Welcome Probiotics!

You’ve probably heard that yogurt contains healthy bacteria, and have perhaps been swayed by recent ad campaigns treading dangerously close to “tmi”  bathroom talk. You may have tried one of the highly processed, packaged, flavored and sweetened yogurt products in an effort to improve your digestive situation. While it is true that real yogurt (as well as other naturally fermented foods) made with active cultures offer the body unique nutrition called “probiotics“, it is also true that Dannon was sued over unsubstantiated health claims made in their advertisements for “Activia” yogurt-like products and has been quietly reimbursing costumers. So beware of look-alikes.

With 100 trillion bacterial cells from 500 different species, your gut is a veritable microbial zoo teaming with critters, and that’s exactly the way you want it.  These bacteria, when healthy and plentiful, keep you healthy, digesting well, warding off “bad” bacteria, and may well also be the key to protecting yourself from more serious chronic illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.  According to this month’s issue of the Life Extension Foundation‘s magazine, your gut contains 70-80% of your body’s immune system, where probiotics work at the molecular level to keep you well.

Their biggest enemy? Antibiotics. Not only are we being prescribed the antis more and more often, but most of our animal foods come from CAFO factory farms where animals are pumped full of antibiotics, and so by extension, so are you when you eat the meat, milk and other animal foods from these sources.  The artificial sweetener aspartame and oral contraceptives both interfere with healthy gut bacteria, and genetically modified foods and chlorinated water very well may too.

A good way to repopulation your gut bacteria, is to frequently eat fermented foods - those  sometimes called “traditional” or “live” which contain natural forms of probiotics. A quick tour around the world of traditional fermented foods include Japanese miso, tamari and natto, German sauerkraut, Bulgarian yogurt, Russian kefir, Ethiopian injera bread, Korean kimchi, Indian lassi drinks, Salvadoran curtido, etc.  For more information and simple recipes for these traditional foods, I highly recommend Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions and Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.  Though probiotics has been receiving well deserved media attention only recently, they are by no means a new method of maintaining good health.

Since the goal is a thriving community of probiotics in your gut, you have to be a good host. Keep them out of harms way (antibiotics) and nourish them with prebiotics.  Foods such as bananas, garlic, onions, raw honey, wheat, barley, and soybeans naturally contain prebiotics, or probiotic food. For additional support, or in times of therapeutic need (such as during and following a course of antibiotics), you may also want to consider a high quality probiotic and prebiotic supplement.

Since I’ve been focusing on probiotics, no meal feels quite complete without a generous scoop of kimchi or kraut.  A bowl of plain yogurt satisfies a snack or dessert desire, and when thirsty, I reach for kombucha (a fermented tea drink).  A few of my recent favorite “full of life” foods: kimchi in an avocado half; kimchi or kraut quesadilla; sourdough bread with cultured butter; yogurt with raw honey and ground flaxseeds, and miso broth and kombucha to drink. To satisfy my growing thirst, I ordered a scoby (a kombucha “mother”) and have started brewing my own kombucha (a post on that experiment is coming soon).

Hungry for more?  Let me recommend these articles on probiotics:

And if you’re as hooked as I am, you’ll be happy to know this great looking new book is coming out next month: The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World by Sandor Katz with a foreword by Michael Pollan.

But first, my bowl of yogurt:

Vitamin E: Much More Than Skin Deep

Dry, chapped skin is a common wintertime condition.  You might use a vitamin E lotion or oil to soothe and heal your skin. That would be a great job for vitamin E (which is actually a family of eight compounds called “tocopherols”), although this important vitamin offers you much more.  In addition to maintaining healthy skin, vitamin E is a vital antioxidant, protecting cell walls against the damage of free radicals and supporting heart, brain and circulatory health. It helps the body use oxygen, prevents blood clots, improves wound healing and fertility and helps prevent cancer.

The ideal daily intake to maintain good health is 400-600 IU (international units).  This range is many times higher than both the EC and US RDA.  To reap the many benefits of this essential nutrient, you can focus on vitamin E rich foods (such as nuts, seeds, their unrefined oils, dark green leafy vegetables, avocados, peppers, sweet potatoes, beans, and wheat germ) and consider taking a supplement to meet the optimal daily amount.

Just like vitamins A and D, vitamin E is fat-soluble, meaning that it is best absorbed together with fat.  If you are following a low-fat diet, you may not be benefiting optimally. Vitamin C and selenium also boost vitamin E absorption.

When selecting a supplement look for naturally sourced tocopherols, such as vitamin E from http://hollandandbarrett.com or from your local health food or vitamin shop, and store in a cool, dark place.