Gut Check

Published on Mon, 01/26/2015 - 1:21pm

An inside look at a dynamic duo keeping you healthy
By Jonathan Reed

Feeling fat and logy after six long weeks of holiday indulgence? You’re not alone. Now’s the time to look at recharging your digestion for more energy this spring. The secret? Follow your grandmother’s advice: Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, vary your diet, and enjoy some yogurt.

Before you start emailing Jamie Lee Curtis for active culture diet tips, we give you an inside look at what these are, and what they can do to help jump start healthy eating. Because—as your grandmother also probably said—good health begins on the inside.

Microbiome magic
Put your hand on your tummy and consider what goes on in there. Gail Hecht, MD, a proponent of gut health research at the Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill. has cogently written that “we are more bacteria than human.” Just looking at numbers, your healthy gut harbors around 100 trillion bacteria, while the cells making up the rest of your body are a small fraction of that, only in the billions.

We weren’t born with these bacteria, but acquired them through nursing, the introduction of foods, and exposure to the environment. This “microbiome” is largely self-sustaining and it exists to help pull nutrition out of things we eat and move bad stuff out of the body. Experts say up to 70 percent of the immune system response happens in the gut.

All diseases begin in the gut. — Hippocrates, 370 B.C.

Despite the fact that Hippocrates had the idea nailed two millennia ago, science is only now beginning to realize that what we eat—and how we process it—has a large impact on health and how we feel. Eat good food and you feel good. Eat crap and pay the consequences.

It’s a war zone in there
Despite the trillions of critters doing their job in the gut, we’re typically unaware of them. That’s because—for the most part—they get along, doing their jobs breaking down foods, reproducing, absorbing toxins, and dying before getting out of the way.

The Integrative Medicine Program of the University of Wisconsin’s Family Medicine Department has looked at this battle zone. Among the activities going on, they tell us these bacteria:

  • Make compounds that keep other harmful bacteria from spreading, helping prevent infections
  • Stimulate the gut’s immune system
  • Help with digestion
  • Help our bodies digest foods more efficiently
  • Change certain vitamins
  • Impact which genes are active in gut cells
  • May help to prevent colon cancer

Any picnic-goer who has eaten something tinged with active Salmonella bacteria can tell you, when this microbiome gets out of whack, bad things can happen in a hurry. When the bad bugs move in, meet up with other shady friends, and take over, we end up spending the evening counting tiles on the bathroom floor. Until the rest of the bacteria can marshall the resources to fight off the unwanted bugs to put things back in check, we’re miserable.

Even more insidious is when we subject ourselves to poor food choices day after day, year after year. A balance of sorts is achieved, but not one that helps fight infections and promote a highly-charged immune system. Some medical experts, such as Loyola’s Dr. Hecht, suspect longterm imbalance can contribute to obesity, stress, heart disease, allergic disorders, and even diabetes and cancer.

"Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.” – Nutritionist and weight-loss pioneer Victor Lindlahr, 1923

Probiotics: For life
To maintain good health, “I tell people to eat whole foods, drink plenty of water, and eat probiotics regularly,” says Greta Farley, a registered dietitian with Hy-Vee foods, a supermarket chain operating in eight Midwestern states. Whole foods, Greta says, are unprocessed foods, such as what you might find in the fruit-and-vegetable aisle and whole grains.

“The reason for this is that whole, unprocessed foods provide a better environment for digestion to take place,” she says. “Not only that, but creating regular menus with the recommended eight servings of fruit and vegetables—that’s every day, mind you—helps us feel fuller longer and promotes weight loss.”

Greta would also have you push the grocery cart to the dairy aisle and pick up yogurt. High-quality yogurt is a probiotic.

Probiotics—literally meaning “for life” or “promoting life”—are believed to help balance out the environment so that the trillions of bacteria in your gut can thrive and pull things back into balance. Probiotics are found in only a few forms: yogurt, drinkable yogurt like kefir, a fermented tea called kombucha, and supplemental pills like TruBiotics-brand daily supplements.

