Well, it’s been a couple weeks since I updated, mainly due to a nasty bout with a kidney infection. Luckily for all of you, my experience made me realize that I should talk about how to replenish your healthy gut flora after it’s been decimated by antibiotics!
Don’t get me wrong–I’m happy that I live in a time where I have quick and easy access to antibiotics when I really, really need them. After all, penicillin was one of the most important discoveries in the history of humankind, and became a modern-day miracle elixir. (Although penicillin is now much less effective than it was in 1928.)
A kidney infection isn’t something to mess with, and refusing to take antibiotics quickly can cause permanent kidney damage. And hey, I like my kidneys. They do lots of important things for me, like control my blood pressure, make red blood cells and keep my bones strong, and remove waste and fluid that I don’t need. So yeah, I’d like to keep them.
But after two weeks of antibiotics, I was feeling the effects. For whatever reason — regular physical activity, daily coffee, a vegan diet high in fiber — I am fairly, ahem, regular. But all that went right down the proverbial toilet.
Antibiotics are just what they sound like: prescribed killers of the biological agents known as bacteria. And while I had to get rid of the bad bacteria in my kidneys, taking them meant that I killed the good gut flora in my digestive tract, too.
There’s some fascinating work being done on why a healthy gut flora balance is so crucial to health. It’s said that beneficial bacteria make up three pounds of our total body weight, so you know they’ve got to be important! A healthy microbiome:
- Ferments (breaks down) undigested carbohydrates, forming short chain fatty acids that can be used as an energy source
- Protects against leaky gut syndrome, a widely misunderstood condition in modern-day medicine
- Synthesizes vitamins B and K
- Protects the body from disease-causing bacteria such as Salmonella
- Strengthens the immune system
But how and why gut flora is important still largely remains a mystery to researchers. Some scientists have speculated that being born without a healthy gut flora store, or not maintaining a balanced microbiome throughout life, might cause autism spectrum disorders, obesity, allergies and asthma, and even Parkinson’s disease. The research is so important that Michael Pollan himself wrote an op-ed detailing the his voluntary biomapping of his own gut flora, a piece that went viral via the NY Times this year.
Few of the scientists I interviewed had much doubt that the Western diet was altering our gut microbiome in troubling ways. Some…are concerned about the antimicrobials we’re ingesting with our meals; others with the sterility of processed food. Most agreed that the lack of fiber in the Western diet was deleterious to the microbiome, and still others voiced concerns about the additives in processed foods, few of which have ever been studied for their specific effects on the microbiota.
— “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs”
Some hospitals have started to jump on board the beneficial bacteria bandwagon. During my internship at OHSU, I learned that dietitians at OHSU and several other hospitals in the area will automatically order kefir or Nancy’s Yogurt for a patient who is taking antibiotics, as a way to replenish their healthy bacteria. As a dietitian, that’s pretty fascinating to me!
But what about replenishing gut flora by way of vegan foods? Don’t worry, kefir isn’t the only solution for a bare digestive tract. In fact, there are lots of ways to help your gut grow back some of its little helpers.
1. Eat fiber. Any kind. All kinds. Soluble fiber (fresh fruits and veggies, legumes, seeds, oatmeal, psyllium, flax, etc.) will be fermented by bacteria in the colon and synthesized into vitamin K and some B vitamins, and short chain fatty acids. The SCFA will nourish the walls of the colon and may prevent colon cancer, ulcerative colitis, and diverticular disease. Fiber can also decrease triglycerides and cholesterol.
Soluble fiber is what’s known as a prebiotic — the stuff that nourishes the probiotics, or the healthy bacteria. Some prebiotic foods include onions, garlic, tomatoes, asparagus, whole wheat, and bananas.
2. Enjoy fermented foods. Tempeh, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, miso soup, and kombucha and Kevita are fantastic alternatives to dairy probiotics. Even wine and beer have some probiotics in them (but I would recommend a hearty tempeh stir-fry in addition!). Try namu shoyu, a Japanese soy sauce, drizzled over tempeh and broccoli.
Watch out for fermented foods with vinegar: oftentimes, the vinegar ends up killing the good bacteria. Lacto-fermented products are a better choice.
3. If you’re really worried, try a supplement. GoodBelly, Garden of Life, and RawGreen Organics are just a few of the vegan options I found. However, these supplements tend to be pricey, as most supplements are. A balanced diet with the aforementioned foods should do the trick.
Be aware: the strain of bacteria known as lactobacillus is vegan in and of itself, but is often grown using a dairy food source. Knowing this, I would choose a supplement that does not list lactobacillus in its probiotic arsenal.
Here in Portland, lots of people try their hand at fermenting their own kombucha and pickling vegetables. It’s really not that hard, and making your own food is quite empowering! There are lots of references out there for trying your hand at fermenting foods and beverages safely and effectively. Try this guide!
If you already enjoy a balanced microbiome but are considering having a baby, listen up: as it pertains to healthy gut flora, researchers have found that breastfeeding will promote a more diverse bacterial landscape compared to formula-fed babies. These bacteria work to protect your baby against toxins and other intruders that might cause illness such as colic. These bacteria can influence your baby’s immune system for life, and might mean the difference between allergies, asthma, and other auto-immune conditions.
I hope this brief overview was helpful. I know I’ll be trying my hand at fermenting more of my own foods, especially now that fall is rolling in. I mean, who doesn’t love miso soup on a rainy day? Feel free to comment on this post with questions or comments! And remember to keep growing that garden of gut flora 🙂