From a young age, we are often taught to guard against mistakes as little things that cause harm and traumatic nightmares. But now science is increasingly showing that hugging certain living things is one of the best things we can do to build healthy bodies.
In each of us at this moment there is a battle of beetles taking place. “There are approximately 100 trillion microorganisms in our bowels,” says Dr. Shekhar Challa, certified gastroenterologist and author of Probiotics for Dummies. “About 90 trillion of these bacteria are considered beneficial, while the remaining 10 trillion are potentially harmful.” He goes on to explain that as long as we maintain the population of the good guys, commonly referred to as “probiotics,” they will keep the nefarious bacteria at bay.
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Probiotics like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have long been praised for their ability to improve digestive health, including reducing gastrointestinal ailments like cramps and nausea in athletes. Now science is realizing that the benefits of these good animals go beyond your gut. For starters, having a robust population of probiotics in your gut is critical to maintaining a healthy immune system. Why? “Eighty to 90 percent of our immunity is controlled by the digestive system, so when you improve digestive health with probiotics, you automatically improve your immune health,” says Challa. Case in point, a study recently published in the Nutrition Journal found that increasing intakes of these superbugs can reduce upper respiratory symptoms in athletes. “Periods of vigorous exercise can decrease immunity and prepare you for viral and bacterial infections. However, probiotics can help prevent the weakened immune system caused by the stress of exercise,” explains Challa.
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Challa believes weight loss is likely the next frontier in probiotic research. This is based on preliminary data showing that obese people have a different profile of gut bacteria than lean people. While much more human research is needed, it is plausible that colonizing the zoo in our intestines with increased numbers of certain strains of probiotic might help fight the bulge. Scientists at the Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis found that when volunteers consumed certain probiotics, the organisms altered carbohydrate metabolism in their host, which can have a positive effect on fat loss.
Research is piling up that probiotics can also help lower cholesterol, fight off yeast and bladder infections, reduce the risk of certain cancers, improve oral health, and reduce symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, which suggests that there is a connection between the gut and the brain. It is also believed that probiotics improve overall nutrient absorption, which could help improve fitness gains.
According to Challa, the body’s own population of helpful intestinal bugs can be affected not only by intense exercise, but also by life stress, poor diet, age, digestive diseases and the use of antibiotics. The latter can include exposure to antibiotic residues used in industrial meat production. The good news is that what you put in your shopping cart can go a long way in keeping your digestive tract full of probiotics.
Long before refrigerators became the norm, fermentation was used as a method of food preservation. “During fermentation, microorganisms produce preservative acids in foods like cabbage and milk, which significantly extends the shelf life of the products by creating an environment in which pathogens cannot grow,” says Challa. “In this way, the fermented food contains a number of probiotics, which in turn can benefit your intestinal flora after consumption.” Here are seven foods to help you micromanage your diet.
When milk is fermented by lactic acid bacteria, it creates spicy yogurt, probably the most common fermented food in American households. A study recently published in the Journal of Functional Foods found that participants who ate yogurt with lactobacillus probiotics every day for six weeks lost 3 to 4 percent more body fat than subjects who did not eat the yogurt. The positive shift in intestinal bacteria triggered by probiotics in yoghurt can favor fat burning over fat storage. Look for brands of yogurt that contain the Live and Active Cultures label. This is a guarantee from the National Yogurt Association that the yogurt contains at least 100 million colony-forming units of beneficial bacteria per gram at the time of manufacture. This way you avoid buying yogurt which is made by heat pasteurization and which kills the fauna. Made by straining liquid, Greek yogurt is a great way to fill up with insects and loads of muscle building protein.
