Trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms live inside of and on the surface of your body. The most concentrated area in your body that houses these microscopic creatures is your colon, or large intestine. Some of these microorganisms promote health and actively protect you against pathogens that lead to illness. These beneficial critters are known as probiotics, which literally means "for life". An overarching goal with digestive health is to have more health-promoting probiotics and fewer pathogenic microorganisms, including parasites, overgrowth of Candida (a yeast), E. coli, and other harmful bacteria.
Unfortunately, antibiotics ("against life") are overly prescribed by many medical doctors, even when a person has a simple common cold brought on by a virus, not a bacterial infection (antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses). Antibiotic exposure can also come through eating meat from livestock that are administered antibiotics. The problem with antibiotics is they kill beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in your digestive tract along with the harmful bacteria. When probiotics are reduced, this weakens the immune system and may make you vulnerable to getting sick more often. It is also thought that antibiotic overuse can make you susceptible to developing food sensitivities, which can lead to complex digestive issues, chronic fatigue, and other nagging symptoms that reduce quality of health.
Fortunately, there are things you can regularly do to improve your gut microflora! Here are my top 4 recommendations:
2. Replace with the "good stuff". Emphasize a whole food approach that includes many plants, which provide fiber. Fiber serves as food for probiotics to flourish in the digestive tract. If your diet includes vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and beans/legumes (in moderation), you are feeding your beneficial bacteria! A rule of thumb for many people is to aim for ~10-15 grams fiber at each meal. Some of my personal favorite fiber sources include: steamed kale, kiwi, gluten free oatmeal, chickpeas, milled flax seeds, and chia seeds. A side note: If your digestive tract is telling you it's not happy, it's best to stick with steamed veggies that are lower in roughage and peeled fruit, which will make digestion an easier process. As with many things in life, too much of a "good thing" is not a good thing, and this also applies to fiber.
3. Reinoculate your gut with friendly bacteria. Fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt are widely promoted for their naturally-occuring probiotics. However, sometimes people do not prefer the taste of these foods, or have a dairy or histamine sensitivity that prevents them from being able to consume these foods, so probiotic supplements can certainly be beneficial when carefully selected. Look for a quality brand that contains at least 10 different bacterial strains (microbial diversity), including bifidobacteria and lactobacillus species, and guarantees probiotic survivability through the "best by" date, not the date of production. Keep in mind that probiotic strains have specific effects on the body: some prevent antibiotic-induced diarrhea, some promote regularity, and others assist with bloating. In essence, taking any type of probiotic supplement probably won't yield the specific health benefits you're looking for. The probiotic strain has to be specific to the health outcome you're looking for. Also, with any probiotic supplementation, start low and go slow. I usually recommend clients start off with a probiotic supplement that provides 10 billion CFUs per capsule and gradually build up to 30-50 billion per day for maintenance.
4. Rebalance life priorities. Let's face it, too much stress is detrimental any well-meaning health plan, especially chronic stress. It doesn't matter if it's psychological or physical stress. Living an overstressed, jam-packed lifestyle negatively impacts nutrient absorption, which is vital to gut health. Everyone's healthy stress management lifestyle needs to incorporate 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night and daily physical activity every day, including exercise on most days of the week. The best form of exercise is the type you enjoy the most, because you will be more likely to engage in it on a regular basis. Plus, life is too short to not enjoy your exercise regimen!
If all of these tips seem overwhelming, I encourage you to start with a recommendation that seems most doable for you. With consistent action and follow through, your motivation and confidence to maintain your newfound nutrition/lifestyle change will take root and lead to a healthier gut microflora for the rest of your life. That's what I call a smart, long-term health investment!