Your gut is no stranger to bacteria and other micro-organisms - it's home to billions of cells, different families and strains: lactobacilli, bifidobacteria, candida, enterococci, and more. Some are beneficial, producing healthy by-products like vitamin B12 and helping us break down hard-to-digest matter; and others are parasitic, stealing nutrients from your body's own cells, feeding and propagating themselves on any drop of sugar you ingest. It sounds scary, but your internal ecosystem is always trying to remain in balance. Poor diet and excess acidity can work against your healthy bacterial allies. Fortunately, we can help shore up the numbers of our microscopic comrades by sending in more troops - that is, eating more foods rich in bacterial cultures.
In addition to taking probiotic supplements, ranging from 1 billion for the unaccustomed to 10 billion or higher live cell count per dose, these are some of the food choices you can add in to bulk up your inner army:
1) Yogourt. Organic, plain, unsweetened, and unflavoured. The "name brand" yogourts come loaded with sugar and flavours and lots of other things you don't need in your yogourt (cochineal insect extract, anyone?), plus the high sugar content actually kills the bacterial culture long before you get around to eating it. Your best bet is to hit up the health food store and look for your organic unsweetened yogourt and add your own toppings, like pomegranate arils (yum!), raw nuts and seeds, and shredded coconut if you need sweetness. You can also add it to a smoothie. Those who don't do dairy can look for coconut, almond, or soy yogourts. You can even try making your own!
3) Kombucha. A fermented cultured tea beverage, it's rich in antioxidant polyphenols, and the fermentation process helps reduce the caffeine content of the tea, in addition to adding probiotic content. Some brands will list an average cell count for their product (e.g. GT's can have around 2 billion cells per 240ml bottle!). Kombucha can be an acquired taste for some, as it can be a bit strong. Try varieties that have fruit juice or spices added in. My favourites are GT's Synergy Trilogy flavour (raspberry-lemon-ginger), Rise Rose Schizandra, and Tonica Green Tea Revival (green and white tea). It can make a great, healthful replacement for pop due to its natural fizziness. Watch the sugar content in some brands, as it can vary from 1 or 2g per serving to 9 or 10g per serving. Remember that too much sugar is detrimental to microorganisms. (Sugar also suppresses the immune system for an average of 5 hours!!)
4) Tempeh. Made from soybeans fermented and pressed into cakes. Tempeh can have a strong flavour on its own, but does well when marinated. Try making your own sauces or dressings - experiment with Thai peanut, mandarin sesame, lemon tahini - and after marinating, eat the tempeh uncooked, since cooking destroys much of the probiotic content. Slice for a sandwich filling, dice for a salad topping, or just eat it straight up if you like!
5) Fermented vegetables. Think homemade organic sauerkraut and kimchi. Eat them on their own, as a side dish, or as salad toppings. It's best to make your own using traditional fermenting recipes, rather than storebought products that may not follow these techniques; while they may produce a similar flavour, the nutritional benefits may not be the same, with those important live cultures and enzymes missing in the process. Some health food stores may offer "fresh", organic, homestyle fermented vegetables produced locally - check the fridge section for options.
What are your favourite ways to eat your bugs?