Kefir is made by fermenting milk with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast called “grains”. The result is a dairy product with a remarkable tart taste. Originally from Eastern Europe, kefir generally takes precedence over yogurt in terms of bacterial firepower, as it contains around three to four times as many probiotics (around 40 million animals per half a cup). Because the live cultures of kefir break down some of the lactose found in milk, some people who are lactose intolerant can consume it without stomach discomfort. While kefir is sometimes sold in tubs with a yogurt-like consistency, it’s mostly available in supermarkets as an effervescent drink. Enjoy it by the glass, pour it on your granola, whisk it with pancake batter instead of buttermilk, or make it a powerful addition to post-workout protein shakes. Try thick yogurt-style kefir in dips and salad dressings. Ideally, opting for plain kefir (and yogurt!) Should avoid the avalanche of sugary calories that are added to flavored versions.
A staple in Japanese cuisine, this fermented paste is made by combining cooked soybeans with rice or barley, salt, and koji (a starter enzyme that breaks down proteins). Traditionally, the mixture is then left to ferment for six months to three years. Miso comes in three varieties: white, yellow and red. White and yellow miso have a milder taste, and just one touch can crank the umami in salad dressings, mashed potatoes, broth soups and dips. Red miso that benefits from a longer fermentation process has a more robust and salty taste. So try it in heartier dishes like stews or as a topping for roasted root vegetables. To keep the probiotics more active when making soups with miso, remove a small amount of the warm liquid and whip in the miso. You can put the miso back into the pan at the end of the cooking process. Also, buy miso that is unpasteurized for the biggest bang for your buck.
From food trucks to restaurants run by rock star chefs, Kimchee is ubiquitous these days. Kimchee is made by fermenting vegetables (mostly Napa cabbage) with a fiery garlic and chilli seasoning mixture that ranges from mild to “be gracious”. A 2013 study in the journal Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism found that nosing regularly on Kimchee can help shorten the waistline and improve blood sugar control. Because of its growing popularity, chefs and home cooks are now making kimchee with everything from Brussels sprouts to cucumbers to beets. The salty, sweet, sour and spicy preparation is a powerful addition to tacos, scrambled eggs, burgers, braised vegetables, grilled cheese, pizza, stews, stir-fries, soups and rice dishes. Previously only available in Korean markets, today Kimchee can be bought in many health food stores and even in some larger supermarkets.
Think of it as a western version of Kimchee. Cabbage, soaked in salty salt solution for several days, slowly ferments with the help of bacteria like Lactobacillus to the crispy, sour spice we know as sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is often the first DIY fermentation project home fermenters do, as it requires very little skill and equipment other than a large jar, salt, and a lovely head of cabbage. Sauerkraut is great as a stand-alone side dish and can also instantly spice up sandwiches, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, tacos, enchiladas, scrambled eggs, grain salad, burgers and almost anything that is prepared with pork. When buying sauerkraut in stores or farmers markets, be sure to only select brands that have not been pasteurized, as the heating process used in some private labels (which allows it to be sold without refrigeration) devastates the beneficial bacteria.
Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, it might be time to toss a pack of meaty tempeh into your shopping cart. In contrast to tofu, which is made from unfermented soy milk, tempeh is a patty from Indonesia that is made on the basis of fermented soybeans. In addition to the amount of probiotics, tempeh also has higher levels of protein, vitamin B-12, and fiber than tofu. Its taste can be described as smoky, nutty, and earthy in a mushroom-like way. Tempeh platters can be marinated and grilled like steak or chicken. Also try crumbling it and adding it to chili, stir-fries, tacos, soups, casseroles, or pasta sauce. Unlike other fermented foods, tempeh should be cooked to remove unwanted microorganisms.
Although this fermented tea-based drink has been consumed in areas of China for more than 2,000 years, it has only recently become a trendy healing elixir among the Hollywood and Yogi clans. Kombucha is made by combining tea with a mother appetizer and a vibrant colony of bacteria and yeast. The tea is then fermented for a week or more. The shorter the fermentation time, the sweeter the drink will be. Longer fermentation times will result in a drink made from lipped vinegar with a higher alcohol content. Some swear that drinking small amounts during the day can improve energy levels and digestion. Kombucha can make an interesting marinade or brine for meat – or try it in salad dressings. When kombucha is bottled, it is often heavily sweetened by manufacturers to make it tastier. So compare brands and look for brands with the least amount of added sweetener.