By now, many people know about the vital importance of friendly bacteria that live in and on our bodies. So important are these microscopic organisms, that the average person has one hundred trillion of them! Humans carry about 2-5 lbs. of bacteria in and on their bodies; while a person is made up of about 10 trillion cells, we carry 10 times as many bacteria! But their total mass is much smaller than that of cells, because bacteria cells are only one-tenth to one-hundredth the size of human cells.
Most of our body’s bacteria live inside our guts, where their essential roles in good health and disease have only recently become clear. They’re involved in a number of life-sustaining, disease-fighting functions, including digesting the foods we eat, keeping the numbers of bad bacteria and fungi from getting too large, and making vitamins and enzymes that our bodies need. The feces that we excrete is half waste products and food fiber … and half bacterial mass! As many as a thousand different species of bacteria are estimated to live in a person’s gut, and each person’s bacterial make-up is different.
Keeping a healthy ratio of good vs. bad gut bacteria is now believed by scientists to be important in avoiding digestive diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, gastrointestinal cancers, allergies and asthma. So, how do we make sure that we stay at this ratio, or regain it after suffering an illness like diarrhea or after taking antibiotics (which kill good bacteria)?
A recent small study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that gut bacteria ratios can change daily, depending mostly on diet. (Bacteria ratios can also be affected to lesser degrees by other lifestyle factors including sleep, stress and exercise.) But while micro biome composition can change even drastically from one day to another (such as when a person gets food poisoning), the researchers found that after a year, gut bacteria numbers for different species were at the same median level as when they had initially been measured (median is the middle number amid lower and higher fluctuations).
What that tells us, then, is that we must continually work to keep a healthy ratio of good vs. bad bacteria, and if you’re a person who’s prone to digestive health issues, such as IBS or food allergies, it is all the more important to help your digestive system be healthy by fueling it with foods that will promote its health, while avoiding those that will work against it or feed the bad bacteria.
Foods to Eat, to Promote Healthy Gut Bacteria
Many of us used to have the habit of drinking sodas long ago, or of not eating nearly enough vegetables and fruits, reaching instead for candy bars, cookies or Cheetos. But one thing you’ll find is that if you accustom your system to healthy foods, after a while, you’ll lose all desire for the junky stuff. Sodas will taste far too sweet, and as for diet sodas, those will taste just horrible to you.
So, what are some of the foods that will actually help your digestive system be healthy?
Natural health experts recommend eating lots of fruits, especially those in the berry family, such as cranberries. (Ocean Spray makes several excellent all-juice cranberry juice mixes we highly recommend.) Citrus fruits are also winners, as are peaches, nectarines, apricots, bananas, grapes, apples, pears and plums. Modern research has uncovered that fruits are brimming with phytonutrients — antioxidants that help keep cells from being overcome by pathogens and disease.
Foods with high fiber content are a must, because they help to push all the waste products out of your system, leaving you with a cleaner gut. Think whole-grain cereals, oatmeal, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruits.
You also want to consume a lot of garlic, onions and ginger in your diet, as these are super-potent fighters of gut fungi and bad bacteria. They’re at their strongest in their raw state, though you can also add them to your cooked dishes. Not only will they help combat disease, but they’ll make your foods delicious!
Fermented foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut have good, sturdy bacteria that work in the stomach, all the way to the colon. Pickles are a great addition to this category, but beware of most commercial brands, which are preserved with artificial chemicals and sometimes have added sugars. (You want to avoid sugar as much as possible for gut health, because it feeds the yeast Candida, which can lead to Candida infestations.)
You should also play it smart by making all your calories count. For instance, instead of buying those supermarket salad dressings with tons of chemicals (the “diet” varieties are even worse!), make your own dressing at home by mixing vinegar, which has legendary health-promoting (and antibacterial) properties with olive or coconut oil, both of which are rich in antioxidants. You can also just squeeze fresh lemon juice (and add a little salt) on your salads and vegetables, for another natural, germ-fighting and low-calorie way to add flavor and zest.
By Lisa Pecos