HEALTH NEWS from Louis Vanrenen
I have promised this newsletter for a year. I present insights and facts from the leading edge of medical science as well as the perennial wisdom of Asian healing practices. I apologize for the length: future articles might only be on my web site.
As many of you know, I have been researching the value of good bacteria in the body. Some very interesting facts have emerged in the past few years.
Bacteria, only visible to a powerful microscope, are single celled organisms–with a nucleus and DNA– that exist in humans, in fact, in all living creatures, as well as plants and soil. Only a tiny number are harmful. The past 20 years medical science has discovered some incredible facts about the vital importance of our friendly bacteria. Some of this information is only just beginning to be recognized by doctors and the public.
The good bacteria in the body are also called intestinal flora, or the microbiome. Microbiome refers to the invisible world within our bodies, specifically the beneficial bacteria which number in the billions, the majority in the intestines. An amazing fact: We have many more good bacteria than human cells; they have been a part of us for millions of years, assisting us in good health. Of course, we have all heard of the bad bacteria, which have gotten most of the press in last decades, but these are a tiny amount compared to the good. In fact, the good ones help us fight the harmful bacteria!
We need the digestion to work well. We convert food to nutrients that feed the body; just like our cars, we need fuel to live. Good bacteria help to break down this food, and they block dangerous organisms that can cause disease like Salmonella (often a cause of food poisoning.) Without the good bacteria the vital process of digestion would not work well. The good bacteria like us to be happy and healthy, and they too need good nutrition, which is the role of the probiotic diet, fermented and fiber foods.
Antibiotics are given to kill harmful bacteria, but too many antibiotics ( anti-life) damage the good bacteria, creating havoc in the intestines, with multiple possible side-effects. Of course, antibiotics are sometimes necessary, but very often over prescribed, even for the flu which is caused by viruses. Other common medications may also damage our intestinal flora; the good bacteria can replenish but this can take weeks. They will not flourish under a prolonged antibiotic regime! Digestive problems, allergies, bloating, gas, acid reflux can all be caused or made worse by intestinal flora depletion. Even obesity, so common in America today, is made worse by these bacterial imbalances.
The good bacteria are extremely skillful: They are like tiny factories that even make us vitamins and other beneficial chemicals. They also keep our intestinal walls healthy, and decrease inflammation, an important fact in maintaining good health. As we all know, inflammation is a background of many diseases: disease often flourishes in an acid, inflammatory environment.
Many of us have seen L. acidophilus on the label of yogurts; this is one of the many species in healthy probiotic foods. All the kinds of healthy bacteria perform different functions, but most important helping the efficiency of digestion and assisting the immune system. Amazingly enough, they help the immune system destroy harmful toxins–which enter the body through food or air– in a carefully executed chemical warfare. If these examples are not enough, they also support the healthy absorption of nutrients, minerals like calcium, magnesium, and iron.
To recap, good bacteria assist our vitality, add nutrients, aid in the conversion of food to energy, and help the body fight invisible enemies! These are important for all people, including elders and babies!
A huge problem in the elderly today, and perhaps contributing to dementia, is a lack of good bacteria in the diet of many elderly people. There is a known connection between the gut and the brain, and disturbances in the gut can most definitely deplete the health of elderly people. Nursing babies will absorb nutrients and good bacteria from the mother, as long as the mother is eating well and absorbs a range of probiotic/fiber foods. Probiotic, as we know, means for life.
I generally do not recommend taking probiotic pills, a big industry in America today, as these are of varying qualities, and probiotic foods are absorbed better. Probiotic pills are acceptable for some people, but learn and enjoy probiotic foods, also called fermented foods.
Everyone knows yogurt, but a mixture of probiotic foods is best.
1) Yoghurt. Purchase real yoghurt, not the candy yoghurt flavored with sugar! I am also not a fan of no fat yoghurt. Our little friends do not approve either. As in all fermented foods, yoghurt creates its delicious flavor from bacteria! It sounds unpleasant to some people but try living without fermented foods! Or without fermentation in the body! You would not live long.
2) Miso from Japan. Miso, made from soy beans and rice, can be used in fish or meat sauces, but most commonly made into the famous Japanese soup. Japanese women have less cancer than their American counterparts.
2) Kefir, which is like liquid yogurt. Kefir, plain or fruit flavored, is delicious. Kefir, which has more probiotics than yoghurt, can be purchased at any health food store and supermarket.
3) Pickles. Some supermarket pickles are not probiotic because they are pickled with too much vinegar. The pickles made with sea salt are the best, but obviously you do not want to eat too many pickles because of the high salt content.
4) Tempeh is an Asian food made from soy beans. It is an excellent source of probiotics and protein, and I have been enjoying tempeh for years. It is often sautéed with olive oil and ginger, or garlic, and a little soy sauce(also fermented!) and pepper, but there are many recipes.
5) Good news: certain kinds of aged cheese like cheddar, provolone, and gouda are probiotic, one reason why the French are a healthy people. The French eat a range of healthy probiotic foods.
6) Sourdough bread, an old stand-bye in many kitchens around the world.
7) Kimchee is a spicy Korean cabbage dish. Kimchee, which is eaten in small amounts–like an appetizer– is delicious, and contains 3 super nutrients: spices, probiotics and cabbage.
8) Sauerkraut, made in the old-fashioned way, is a healthy probiotic food. Like pickles, some supermarket sauerkraut is not “real” or even healthy– additives, too much salt, or vinegar.
