damage!
Some of you may know that many years ago, my sister worked at the law firm where I am now a legal assistant and while my sister was here, one of the assistants had to retire due to inflammatory bowel disease. When I came to work at the same firm years later, I was shocked to see giant bottles of hand sanitizer on practically every flat surface! Each desk, filing cabinet, table, counter and work space had an industrial sized bottle of the stuff. Even the table in our lobby had the giant version and the one pervasive scent in the building was ‘hand sanitizer.’ Once I saw everyone using hand sanitizer almost daily, it made me wonder if that assistant’s IBD had been triggered or aggravated by the constant use of antibacterial hand sanitizer.
I am not against antibiotics or antibacterials. I have my own small bottle in my purse. I keep it for those situations where something I touched was gross and soap and water weren’t readily available but it still takes me forever to go through it. In fact, I usually lose it or it dries out before I finish off a bottle because I’d rather just wash my hands. It’s not that I’m a slob or unhygienic but there is an advantage to being exposed to different bacteria.
While I didn’t exactly grow up on a farm (like my dad), I did live in the country for several years in addition to visiting my grandparents on their ranch. The barn and orchards were my playgrounds most of the time and I think that was good for me. Dr. Josh Axe in his book Eat Dirt [Eat Dirt book ] referenced a study involving Amish children and their non-Amish peers. The Amish children growing up in a mostly rural environment are exposed to all kinds of dirt, manure, plant pollen and animals. As we all know, the country can be kinda dirty! The Amish children also ate far less processed foods than their non-Amish peers. What many researchers found surprising is that the Amish children had much lower rates of asthma, illness, infection and other diseases compared to their non-Amish peers living in an ‘hygienic’ urban environment and eating a modern diet. The researchers theorized that exposure to a variety of bacteria kept their immune systems healthier than those children whose immune systems have less exposure and therefore less resistance.
Many ‘gut specialists’ note that bacterial diversity is important when it comes to the bugs in our guts. The more good bacteria we have, the better! They give more digestive advantage and protective advantage, but because our environment has changed so much, we no longer have the wide diversity that older generations had. Why? Antibiotics, antibacterials, environment and the change in diet have all taken their toll on our healthy gut bugs! Foods like artificial sweeteners, pesticides in our foods (hello, Round Up!) and other modern chemicals can be toxic to our healthy gut bacteria.
There are some weight loss programs now touting probiotics as a new tool to help weight loss, but I believe the real weight loss advantage comes not from downing probiotic pills and supplements but in maintaining the health of your microbiome. This means simple things like eating more fiber which feeds your healthy bacteria, eating more whole foods than the processed foods which can contain chemicals toxic to your bacteria and eating the healthy fermented foods you enjoy, such as yogurt, kombucha and kimchi. By keeping a healthy microbiome which allows you to get all the vitamins and nutrients from the healthy whole foods you are eating, not only are you healthier overall, you will likely lose more weight! It’s a simple recipe: fewer processed foods, more fiber, less hand sanitizer and a little more exercise outdoors are not only good for your outsides, they’re good for your insides too!