With Foods Naturally High in Probiotics
by Kathleen Barnes
Gas, bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhea and constipation—each of these digestive issues indicates an imbalance of “good” and “bad” intestinal bacteria.
Chronic digestive discomfort is distressingly common. More than 60 million Americans suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), notes Dr. Mark Pimentel, director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Program at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, in Los Angeles, and author of A New IBS Solution. Many are too embarrassed to mention it to their doctor, so they suffer silently and “learn to live with it.”
While digestive distress can visit most of us occasionally, regular bouts have increased due to high-stress lifestyles and unhealthy diets, according to Dr. Dustin James, a St. Louis, Missouri, gastroenterologist and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Digestive Health. “Getting home late after a stressful day, eating a high-fat meal and then going to bed is a recipe for problems,” he says.
James advises a food-free interlude of four to six hours before bedtime and notes that prescription and over-the-counter heartburn medications can actually worsen the problem over time. Sugar is another culprit.
Pimentel, citing his own research, also suggests that even a minor case of food poisoning may unbalance digestive bacteria enough to cause problems for years. “We think food poisoning leads to bacterial overgrowth,” says Pimentel. The release of a nerve toxin can paralyze the movement of food through the small intestine, allowing food to ferment and cause gas, bloating and cramps, according to Pimentel’s research. In his clinical experience, James says about 10 percent of IBS cases can be connected to the food poisoning theory.
Although food poisoning-induced IBS is typically treated with an antibiotic, rifaximin, many experts ironically attribute bacterial overgrowth to the use of antibiotics. All antibiotics, whether taken for an intestinal problem or a bacterial infection anywhere else, indiscriminately kill both good and bad intestinal bacteria, ultimately creating unbalanced bacteria colonies in the digestive tract, says James. “Many people feel better after an antibiotic treatment in the short term, but there can be bad long-term effects,” he adds. James’s antibiotics theory is affirmed by a major Australian review of current research on the links between antibiotics and intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
The U.S. obesity epidemic has even been linked to digestive problems. In a study published in the journal Frontiers of Public Health, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley warn against long-term exposure to antibiotics through their widespread use in the dairy and meat industries. One animal study from Washington University, in St. Louis, showed that intestinal bacteria tend to extract more nutrients—and more calories—from the same foods when eaten by obese animals than when ingested by thinner ones. This helps explain why obese people tend to stay obese without heroic measures.
There is considerable agreement that probiotics—live bacteria like that can be contained in fermented foods like quality yogurt—help rebalance beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract and ease ailments that include IBS. Due to U.S. food regulations, yogurt is routinely pasteurized, which kills its probiotic benefits; conscientious suppliers then add active digestive microorganisms, like Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus,back into their products.
“Check yogurt labels for specific names of the species and a certification that it contains live cultures,” counsels Maria Marco, Ph.D., an assistant professor of food science at the University of California-Davis.
James recommends two daily servings of high-quality yogurt to obtain the 2 to 5 billion live bacteria needed to restore gut health. “Every human is unique, try different products in search of what works,” he says.
Probiotic supplements may be more effective for people with serious digestive distress that need higher bacterial counts and the product label may provide specifics of the bacteria and strains. “For example, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG is a strain that has been proven to be effective against antibiotic-induced diarrhea,” Marco explains. High-quality probiotics usually require refrigeration to keep the bacteria alive.
In addition, there are many non-fermented foods, including certain juices, candies and energy bars, with specific strains of bacteria added that have probiotic effects.
Kathleen Barnes is the author of a wide variety of natural health books in including 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health with Dr. Hyla Cass. Connect at KathleenBarnes.com.
Safe Digestive Relief
In addition to fermented foods, these foods offer digestive relief.
Ginger: Safe enough to quell the nausea of early pregnancy, ginger can offer relief from nausea, gas and even colic in babies.
Peppermint Oil: A traditional remedy now validated by science, peppermint oil can relieve irritable bowels and heartburn. Consider enteric coated (acid resistant) capsules that can impact the small intestine, where relief is needed.
Fennel: This mildly licorice-flavored seed hasn’t been extensively studied, but lovers of Indian cuisine have traditionally used it to promote smooth digestion after consuming curry-laden meals.
Sources: American Botanical Council; Mayo Clinic, MN; Baylor University, TX; University of Michigan; University of Rochester, NY.
Simple Sauerkraut Recipe
It’s easy to make a healthy batch of sauerkraut in a glass quart canning jar in as little as three days.
Organic cabbage, finely shredded
1 Tbsp sea salt (or other natural salt)
Mix salt and cabbage together in a large bowl, squeezing the salt into the cabbage. Cabbage will become limp and begin to release its juice.
Tightly pack cabbage and juice into a clean glass canning jar. Keep the cabbage submerged in liquid; if necessary, use a smaller canning jar loaded with marbles or stones.
Cover jar with a clean cloth or piece of cheesecloth and keep it in a cool place.
Jar contents will begin to bubble, signaling that fermentation is taking place (note that conventional cabbage additives may interrupt the fermentation process).
It’s ready to eat in three days, but keeps well for several weeks in the refrigerator.