Probiotic Foods Can Fix a Troubled Gut
Gas, bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhea and constipation—each of these digestive issues indicates an imbalance of “good” and “bad” intestinal bacteria.
Chronic digestive discomfort is distressingly common. More than 60 million Americans suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), notes Dr. Mark Pimentel, director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Program at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, in Los Angeles, and author of A New IBS Solution. Many are too embarrassed to mention it to their doctor, so they suffer silently and learn to live with it.
While digestive distress can visit most of us occasionally, regular bouts have increased due to high-stress lifestyles and unhealthy diets, according to Dr. Dustin James, a St. Louis, Missouri, gastroenterologist and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Digestive Health. “Getting home late after a stressful day, eating a high-fat meal and then going to bed is a recipe for problems,” he says.
James advises a food-free interlude of four to six hours before bedtime and notes that prescription and over-the-counter heartburn medications can actually worsen the problem over time.
Pimentel, citing his own research, also suggests that even a minor case of food poisoning may unbalance digestive bacteria enough to cause problems for years. “We think food poisoning leads to bacterial overgrowth,” says Pimentel.
In his clinical experience, James says about 10 percent of IBS cases can be connected to the food poisoning theory. Although such cases are typically treated with an antibiotic, rifaximin, many experts ironically attribute bacterial overgrowth to the use of antibiotics. All antibiotics, taken for any reason, indiscriminately kill both good and bad intestinal bacteria, ultimately creating unbalanced bacteria colonies in the digestive tract, says James. “There can be bad long-term effects,” he advises. James’ antibiotics theory is affirmed by a major Australian review of current research on the links between antibiotics and intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
Sugar is another culprit as are antibiotics in dairy products and meats, which can also aggravate digestive problems. Sugar feeds the growth of unfriendly bacteria and yeast and antibiotics kill friendly bacteria, contributing to imbalances.
The U.S. obesity epidemic has even been linked to digestive problems. In a study published in the journal Frontiers of Public Health, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley warn against long-term exposure to antibiotics through their widespread use in the dairy and meat industries. One animal study from Washington University, in St. Louis, showed that intestinal bacteria tend to extract more nutrients—and more calories—from the same foods when eaten by obese animals than when ingested by thinner ones. This helps explain why obese people tend to stay obese without heroic measures.
Good Food Solutions
There is considerable agreement that probiotics—live bacteria such as those contained in fermented foods like quality yogurt—help rebalance beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract and ease ailments that include IBS. Due to U.S. food regulations, yogurt is routinely pasteurized, which kills its probiotic benefits; conscientious suppliers then add active digestive microorganisms, like Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, back into their products.
“Check yogurt labels for specific names of the species and a certification that it contains live cultures,” counsels Maria Marco, Ph.D., an assistant professor of food science at the University of California-Davis.
Coconut yogurt may be preferred by those with dairy-free diets. Dairy is acid-forming and can be difficult to digest.
Many fermented foods can provide the same probiotics to ease digestive woes and restore a healthy balance of the right bacteria. Sauerkraut, rich in Lactobacillus and other strains of healthy bacteria, is at the top of the list. It’s easy to make super-healthy sauerkraut at home with shredded organic cabbage and salt.
Other fermented foods to put high on a natural probiotic list include: miso, kefir, tempeh, soft cheese, kimchi, sour pickles and sourdough bread.
James recommends two daily servings of high-quality yogurt or other fermented foods to obtain the 2 to 5 billion live bacteria needed to restore gut health. “Every human is unique; try different products in search of what works,” he says.
Probiotic supplements may be more effective for people with serious digestive distress that need higher bacterial counts and the product label may provide specifics of the bacteria and strains. “For example, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG is a strain that has been proven to be effective against antibiotic-induced diarrhea,” Marco explains. High-quality probiotics usually require refrigeration to keep the bacteria alive.
In addition, there are many nonfermented foods, including certain juices, candies and energy bars, with specific strains of bacteria added that have probiotic effects.
Kathleen Barnes is the author of a wide variety of natural health books including 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health, with Dr. Hyla Cass. Connect at KathleenBarnes.com.