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Nourishing The Microbiome: Fermented Foods to Support Gut Health
Did you know that there are at least as many bacteria and other tiny microorganisms residing within the human body — as there are human cells? These trillions of microbiota are found mostly within the gastrointestinal system (aka “the gut”) and comprise somewhere between 1-3% of the total mass of our human body.
When all goes right, this vast community of microbiota — known collectively as the “microbiome” function as powerful allies: as “friendly bacteria” that nourish and support our physical, mental and emotional wellness in countless ways. They are so important to our overall health that there’s now a large research organization — the Human Microbiome Project — devoted entirely to learning more about this intricate congregation of microorganisms.
The Enteric Nervous System: Your Belly-Brain
The harmonious intelligence (or dis-ease) of the microbiome has a direct link to the brain, via the enteric nervous system: a kind of “belly brain” made up of hundreds of millions of neurons. That’s right: neurological tissue is located not only in the brain, but also in our human gut! And this actually makes a lot of sense, considering some common human experiences, such as having a “gut feeling” about something:
“It turns out that “butterflies” and that “sinking feeling” in the stomach have a neurological basis. Neurons lining the stomach are filled with neurotransmitters, chemicals that help nerve cells communicate with one another. One key neurotransmitter is serotonin, which plays a major role in mood regulation. While serotonin is also found in the brain, 95% of the body’s supply is in the stomach.”
One of the enteric nervous system’s most important functions is to “listen” to the microbiome: i.e. to link the intelligence of our symbiotic community of microorganisms with our “head brain.” Which brings us back, once again, to the vital importance of the microbiome; and why it makes sense to take very good care of it. So how exactly do we take good care of the friendly bacteria of the gut? One of the best ways to nourish the microbiome is to include fermented foods in your diet.
Fermented Foods That Nourish The Microbiome
You’ve likely heard of the “probiotics” that your M.D. or natural health practitioner suggests that you take, in the form of a supplement, after undergoing a round of antibiotics. Why is this a good idea? — Because antibiotics tend to kill off not only the “bad bacteria” that are causing our illness, but also the “good bacteria” of the microbiome.
But nourishing our microbiome with probiotics — with friendly bacteria — is of benefit to our gut health not only after a round of antibiotics, but rather at all times! And while it’s possible to take probiotic supplements (in capsule form) on an ongoing basis, there’s actually a much more effective and inexpensive way of doing this, which is to include fermented foods in your daily diet. All it takes is a bite or two of any of the following, to send a “care package” of friendly bacteria into the territory of your microbiome:
- Yogurt or Kefir. Fermented dairy products such as yogurt or kefir are a great source of probiotics — but be sure to choose those with “live active cultures” in order to get this benefit from them.
- Miso or Tempeh. Fermented soy products such as miso and tempeh are another fantastic source of probiotics. Miso paste can be made into a pleasant-tasting broth, or added to other soups. And Tempeh can be substituted for beef, chicken or turkey in most recipes.
- Sauerkraut or Kimchi. Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi are lovely as condiments, along with pretty much any savory meal. Remember that it only takes a bite or two to reap the probiotic benefits. Once again, look for the “live active cultures” statement on the label.
- Kombucha. Next time you’re hankering for a soda or a beer, reach instead for a kombucha: a fermented tea drink that — in its “raw food” form — is chock-full of healthy probiotics. There are lots of different kombucha flavors — from classic cola or root-beer, to herbal and fruit blends — so find the one that makes your taste buds sing and dance, and then celebrate the abundance of wellbeing you’re bringing to your body-mind via this probiotic-rich drink.
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