Love Your Guts | VailDaily.com

Love Your Guts

Keep the colony of bacteria living in your gut in balance for good overall physical and mental health

»By  Kirsten Dobroth  »photos by dominique taylor

Our bodies are beautiful and intricately complicated vessels, and our gut is no different. Increasingly, the importance of our gut microbiome, or the team of bacteria that lives within our digestive tract, has received increased attention from researchers and clinicians as a crucially important part of not only digestion, but for its role in breaking down chemicals and hormones, as well. Think of it this way — a squad of good (and bad) bacteria lives within your gut for the sole purpose of helping your body break down components of food. It's a task that's crucial to your well-being, and increasingly, researchers are finding that the modern diet, which is less and less based in wholesome fruits, vegetables and whole grains, is slowly wiping out the bacteria that lives inside us and helps with this process. The results of this mass exodus of helpful microbes is more frequently being attributed to the rise in things like food allergies, intolerances, chronic digestion ailments, and even mental health problems, with the role of the microbiome being a newer branch of medical studies that researchers are just beginning to grasp.

"A lot of research on the microbiome is still in its infancy," says Penny Wilson, PhD, a registered dietician and nutritionist. “The initial research is showing some surprising things. There may be links between depression, hormone imbalances, food sensitivities and weight imbalances all being linked to imbalances in our microbiome.”

Some of the more hormonal and mental health imbalances may seem far-fetched as a result of imbalanced bacteria in our digestive tract, but in fact, our guts are a prime spot where serotonin is broken down and released to our brain, which is a key chemical in maintaining well-being and happiness.

"A lot of serotonin is activated in the gut," explains Wilson. "Your gut, your brain, and your heart are connected by the vagus nerve, and so when we talk about your gut being your second brain it really is true. Your gut and your brain are talking all the time."

Recommended Stories For You

Feeding this teeming, microscopic colony is an important part of regulating a balance of bacteria that tips in favor of the good guys — those that are crucial in all the processes that make us tick and thrive. While nutrition starts with a diet filled with wholesome plant-based meals — fruits, vegetables and whole grains — incorporating fermented foods, which is a rich source of live cultures, is pivotal for filling our digestive tracts with all the little helpers we can get. Pill-form probiotics are also an effective method of delivering live cultures to the digestive system, but shouldn't be relied upon as a sole source of the microbes, especially if the corresponding diet isn't cultivating healthy habits that work to nourish our internal colony.

"Fermented foods actually contain the microbes, so they have the bacteria already in them," says Wilson. "By varying the types of fermented foods you're having you're going to help with the balance in your microbiome, and vary the type of bacteria you're getting. If you're taking probiotic pills, I recommend switching those up about once a month so that you're getting different strains of bacteria."

Many of these higher quality products are a lot better than what we might remember as children, and giving things like organic sauerkraut, kimchi or a kefir (which is often compared to a runny yogurt) smoothie a second chance as an adult is often a great way to introduce some fermented servings into your day. Freshies, in Edwards, is a goldmine of pill-form probiotics, with strains aiming to improve mental health and digestion. Or inquire about some of their live-cultured snacks, which come in the form of everything from organic sauerkrauts and salsas to crackers infused with live cultures. Be sure to pick up one of their pre-biotic snacks as well, which work as "fertilizers" in your digestive tract to nurture all the benevolent little microbes that call our bodies home. 

Green Kefir Smoothie

1 ripe avocado

1 cup plain, whole milk kefir

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger

Fresh mint leaves to taste

½ cup of frozen fruit — favorites include mangoes or blueberries

Put all ingredients in the blender and process until smooth and creamy. Serve immediately.

Peanut Butter Berry Kefir Smoothie

1 cup plain, whole milk kefir

2 tablespoons pure peanut butter

1 tablespoon raw, organic honey

1 frozen banana

½  cup strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or blackberries

Put all ingredients in the blender and process until smooth and creamy. Serve immediately.