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When we talk about the gut, most of us just think about our stomachs or digestive systems but, in recent years, science has highlighted the integral role that gut health plays in our overall wellbeing.
A healthy gut means more than just a good digestive system. It’s suspected that there’s a crucial link between gut health in the prevention of many diseases, perhaps even including mental illnesses and conditions such as anxiety and depression.
There are over 100 million brain cells in your gut and it has its own nervous system; the enteric nervous system (ENS) which can operate independently of the brain and the spinal cord.
The gut is even often referred to as the ‘second brain’ as its bacteria produce an array of neurochemicals that the brain uses in the regulation in learning, mood and memory – hence the expression ‘gut feeling’.
Probiotics and prebiotics
When it comes to the topic of new gut health, the words ‘probiotics’ and ‘prebiotics’ get thrown around a lot. But what are the differences between them and how exactly do they contribute to a healthy gut?
Probiotics are live ‘good bacteria’ that help keep your gut healthy by controlling the growth of harmful bacteria. Doctors will sometimes prescribe probiotics to patients on antibiotics to help combat the gastrointestinal effects of the medication. Probiotics can be destroyed in the body and impacted by heat and stomach acid.
Prebiotics are carbohydrates that can not be digested by the human body. They act as a fertiliser for good bacteria that’s already in the stomach, helping it grow.
Probiotics and prebiotics can be taken together because prebiotics are essentially food for probiotics. Although it might seem to make sense to take your prebiotics before your probiotics, in reality it doesn’t matter as the body will process them at different rates.
Good sources of probiotics and prebiotics
Probiotics are essential for digestive health. Most of us will get them naturally with our diets but to boost consumption there are some great foods to eat that hill heighten your good bacteria, line your gut and enhance your nutrient consumption.
Yoghurt is probably the most popular probiotic food. But if you’re thinking of buying yoghurt to get your fill of probiotics, it must be natural with live active cultures. In most cases, this will be made clear on the label. Look out for words such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophiles.
Organic dark chocolate that’s made with 70% or more of raw cacao or cocoa can also be good for your gut – when eaten in moderation of course. The gut bacteria break down and ferment the compounds in dark chocolate which promotes a healthier gut microbiome and creates an anti-inflammatory effect.
Sauerkraut is made from fermented cabbage and other vegetables and the fermentation process produces beneficial probiotics. The process of fermentation involves converting carbohydrates into either alcohol and carbon dioxide or organic acid.
It requires a carbohydrate source in addition to yeast, bacteria or both. The yeast and bacteria microorganisms are responsible for converting glucose into healthy bacteria strains that populate your gut environment and help regulate many bodily functions.
Apple cider vinegar
As it’s derived from fermented apple juice, apple cider vinegar also contains probiotics. However you should always choose raw, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar which contains ‘the mother’ – the cobweb strands that make the liquid look kind of cloudy.
As pasteurisation removed the mother, if you take this kind, you won’t get any of the probiotic benefits.
Apple cider vinegar isn’t the most appetising probiotic food on the list, so we’d recommend taking a shot in the morning mixed with two parts water or adding it to salad dressing.
Similarly to sauerkraut and apple cider vinegar, pickles are also fermented and therefore have probiotic properties. When purchasing your pickles, ensure that they don’t list vinegar on the label and avoid pickles which have been heat processed during their production as this will kill off the probiotic benefits; all probiotic foods should be consumed raw.
Prebiotics, unlike probiotics, can not be destroyed by heat or stomach acid but are still better for your when consumed raw. Many high fibre vegetables are great sources of prebiotics.
Raw garlic contains a kind of non-digestible fibre compound that passes through the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract and remains undigested. Once they pass through the small intestine and reach the colon they are fermented by the gut microflora. A raw garlic clove can easily be crushed or minced and put into a salsa, guacamole, hummus or a salad dressing.
Both raw and cooked onions are both excelled prebiotic sources. Onions contain inulin (a soluble plant fibre that boosts digestion and is found in the other prebiotics on the list). The great thing about onions is that they are possible they most versatile vegetable on the planet and can be cooked and enjoyed in a multitude of ways.
Bananas don’t contain quite as much inulin as the whole grains and high fibre vegetables on this list but raw green bananas do have prebiotic starch which can resist stomach acid and help fuel the good bacteria and probiotics in your gut. And of course, as well as being delicious, bananas have a host of other health benefits too – being a great source of potassium and B vitimins.
Like probiotics, most prebiotic foods should be eaten raw to avoid breaking down the beneficial matter within them. Raw asparagus contains around 2-3 grams per 100 gram serving. Raw isn’t the most enjoyable way for everyone to enjoy this healthy veg, so if you find it a bit too unappetising, you can try lightly steaming it but ensuring that they are still relatively firm.
Being from the same family as onions and garlic, leeks are also a great probiotic source; containing up to 16% inulin fibre which helps the gut bacteria and the breakdown of fat. Raw leeks are best for your gut and can be simply added to a salad with salt, apple cider vinegar and olive oil to feed your gut colony.
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