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How to be kinder to your gut (and why you should care)

Plus a great list of probiotics (that aren't pills) to add to your food.

by: Sarah Graham | 04 Apr 2018
 glasses of kefir

images: iStock

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If you didn’t already know, the stomach is the epicentre of good health for our bodies. It’s the ‘control room’ where our food is processed and where nutrients are extracted and sent out to our bodies, and if that environment is healthy, we’re more likely to extract the maximum goodness from the food that we eat. One of the best ways to support and boost optimal gut health is by eating fermented probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut and kefir. WHAT? Read on, it’s fascinating. 

Here are a few signs that you might have an unhealthy gut
You could have an unhealthy gut if you have any abnormal bowel function (bloating, gas, cramping, constipation, etc.), or if you have had to take antibiotics in the last few months. They wreak havoc on our digestive systems, killing both good and bad bacteria, and antibiotics found in meat and dairy products that we consume on an almost daily basis can also have similar effects. Blood sugar issues and compromised immune systems can also often be directly linked to an unhealthy gut. 

If you think that you might have strong allergic reactions or sensitivities to food, it’s worth consulting a health professional and considering thorough tests and possibly a carefully managed elimination diet, which under careful consultation can work amazingly well at eliminating toxins and re-setting your gut. You can then build potentially inflammatory foods (e.g. wheat, red meat, dairy and sugar) slowly back into your diet and see the effect that they have on your system, and you’ll know what agrees with you and what doesn’t. 

And in the meantime, here are a few favourite ways to boost your gut biome and make it as happy as possible…

Bone broths and stocks
Broths and stocks are back! They’ve had a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. The long, slow cooking releases amazing levels of protein, gelatine and essential minerals, all with significant health-boosting benefits. Also, they require very little effort, just quiet bubbling away on the stove, and they make delicious and nutritious bases for soups, stews, curries and so much more. 
Make basic Bone Broth by roasting the bones until golden and almost caramelised, then simmering on the stovetop along with basic stock vegetables, some fresh herbs, and water. A simple stock is easier to make, just add bones and stock vegetables, and herbs if you like, to a large pot of water and simmer gently for 1–2 hours. Strain the broth or stock, then store the liquid in the fridge for up to five days or freeze in portions to use as and when needed.

Soaking and sprouting
Essentially, the original grain, seed or legume that you sprout from has extra nutrients locked inside it in its raw ‘sleeping form’ – sprouting is like breathing life into it and opening a window to extra goodness. What that actually means, is that phytic acid is neutralised and taken out of the equation. Why is that important? Phytic acid can reduce our bodies’ ability to digest and absorb nutrients, so removing it means that the goodness is then more easily absorbable. Yay! Also, eating sprouted food is alkalising for our bodies and releases extra vitamins and nutrients. The most popular options for sprouting are lentils, beans, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, buckwheat, quinoa, and even almonds. 

Let’s ferment!
Yes, I’m sure that I say sauerkraut and I see some of you involuntarily shudder at the thought of sour, fermented cabbage. But hang in there, we’re on to a very good thing. And it’s not a new thing. The art of fermenting foods for its many health benefits has been practised around the world for generations. German sauerkraut is possibly most commonly known in the Western world, but Korean kimchi is just as delicious. It’s not a global phenomenon for nothing; it’s endlessly good for your gut. 

Why is it good for you?
Fermented foods are full of probiotics, and probiotics are responsible for boosting immunity and improving digestion. They are wonderfully clever little guys, diligently helping us to extract the goodness from our food. And when it comes to optimal nutrition and holistic health, you’d rather have a strong healthy army on your side, right?

What are the options?
These are my favourite sources of probiotic-packed fermented foods, all widely available in most health food stores, so there’s no excuse for you not to try them soon. 

Apple cider vinegar – This is has a brilliant alkalising effect on your digestive system, and promotes enhanced digestive function. 
Add a tablespoon to a large water bottle and sip throughout the day. Preferably buy organic.

Sauerkraut – If you buy store-bought sauerkraut, make sure that it’s as close to its natural state as possible, and free of preservatives, vinegar or added sugars. 

Kimchi – An Eastern-style of sauerkraut with zingy additions such as ginger and chilli. I haven’t included a recipe, but you can find it quite easily in health shops. 

Kefir – Kind of like a homemade yoghurt, originally from parts of Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia. It tastes a little bit sour, but if you mix in a little honey, nuts and other goodies it’s delicious. You can also add it to smoothies for your kids and they won’t even know it’s there. In a nutshell, kefir is packed full of probiotics and nutrients, is amazing for digestion and good gut health, and a whole slew of other plusses. I’ve seen it for sale in health food shops (avoid any with added sugars), but it’s also really easy to make at home.

Also, because of the fermentation process in kefir, there’s very little lactose left in the final product, which means that even lactose-intolerant people can often tolerate it. If you’re on a totally dairy-free diet though, there are some dairy-free alternatives, just do a little research.

Kombucha – I love kombucha! It tastes a little like cider and is basically a form of fermented green tea. It can also be found at most health shops. 

Sourdough – Sourdough bread is beautiful, wise bread made with fermented grains that take days to coax to glory. Because of the fermentation process, it is also more easily tolerated by some people with milder gluten intolerances, but still, avoid if you are following a strict gluten-free eating programme. 

Alternatively, or additionally, consult your doctor or a dietician and discuss the options of good-quality probiotic supplements. 

Sarah Graham is an award-winning South African food writer and TV cook and loves to prepare simple, honest, good-for-you food. Follow Sarah’s food journey via her blogInstagram or Facebook

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