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Probiotics — it’s the new buzzword in the functional food and nutritional supplement world. Why? Because, more and more it is understood that the intestines are actually the immune system headquarters for your whole body. Many people have a gut in which bad bacteria has over-run the good bacteria, making them vulnerable to illnesses ranging from IBS to allergies. Though this is a topic I’ve had many conversations about with digestion guru Andrew L. Rubman, ND, contributing medical editor at Daily Health News, now seemed a particularly good time to write about safe, natural ways to pump up the volume of good flora in your gut… especially in light of how often the word “probiotics” is suddenly appearing in ads and on food labels.
FIGHTING THE BAD GUYS
According to Dr. Rubman, two species of digestive bacteria in particular offer potent protection against disease: Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum. These beneficial “probiotic” (literally, “for life”) bacteria support micro-flora balance as they help usher “bad” bacteria, fungi and viruses out of the body. This, in turn, helps to shield the gut from dangerous, disease-causing germs and their consequences including, among others, colitis, colon cancer and a condition called “leaky gut syndrome.”
Dr. Rubman told me there is no pill or single food you can eat that will take care of fostering the growth of good flora. The real answer is to change the ecology — your personal eco-balance of good to bad flora — in the gut.
FUELING DISEASE-FIGHTING FLORA
Dr. Rubman shared his natural method for boosting good flora in the digestive tract. The first step, he says, is to create an environment where good bacteria can flourish, kind of like fertilizing your lawn…
- Fortify the gut with fiber. Because fiber promotes healthy flora, it’s not so surprising that the best way to support the large intestine is with a healthful, fiber-rich diet of whole foods. Good choices: Ripe fruits… deeply colored vegetables (e.g., spinach, broccoli and sweet potatoes) served raw or steamed… brown rice… bulgur… lentils… barley… beans… quinoa… and bread products that list “whole” as the first word of an ingredient in the ingredients list. For patients who don’t get enough fiber (especially insoluble fiber) in their diets, Dr. Rubman often prescribes the fiber supplement Glucomannan, to be taken 30 minutes before lunch and dinner with a large glass of water.
- Find opportunities to eat fermented foods. Not only are fermented foods like pickles and sauerkraut tart and tasty, they also positively alter the chemical balance of the digestive system and discourage bad bacteria, viruses and fungi from taking hold. Other good choices: Kimchi (a spicy fermented Korean vegetable dish that includes cabbage)… tempeh… miso… and tamari (a type of soy sauce)… even, to some extent, wine and beer.
- Develop a digestive enzyme habit. These enzymes support good balance in the digestive tract overall. Dr. Rubman most often prescribes DuoZyme by Karuna. An alternate beneficial digestive aid is hydrochloric acid (HCI, most frequently provided by the supplement Betaine Hydrochloride), which maintains the acidic environment of the stomach during meals and helps control colonization of the upper digestive tract by microorganisms. Dr. Rubman says he has even seen cases where this cures GERD.
- Swear off sugar and refined foods — or at least, cut way back. Just as important as what you eat is what you refrain from eating. Disease-causing microorganisms in the gut feast and thrive on sugary desserts, white bread, pasta, cornflakes, cola, alcohol and the like. Inflammation and disease can result.
PLANTING NEW SEEDS
Once the environment is prepared, then you can “plant your garden” with probiotics. All this is best undertaken under the supervision of a naturopathic physician, since the process of killing off bad bacteria and yeast can often lead to unpleasant and uncomfortable short-term side effects, as a result of toxins being released into the system. If symptoms such as digestive discomfort, fatigue and decreased immunity persist in spite of positive changes to your diet, naturopathic physicians like Dr. Rubman have a whole arsenal of natural supplements at their disposal. To improve and strengthen digestion and immune function, Dr. Rubman frequently prescribes a seven- to 10-day course of a probiotic supplement that contains both Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum to encourage repopulation of natural, beneficial bacteria in the gut.
NO QUICK FIXES
We’ve all seen plenty of ads for products that claim to help promote the balance of good and bad bacteria, but Dr. Rubman said it is a mistake to believe there’s any kind of quick fix to a process that the body must undertake on its own, at a natural pace. He sees little or no value in the many new probiotic-fortified foods now appearing in supermarkets. According to Dr. Rubman, these products (including breakfast cereals, wellness bars, beverages and yogurts) are nothing more than a clever marketing ploy. Not only do they not bring about any lasting, healthy change, but also many contain sugar in amounts that negate the benefit.
Dr. Rubman also warned against being taken in by sales pitches for cleansing, detoxifying colonics (aka colon irrigation or colon hydrotherapy). He cautions that colonics indiscriminately destroy the good bacteria along with the bad, stripping healthy material from the lining of the colon and potentially doing more harm than good.
Over time, eating more healthful, whole foods and taking steps to support the digestive tract will add up to all the good flora — and good health — you could wish for.