A healthy gut is not only crucial for good digestion but also influences overall health. Introducting good bacteria in the form of cultured milk drinks and yogurt will help promote a healthy digestive system, writes MEERA MURUGESAN
WE all have days when the simple act of eating results in a “battle” in the stomach.
After each meal you feel gassy, bloated, constipated or suffer from heartburn. A healthy gut has “good bacteria” that aids in digestion but for many of us, years of bad eating, poor lifestyle choices and even the over-use of antibiotics have led to “bad bacteria” taking hold of our gut.
The “good guys” have been overpowered, so to speak, and we suffer as a result. For some people these symptoms are temporary while for others, it’s a long-term problem.
A healthy gut is not only crucial for good digestion but studies are increasingly showing that it can also play a role in boosting the immune system, improving metabolism, influencing weight gain, improving brain function, allowing us to sleep better and even have more healthy skin.
The crucial message is that gut health influences overall health.
Being one of the largest systems in our body, the gut not only digests food and absorbs nutrients but is also a major part of our immune system, explains Gurdip Kaur, dietetic and food services manager at Beacon International Specialist Centre Sdn Bhd.
Without a healthy digestive system, one may suffer from malnourishment and even major diseases and it generally takes no more than a few simple changes in our diet and lifestyle to keep our digestive system healthy and working efficiently.
This includes gaining an understanding of how our digestive system works and how to prevent common gut problems.
“Your gut processes food and absorbs nutrients, hence what you eat and how you eat is very important,” says Gurdip.
She adds that it’s crucial to avoid “gut trouble makers”. In other words, dietary habits which wreak havoc on our gut.
Over-consumption of coffee and carbonated drinks or regular consumption of food that contains additives and preservatives or pesticides has been linked to gut problems.
A diet high in sugar or processed food is bad for the gut but is very common these days as more and more people look for quick, easy, meal options rather than cooking from scratch.
Bad bacteria literally “feeds” on sugar and refined carbohydrates so it’s no surprise that our modern diet is one of the main culprits for poor digestion, compared to the past when people ate simple, healthy home-cooked meals.
The over-use of certain drugs these days, especially steroid or hormonal-based medication, is also believed to be a contributing factor.
Gurdip says it’s also important to stay active and maintain a healthy body weight because obese or overweight individuals experience more digestive disorders so staying within a reasonable body mass index should be a priority.
Regular health screenings also help so one should stick to scheduled tests and never put them off.
Stress, one of the drawbacks of modern life, is another major factor in influencing gut health so taking steps to reduce stress in daily live will result in positive changes.
Gurdip explains that age is also a factor. As we get older, we tend to have less good bacteria in our gut.
“Elderly people, for example, do tend to have less good bacteria in their gut so their digestion is not as good as their younger days and they are more prone to falling ill.”
Some people, on the other hand, may struggle with digestive problems simply because it runs in their family.
BALANCING THE SCALES
One way to counter the effects of bad bacteria is to add a probiotic supplement to our daily diet or to regularly consume certain fermented foods which naturally provide good bacteria for the gut.
The consumption of probiotics has become a routine affair for many individuals today including young children.
More and more people are starting to realise the benefits of adding good bacteria to their gut.
Gurdip explains that probiotics are good bacteria that one can consume to impart health benefits to the gut and it can be obtained through cultured milk drinks and yogurt. Good bacteria will aid food digestion, boost the immune system and ward off allergies.
“Some people specifically use probiotics to prevent diarrhoea, gas and cramping caused by antibiotics because antibiotics kill good beneficial bacteria along with the bacteria that causes illness and a decrease in beneficial bacteria will lead to digestive problems.”
It is believed that even one course of antibiotics may affect gut health for up to four years and antibiotic use is widespread today.
Gurdip says taking probiotics will help replace lost beneficial bacteria.
But when it comes to choosing a probiotic supplement, one must always opt for a registered or approved product and check on the type and amount of good bacteria that it offers. This will ensure one gets the most benefits.
There are many different groups of good bacteria including lactobacillus and bifidobacterium but within these “families”, there are also specific strains, each of which performing different tasks.
One must obtain the right strain or strain combination to feel the beneficial effects. And how much good bacteria a probiotic supplement contains should also be a criteria for selection.
Generally, 10 million and above per serving is the minimum requirement and the more the better. Having a supplement that provides both prebiotics and probiotics is also advisable. Gurdip says prebiotics help the good bacteria in our gut to grow and flourish.
When it comes to children, probiotics are safe for consumption but giving it to them in the form of drinks rather than tablets is preferable as this leads to better absorption.
THERE are many ways for us to naturally include probiotics into our diet. These beneficial bacteria are commonly found in fermented food eaten across many different cultures.
Here are some examples:
Indians, Greeks and those from the Middle East have traditionally included yogurt in their diet. It’s made by adding two strains of bacteria, Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, into pasteurised milk. Goat milk yogurt is particularly high in probiotics.
When buying yogurt, check the label for the phrase "live active cultures" and read the ingredient list.Many brands contain high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and artificial flavours. These will only benefit the bad bacteria.
Miso paste is a quick and easy way to make a probiotic-rich soup that’s full of lactobacilli and bifidus bacteria. There’s a reason the Japanese are among the healthiest and why this soup is often offered as an appetiser in Japanese restaurants. Miso is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji — a fungus called Aspergillus oryzae.
Not only does it contain all nine essential amino acids but because it comes from soybeans, miso also stimulates the digestive system, strengthens the immune system and reduces the risk of multiple cancers.
The Koreans can’t get through a meal without it and with good reason. This spicy and sour fermented cabbage dish is one of the best probiotic foods out there and it’s also rich in vitamin C, B vitamins, beta-carotene, calcium, iron, potassium, and dietary fibre.
The unique probiotic bacteria found in kimchi won't just heal your gut — it will even help you stay slim, as determined by researchers at Kyung Hee University in Korea.
Lactobacillus brevis, the culture strain found in kimchi, is able to suppress a diet-induced increase in weight gain by 28 per cent.
The humble tempeh, often the poor man’s food in Southeast Asia, is a fermented, probiotic-rich grain made from soybeans and is a good meat alternative.
If prepared correctly, tempeh is also very low in salt. Besides being a healthy option for your gut, a standard 3-ounce serving of tempeh contains 16g of protein and eight per cent of the day's recommended calcium.
This German favourite commonly made from fermented cabbage is not only rich in healthy live cultures but also boasts Vitamins A, B, C, and K.
Sauerkraut is lacto-fermented cabbage, and contains natural compounds that have cancer-fighting and stomach-slimming properties.
When unpasteurised, sauerkraut is rich in Lactobacillusbacteria which boosts the healthy flora in the intestinal tract, bolsters the immune system, and improves overall health.
But keep in mind that commercially prepared sauerkrauts may be pasteurised and prepared using vinegar, which does not offer beneficial bacteria.
“Top 10 Probiotic Foods” www.globalhealingcenter.com
“18 Probiotic Foods for a Healthy Gut” www.eatthis.com
CONFUSED by terms such as probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics?
Here’s how to tell the difference:
Serves as “food” for friendly bacteria in the gut.
Available as supplements and naturally found in onions, garlic, leeks, carrots, sweet potatoes and fruit such as apples and bananas. Raw oats and legumes are also a good source.
Helps with digestion and supports the treatment of several chronic digestive disorders or inflammatory bowel disease.
Available as supplements and naturally found in certain fermented foods.
May support the treatment of diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, help with digestion and prevent the severity of flu or colds.
A combination of both probiotics and prebiotics.