What the fekir is kefir and why is belly bacteria good?
Gut health. Everybody’s talking about it. Everybody’s writing about it. Everybody’s professing to be THE gut guru of the moment. So, I thought I’d jump on the belly bandwagon and give my take on the trending topic.
After about 15,000 hours researching the topic (OK, maybe ever so slightly less) I started to wonder if I’d bitten off more than I can chew - there is just so much information out there, it’s quite overwhelming. I’ve sifted through the baloney, and hopefully can give you an ever so slightly condensed guide to guts…
Our 'gut', aka digestive system, is pretty complex. In a nutshell, it comprises of tissues and organs that play a role in the digestion and absorption of our food. It’s what’s housed within the gut that’s of particular interest today, something dubbed the microbiome: a ‘community’ of microbes (microscopic organisms). These microbes are largely made up of bacteria, often thought of as a source of disease, but in fact many bacteria play an essential role in keeping you healthy: aiding digestion, weight regulation and immune function. In fact, there is emerging research to suggest that your microbiome may well influence your health as much as your inherited genes do.
Being the individuals that we are, every one of us has a different microbiome. The good (and the bad) news is that this can be influenced hugely by what we put in our pie hole. The most common culprits consumed that affect our gut bacteria are: poor diet - especially ones high in sugar and/or processed food, toxins, and antibiotics.
- Sugar is inflammatory and may affect the lining of our digestive system where a lot of our microbiome live. This ultimately reduces them in numbers and therefore affects their performance.
- Processed foods often have lower fibre, and therefore less fuel for the gut bacteria, essentially starving them until they die off.
Antibiotics are essential for treating or preventing some types of bacterial infection by killing bacteria in the body. While they are a hugely important medicine, they cannot distinguish between good and bad bacteria so they wipe out both. Your lovely good germy garden that is your gut has basically had white spirit poured all over it, robbing it of all its flora.
Argh. So it’s relatively easy to wreak havoc with our microbiomes, but how can we replenish them? What can we do to ensure the good bacteria thrive?
Well, if ANTIbiotics fight against bacteria, PRObiotics (live bacteria, or friendly bacteria) help restore the natural balance of bacteria in your gut when it has been disrupted. Probiotic literally means “for life”, because of the job that they do.
The only watch outs when buying probiotics are:
- Firstly, probiotics are generally classed as food rather than medicine, which means they don't undergo the rigorous testing that medicines do.
- Because of the way probiotics are regulated, we can’t always be sure that:
the product actually contains the bacteria stated on the food label
the product contains enough bacteria to have an effect
You’ll see product after product claiming to contain ‘probiotics’ in the supermarket, but these are often high in sugar and laughably low in probiotics. Instead, I stock up when I visit my homeopathic holistic hippy haven, I buy bucket loads of probiotics that I sprinkle willy nilly (LOVE saying that) over everything. The only negative side effect I have ever experienced is bankruptcy.
If you’re not prepared to sell a kidney to cover the cost of the capsules, then there are other options. The 2 F’s are frequently favoured:
- Eat a high FIBER diet, because fibre feeds the bacteria. If we don't feed bacteria, they feed off us, specifically the mucus lining in our large intestine.
- Eat FERMENTED foods, the most popular of which seems to currently be Kefir. Similar to yogurt, it’s a fermented dairy product combining milk and fermented kefir grains. Kefir has been consumed for well over 3,000 years and the word ‘kefir’ originated in Russia and Turkey and means “feeling good.” It has a slightly acidic and tart flavor and contains anywhere from 10 to 34 strains of probiotics. Kefir is similar to yogurt, but because it is fermented with yeast and more bacteria, the final product is higher in probiotics.
I went to visit my Fairy Godmother recently (love you Rosie) and as we were waving goodbye she started jumping up and down frantically “wait, wait, you’re not leaving without some of my bacteria”. I was a little (OK, a lot) bemused by the comment but thought it rude to drive off so waited to see what the heckles she was talking about. When she reappeared, she presented me with a pretty little pot of probiotic, her own homemade culture of Kefir. I now have it sitting on my kitchen shelf and will happily share the love / bacteria with anyone else who’s interested in growing their own.
Now, I’m conscious that I promised a ‘condensed’ guide to gut health, so it’s probably time to wrap up. The easiest way to think about all of this is to liken your microbiome to another ecosystem like a rainforest. Here you've got loads of plants and animals interacting and thriving in a wonderfully diverse environment. But ecological collapse can quickly and easily happen if the environment is disturbed. So look after your ecosystem.
Fire up the bacteria in your belly, and remember that a bacteria free existence would be an unhappy one.
I am not a dietician or a nutritionist, and make no claims to the contrary. What is written on this site should not be taken as fact or advice. It is merely an opinion blog.