This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Wellness Magazine.
A patient told me the other day that she just couldn’t eat the things she used to and stay healthy, but that was okay. It was worth it to feel good. I offered another perspective. The way she used to eat was simply abuse. I commended her for no longer mistreating herself and her body commends her with good health.
I tell every patient that diet is the foundation of health. One reason is that 70% of our immune system is in our gastrointestinal tract, or gut. From the time we are born, our immune system is “trained” to distinguish friend from foe by the food we eat, healthy bacteria we call normal flora, as well as parasites, viruses and bacteria we think of as pathogenic.
The normal flora is an amazing part of our immune system. Dr. Jeffrey Bland, a nutritional biochemist, calls the flora a bioreactor, capable of converting molecules in food to substances that are hard to get any other way. For instance, soy is converted by the flora into equol. Equol inactivates dihydrotestosterone, a hormone which stimulates prostate growth and can lead to prostate cancer. However, one study showed that only 30 – 50% of the participants had the intestinal bacteria to make equol. Hops, a grain used to make beer, are converted by the flora to make the strongest plant estrogen known, 8-PN. In one study, only one-third of participants were able to make 8-PN. 8-PN shows promise in preventing estrogen stimulated cancers. These people aren’t genetically gifted. They just have healthy gut flora.
The gut flora is established during the first two years of life. Patrick Hanaway, MD, a researcher in the area of digestion, immunology and wellness, says that vaccines, antiseptic birth conditions, psychological stress, antibiotics, and even antimicrobial herbs challenge the formation and maintenance of healthy flora. In the US, lack of breast feeding and introduction of solid food sooner than our gut is able to tolerate from an evolutionary perspective creates imbalances that weaken the immunity of most children.
The introduction of commonly allergenic foods like wheat, soy and cow’s milk products are particularly problematic. Processed foods, particularly sugary and salty foods are as well. He finds naturally fermented foods critical tools for restoring balance.
Many of us think of yoghurt as a good way to restore gut flora. However it is thought to feed the existing bacteria, not introduce new ones. Plus most yoghurt today contains little healthy bacteria due to commercial processing methods.
Better options are kombucha and kefir. Kombucha is a fermented drink made from a Japanese mushroom. Kefir is traditionally made from goat milk. When it is made from fruit it is called water-kefir. Both kombucha and kefir are commercially available in health food stores or can be made at home. Kombucha mushrooms and kefir starter kits are available on the web.