The truth about gut health. (As far as we know so far...)
There is a lot of talk about "gut health" and a lot of consumer dollars being poured in to "probiotics" via probiotic drinks, (kefir, kombucha, etc.), probiotic pills, supplements and others. The surge in popularity of fermented foods like pickles, kimchee, etc. is dramatically on the rise due to the purely unsubstantiated marketing "health" claim that is usually a version of "supports digestive health and function" or something similar. Truth be told, Americans are said to have the most expensive excretions (yes, I mean urine!) in the world, meaning that we consume supplements and vitamins far in excess of our body's needs or ability to process and store, or we consume unsubstantiated health supplements that don't actually work more than any other country in the world. Don't get me wrong, I make my own kombucha, kimchee, fermented hot sauce, yogurt (occasionally) at home, and I am a big proponent of fermented foods, but the supplements out there today, well, we can probably mostly do without them.
The surge in fermented food and probiotics (think rotting food and bacteria that eat the rotting food) popularity as consumer products has skyrocketed in recent years but it really all started with yogurt, after a research study seemed to link the consumption of yogurt by farmers in Bulgaria with health and longevity. In reality, the farmers were just looking for a way to preserve food they harvested fresh, to keep over or into winter, hence pickling, canning, fermenting, cheesemaking, etc. All fermented foods are essentially a controlled (as much as humans can) process of decay through bacteria. Kind of like the old saying "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." or the more modern phrase "Go play in the dirt." we are finding encouraging evidence that a wide variety of microbes (bacteria/probiotics) and a wide variety of foods that feed them (fiber filled veggies or "probiotics") are essential for a healthy gut and a healthy body. That doesn't mean that food technology and safety should be put to rest- the food we grow, breed consume in America is the safest it has ever been. There are microbes and bacteria and pathogens that our bodies are unable to simply digest and excrete, like Salmonella, E. Coli and others and they can grow very quickly in the right conditions, and our food system is very good at mitigating those pathogens. There is a growing trend of drinking "raw water", meaning water harvested from streams, and bottled unfiltered and untreated. This is frankly, crazy. Yes, I have drank water from a running stream in the Sierras on a hike or from a fast moving stream in the Carolinas as a boy, but clean water is hands down one of the technological feats that has prevented countless illnesses and disease. So stick to filtered tap water or bulk purified water (please please don't by disposable plastic bottles!)
So how does this prebiotic-probiotic symbiotic process work? Well, in reality it's pretty simple. There are bacteria living in your GI Tract (Gut) and they need real food. They like to eat fiber rich foods (these are known these days as "probiotics" but we just call them vegetables as the Bulgarian farmer intended) that are in their whole and unprocessed form (raw or cooked or fermented vegetables and fiber rich nuts, grains, legumes and fruits). The bacteria flourish with a healthy diet and they promote resistance to disease and inflammation of the colon and provide heightened diversity within the gut. Science is still researching the exact processes that beneficial microbes perform and how they specifically enhance our overall health, but like always, it seems to go back to the old sayings that my mom used to proclaim- "Go play outside!" and "Eat your greens! You need roughage to make good poops!" (Yes, mom, I said "poop" on the internet...). Frankly, the Bulgarian farmers would probably scoff at all this research. Lesson learned is this, eat mostly plants, some lean meat, and not too much, no processed foods and few if any sweeteners, and a serving or two a day of yogurt, or pickles or kimchee, and you gut will thank you. Oh, and go dig in the dirt too- a new study shows dirt increases seratonin production in humans. And that'll make anyone SMILE!