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Boosting Good Gut Microflora

Published as part of a series on Lowering Your Risk of Cancer
(syndicated in the Manitoba Post and Lifestyles55).

The old saying “you are what you eat” has never been more true, but in recent years the role of good bacteria and human health has been a major focus of research. PubMed, the database of biomedical citations and studies, lists over 2000 peer-reviewed publications focused on this burgeoning area of research. Our gastrointestinal (GI) tract is home to trillions of microorganisms including fungi, viruses, and bacteria, which are collectively called the gut microbiome. Through the promotion of digestive enzymes, vitamins, and short chain fatty acids, our gut microbiome is a major contributing factor in the process of achieving optimum health and wellness.

Specific strains of friendly flora have been shown to improve oral, urinary tract, and vaginal health by helping reduce and prevent ear, nose, and throat infections, urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis, and yeast vaginitis. In addition to helping reduce the risk of developing certain cancers, studies have shown that those with a diverse, healthy microbiome also respond better to cancer treatment.

Diet, age, disease, drugs (including antibiotics) and stress all negatively affect our gut bacteria. An imbalance of 'good' gut bacteria versus too much 'bad' bacteria is called dysbiosis, which is associated with inflammatory bowel diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, bone loss, inflammation, depression, anxiety, and cancer.

Good vs Bad Gut Bacteria

Probiotics, which means for life, are live microorganisms that when consumed at sufficient levels provide a health benefit. Normally, there should be a healthy balance of good bacteria (probiotic), and bad bacteria (pathogenic), but health problems, poor diet, antibiotics, and many prescription drugs can lead to dysbiosis. Regular consumption of fermented foods, and avoiding the drugs and foods that can have an adverse effect on our gut microbiome can shift the balance of power towards the good bacteria, helping to reduce the harmful effects of the pathogenic strains.

I recommend eating fermented foods which are naturally high in probiotics including kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir. To further boost the benefits of probiotics, eat foods high in indigestible soluble and insoluble fibre. The fibre acts as a 'prebiotic' that feeds the probiotic bacteria in the small and large intestine. Just a few of the foods high in prebiotic fibre include chicory root, onions, leeks, asparagus, barley, oats, apples, flaxseeds, seaweed, sweet potato, berries, avocado, and legumes. Green bananas are another good source of prebiotic fibre. The resistant starch in bananas is converted to sugar when they're allowed to ripen, so it’s best to eat them green to preserve the prebiotic effect.

Resistant Starch

When you cook starchy foods like potatoes, rice, and pasta, the starch molecules absorb water and swell up. When the foods are cooled after cooking, the molecules crystallize and become less digestible. This 'retrogradation' process transforms the starch into resistant starch, and it converts into a prebiotic in the large intestine. This process increases beneficial bacteria, including a strain called Bifidobacterium which manufactures short-chain fatty acids and vitamin K2.

Unlike other starches which turn to sugar in the small intestine, resistant starch resists digestion in the stomach and small intestine and provides food for good bacteria in the large bowel. Resistant starch has been compared to a super-fertilizer or compost for boosting healthy gut bacteria, leading to improvements in just about every aspect of human health. It boosts your metabolism, promotes balanced blood sugar, helps improve sleep, and improves gut microflora, which can all help promote weight loss.

When we consume resistant starch, butyrate is formed in the large intestine. It's one of the most important short-chain fatty acids, with powerful anti-cancer effects. A major energy source for colon cells, butyrate helps lower blood sugar levels, repair leaky gut, and slow down carbohydrate digestion. It increases levels of leptin (a hormone that reduces appetite) while decreasing ghrelin (the hormone that triggers hunger).

The best way to add resistant starch to your diet is to use potato starch. Unlike conventional grocery store starches, supplemental potato starch is designed to be safely consumed uncooked. As long as it’s used unheated, it brings all these amazing digestive health benefits. I recommend starting with a teaspoon twice a day and gradually increasing to a tablespoon two or three times a day. It has almost no taste (I often combine it with beet juice crystals, or add it to my super green food drink), and it can help you sleep better if taken before bedtime.

Probiotic Supplements

Synbiotic supplements combine probiotic bacteria with prebiotic fibre that work together to amplify the probiotic effect. Look for formulas that include prebiotic fibre and incorporate natural fermentation in their production process like Living Alchemy’s Your Flora. Other quality supplements include New Beginnings from Olie Naturals (a liquid fermented probiotic supplement from Denmark), and products by Metagenics and Genestra that contain clinically-proven strains. Don't be persuaded by products hyping billions of colony forming units in their marketing. When it comes to probiotic supplements, it's not the quantity that matters, it's the strains.

Prebiotic Supplements

Two of my favourite prebiotic supplements are Fiberrific, a tasteless soluble hydrolyzed inulin powder derived from chicory that dissolves completely in water; and an insoluble superfine tasteless resistant potato starch powder that can be added to smoothies, green food drinks, beet juice crystals, or simply a glass of water. These products feed the healthy bacteria of our gut microbiome. Research indicates that combining both soluble and insoluble prebiotics may provide a more effective synergistic health benefit, as each type works in different areas of the colon. I've had clients with a variety of GI and digestive issues that have experienced relief by combining a quality probiotic supplement with a soluble and insoluble prebiotic supplement.

A quality probiotic, prebiotic (or synbiotic) and fermented foods will nourish your inner garden and promote a healthy microbiome, bringing many lasting health benefits and reducing the risk of cancer.

Health Disclaimer. Copyright ©2018-2022. First published in December 2018, latest revision in January 2022. Nathan Zassman is a trained nutrition practitioner and the owner of Aviva Natural Health Solutions.