It’s what’s inside that counts
Sorry to break it to you, but that frozen yogurt you enjoy during the summer has no more health benefit than ice cream. “Read the package,” Greta advises, to look for active or live cultures (and in the case of yogurt and kefir, not too many calories from sugar). Better still, the package should list all the “good bugs” inside. The most researched ones include:

  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (available as the brand Culturelle)
  • Bifidobacterium lactis BB12 (abbreviated as B. lactus BB12).
  • L. acidophilus NA (sometimes just called Acidophilus)
  • L. bulgaricus LB-51

Other species of Lactobacillis and Bifdobacterium (abbreviated simply as L., and B., respectively) are widely used as well. Saccharomyces boulardii is actually a fungus or yeast that has been found to have several benefits. (See: How Come You Guys Never Take Sick Days? here.)

Importantly, look also for the number of “Colony Forming Units” or CFUs. This refers to the number of live, viable bacteria that can be expected with each serving. (Note: this will be less than the number of bacterial cells in the package—some cells die at manufacture and others fail to be reactivated when consumed.) As a general rule, the more the better, with at least one billion (1 × 109) CFUs required to get the job done.

To produce a beneficial effect, you should plan on consuming probiotics daily for anywhere from two weeks to two months, according to University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine. This is to give the bacteria a chance to establish a strong, viable presence in the gut.

“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”– Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, 1826

Positively prebiotic
Probiotics are beneficial, but even they need a little help. A recent trend is for health experts to also recommend ingestion of prebiotics.

Prebiotics are carbohydrates that cannot be digested by the human body and act as food for probiotics. Fiber-rich foods with high prebiotic effects include inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides (fructans, FOS) and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS).

This all sounds technical, but it’s not. Prebiotic foods are all around and—guess what—being high in fiber, they are good for you:

Prebiotic foods

Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, garlic, onion, leek, shallots, spring onion, asparagus, beetroot, fennel bulb, green peas, snow peas, sweet corn, savoy cabbage
Chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, baked beans, soybeans
Custard apples (a relative of the pawpaw), nectarines, white peaches, persimmon, watermelon, rambutan, grapefruit, pomegranate. Dried fruit (such as dates, figs)
Bread / cereals / snacks
Barley, rye bread, rye crackers, pasta, gnocchi, couscous, wheat bran, wheat bread, oats in almost any form
Nuts and seeds
Cashews, pistachio nuts
Human breast milk

Source: Monash University, Australia

Other prebiotic foods include tempeh, pickles, leeks, bananas, asparagus, and sauerkraut, almonds, and pickled beets.

How Come You Guys Never Take Sick Days?

Yeast factory job offers unexpected benefit

File this under “Go figure…”

More than 70 years ago, C.W. Bloomhall drew on decades of Iowa farm know-how to form a feed-additive company called Diamond V Mills, producing yeast-based products. As a young man, he noticed on his dairy farm that cows fed yeast were healthier and produced more milk.

The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, company grew and flourished. Several years ago, an insurance carrier performing an audit noticed something unusual: Workers in the yeast production side of the factory were sick far less than those working in the office, who were away from yeast. Not only that, but there were far fewer illnesses in the factory when compared to similarly-sized companies in town. In fact, health care claims were 40- to 60-percent lower.

Diamond V's people realized that incidental exposure was contributing to overall health of the production staff. Tests revealed employees had a much higher level of "Natural Killer" cell activity and lower levels of inflammation than workers not exposed to the yeast cultures. What if they used their yeast production experience to produce that benefit on purpose?

The result is EpiCor, a dried yeast product made from Saccharomyces cerevisiae manufactured for human consumption by Embria Health Sciences. The company says the supplement has been shown to act like a prebiotic in digestive system models. EpiCor is found in multiple supplements and as a stand-alone product.

And the factory people are still pretty darn healthy to this day.