9) Olives cured in brine. I have always liked olives but wondered why they are so popular in the Mediterranean. Well, I was delighted to find that cured olives are a good probiotic food. Like pickles they are salty, but a little goes a long way.
10) Kombucha is a natural green tea drink rich in probiotics and very popular nowadays, available at health food stores and supermarkets. Kombucha comes in different flavors and brands. I enjoy, and drink one cup 2-3 times a week.
Of course, one does not need to use all these foods, but, like I said, a mixture of probiotic foods covers all the bases. I would also add that moderate use of red wine is good for the digestion and the intestines. So many habits in the French diet contribute to vitality and good digestion. Often the French will drink an aperitif before eating or a glass of red wine with dinner. Well, this might sound like a joke but the bacteria love a little alcohol, and they enjoy drinks with digestive herbs (very popular in the old days and still found in health food stores and in after dinner drinks).
To sum up, people with a varied plant-based diet rich in probiotics and fiber have fewer colds and flus, less digestive complaints, and better health in general, including better heart health. Less cancer and bowel diseases are also a consequence of this sensible approach that is as old as the hills and as dusty. Asian health systems have been following this nutritional path for thousands of years. Probiotics, incredibly en0ough, are also good for the brain!
Probiotics are better absorbed if we also eat prebiotic foods, rich in fiber to assist the movement of digestion: like whole wheat bread, seeds, yams, brown rice, apples, lentils/ beans, carrots, and oatmeal. Fiber foods are very important for efficient digestion.
Many Americans (still!) eat too much white flour products, white rice, and pastries, foods with minimal fiber, which impede digestion and have minimal “fuel” value. Most Americans, the past fifty years, have eaten too little probiotic foods, and have depleted their intestinal flora. Scientists now say that rural Africans and Indians living in the Amazon have a healthier probiotic profile than your typical American.
Prior to nineteen sixty, America had far less obesity, allergies, bowel disorders, diabetes, autism, acid reflux and autoimmune diseases. They also used far less antibiotics. In the sixties America began to switch to a diet low in probiotics and fiber, high in cooked fats and sugar, and less in plant-based foods.
There is good reason to say that the “mysterious ” autoimmune diseases–which can be pretty devastating–are related to disturbances of the good bacteria. There are at least 10 kinds of healthy bacteria families, each with a slightly different function in the body, and each with millions of individuals in their “little” tribe. Some of these protect the inner lining of the intestines where food is absorbed into the body. When this lining is inflamed or thinned, toxins from food escape back into the body (called leaky gut syndrome). Toxins that should be released by the body are “recycled” back into the body, creating an aggressive immune response. The body attacks itself! The healthy bacteria–which want us to be healthy– provide protection from this often undiagnosed and common leaky gut syndrome.
Another amazing fact. There are nerve cells, thousands of them, in our gut, making it the third brain–after the heart and head brain. In the linings of our intestines (all 32 feet) are good bacteria as well as neurons and healthy brain chemicals. Over ninety percent of the serotonin, a major modulating brain chemical, is actually in our gut–an astounding fact. In Asian medicine, the area around the belly button is considered the core of our stamina and digestive power, also our strongest place of grounding. Many practices in movement and meditation are directed towards enlivening this vital region.
Some medical scientists are now excited about what is called the brain–gut axis. The brain can influence the gut brain and vice versa. We have all heard of gut feeling; well, it is not just a saying. Anxiety and anger can disturb the gut, and digestion, as most of us know. The gut can also influence our feelings and moods which is why a disturbed gut is implicated in some kinds of depression, “cloudy” thinking, and obesity. A healthy gut will not only improve digestion, moods and vigor, but also act as a core for the physical body. In the Asian medicine, weak will, lack of boldness and poor stamina, most often are a result of a weak core, around the belly button. In Japan they call it a weak hara (core). Japanese martial artists, businessmen, artists, and healers are well aware of the discipline of strengthening the center. A weak center is tragically evident in many obese people, many who also have a depleted microbiome.
Scientists are now examining the role that good bacteria might have in preventing some kinds of cancer. It is fair to say that good bacteria (and fiber) prevent bowel cancers, as well as a host of common bowel diseases (like IBS). A good and healthy gut is also a standard for mental emotional health: depression and other mood disorders have a variety of causes, but the fact is that depleted good bacteria only makes matters worse.
Our digestion and gut, and general health, are also assisted by an affirmative life style with friends, exercise, curiosity, and laughter. Scientists have also determined that good sleep is just plain good, but interestingly enough also good for our friendly bacteria! They like to rest too! Exercise, even a moderate one-half hour a day, can benefit the heart muscle, circulation and the “3” brains. When we are thinking affirmative thoughts and feeling good, scientists have shown our head, heart and gut brain respond well. The mind body connection is not just a “nice” idea, it is now founded in science as well as common sense. We are not only what we eat, we are what we feel and think, and what we give to others and life.
NOTE: much of this information came from the Harvard Medical School newsletter, and several books written by research scientists including the Mind-Gut by research doctor E. Mayer.
Future article: THE HEART. New research has proven that the heart muscle is more than a pump for circulation of blood. The heart contains neurons (brain cells) and hormonal glands, and is profoundly influenced by emotional distress, and when healthy has a real and positive role on thinking and feeling–and general health. In Oriental medicine we call the heart the king of the body. Improper foods, negative emotions, and high stress most definitely have a negative impact our “king”
or “queen.” Modern medical science is now confirming what the Asians have known for 3000 years.