Collin Cross; Ph.D.; 4-6-2016
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are something gaining momentum in the world of health and nutrition today. Probiotics are simply bacteria of a type that can thrive in the acidic environment of the GI tract. These bacteria are commonly called “good bacteria”. Some of the most fascinating new breakthroughs in nutritional science and health today are coming from understandings gained in this area. The work is showing that we are really meant to have diverse and symbiotic cultures of these beneficial bacteria as a normal part of our digestive system, immune system, and for overall health in general.
Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction
As it turns out, these tiny but sophisticated organisms in our gut can actually communicate with us at the hormonal level. They have even been proven able to influence our thoughts and attitudes. Furthermore, they can act as tiny factories for us and help our physiology run smoothly. They also are able to interact with our bodies metabolic regulatory system and affect our hunger reflex. Practically, this means that the microbes can give us cravings, and help tell us what we need at a particular time. They can also help us to lose weight and reduce our hunger reflex by providing steady doses of required nutrients. It has been estimated that up to 60% of the hunger reflex is driven by micronutrient demand, not caloric needs. When the bacterial colonies manufacture vitamins for their own metabolic needs, we benefit by also gaining access to them.
The colonies of bugs in our stomachs are collectively called our “gut microbiome”. Recent studies have clearly shown that human beings spent most of our existence with large collections of diverse species of microbes living in our gut, helping us to survive (and vice-versa). As strange as it sounds, competition for resources between the various strains of bacterial species living in the gut has recently been shown to be a primary driver of healthy immune function. Unfortunately, the modern food supply is extremely detrimental towards such a theoretically “normal” gut biota and hence the immune function of large numbers of people are severely compromised, and they don’t even know it, they think it is normal. Hence one very large reason for the prevalence of age related non-communicable disease.
How do bacteria in our GI tract help?
How can bacteria living in our gut affect our health? Well primarily by helping to strengthen the immune system, and by helping us to efficiently digest and absorb nutrients from our diet, and by directly manufacturing significant quantities of vitamins and other vital nutrients. People generally have a misconception about what the immune system really is. The immune system has a wider and more important role towards health and aging than often realized. This is because in addition to fighting invading germs, the immune system is also responsible for repair and maintenance of all the cells in our body all the time.
Because of its diverse and very active role in our overall existence, the immune system needs healthy levels of many chemical resources to function at peak efficiency. Primarily it needs a lot of vitamins, minerals, specialized micronutrients, and cellular energy to work properly. Probiotics help to digest foods, releasing their nutrients. In return for sharing our diet, the probiotics then manufacture many various essential micronutrients and help us to absorb them. Many vitamins are produced by these symbiotes. Some examples are vitamin C, the entire vitamin B series, and nearly the entire vitamin K series.
The immune system keeps our cells healthy
While keeping us from getting the flu is an important function, the immune system is also responsible for multitudes of other ongoing cellular repair processes. For instance, plaques in clogged arteries are found bound up with immune system cells. Many specialized cells and enzymes are constantly working to try and remove this plaque and repair ongoing damage to the walls of our veins and arteries as every second ticks by. This is true for all the tissues of our body from skeleton to skin.
The body has all sorts of repair work to do via the immune system. As another example, in the category of DNA damage (which can lead to cancer), the body might repair up to 500,000 incidences of genetic damage in each cell of our body each day. That is a lot of repair work to keep our genetic information healthy. DNA damage is only one type of cellular repair activity our cells have to engage in on a daily basis.
The cells lining the insides of our gut are also placed under a heavy repair load with each meal. Keeping these cells healthy is a very high priority towards our survival and involves many complex mechanisms of molecular repair and maintenance. In fact, the lining of the gut occupies a higher status to our bodies repair-priority-ranking-system than does the lining of the veins and arteries, short of a rupture. Hence the high incidence of this number one killer of both men and women.
Starving in the midst of plenty
Whether a cell gets repaired in the gut, heart, a vein, the liver, a bone, or elsewhere, does not matter. The regulation and execution of these repair activities are largely the same throughout the body in terms of scope, purpose, and use of the immune system. The word “inflammation” is one that is gaining popularity in common media recently. This is because the markers for “inflammation”, which are generated by the body can be used as a measure for the activation of the innate immune system. Wherever these chemical processes occur, they require a lot of micro-nutrients and cellular energy. These critical ions and molecules play a major role in our bodies biochemistry and without them, we don’t work very well. As our bodies inventory of the various micro-nutrients drop below critical levels, the rate of all these repair processes starts to slow down. Conversely, if we have ample levels of micro-nutrients on hand, the faster these repair processes can go. Trust me when I say that fast and efficient cellular repair processes are a desirable thing for our body to have. At least if we value health and a slowed rate of aging!
If the body’s repair processes are too slow for too long, the body may go into a sort of low-level starvation mode. In this mode, the body rations its resources and down-regulates less critical processes to support more critical ones. This is when our health and genetic aging rates may really start to go the wrong way fast. We may never even realize the sudden decrease in our state of health (for me the late 40’s) is because we are quite literally beginning to starve in the midst of plenty. Diabetes, Cardiovascular disease and Osteoporosis are all symptoms of such long term enforced rationing efforts by the body.
Preservatives in modern foods kill probiotics!
Probiotics living in our GI system and the cells composing our body must share nutrients. The nutrients come from the food. The bacteria then help us to digest food, and to manage the flow of resources in a type of symbiotic relationship. Probiotic foods are naturally rich in all sorts of vitamins and other beneficial compounds. These are things that our body needs and so are really good for our health.
While this is great, unfortunately, due to the modern food supply, it is a battle to keep the gut filled with healthy bacteria and supporting our health. Why is this? Well because in nature, the food is not supposed to be filled with bacteria killing “preservatives” and other toxic chemicals. Preservatives may keep food on the store self longer, and make it cheaper for food companies to distribute products. Unfortunately, they also kill a vital part of our immune system, and so are very bad for our health and aging. If we are going to eat these types of microbe killing foods, we need to also eat a steady supply of probiotics to fuel our immune system and keep our gut healthy.
Home made probiotics are much better than supplement versions
There are now dozens of companies offering loads of complex probiotic products with all sorts of claims. These products can be very expensive, but unfortunately, due to compliance with federal health guidelines (ironically?) they will never contain the same diversity of bacteria as can be obtained by a simply home made and natural source of probiotics. Recall above, when I mentioned it has recently been discovered to be “competition” between bacteria in our stomachs that lead to the largest impact on our immune system? This means we need “diversity”, or simply as many species of bacteria in our gut as we can get. This is where natural probiotics excel.
One of my favorite recipes
For the rest of the article, I am going to show how to make one of my favorite probiotic recipes. It is my favorite because it is very spicy, tasty, and I like to eat it. This type is a sort of pickled pepper relish. Other types might be a brined German Sauerkraut, or Korean Kim Chi. There are hundreds of recipes. These are all examples of what we call “fermented vegetables”. We should try and eat many of them for variety. However, be aware that store bought varieties are normally pasteurized, which kills any beneficial microbes. This is why we make our own! Fermented basically means colonized and partially digested by acid producing bacteria. The bacteria naturally live on the surface of the vegetables and will thrive when given brine water to live in.
Specifically, our guts have learned to cooperate with the types of bacteria that live in acidic and briny environments. This is because our stomachs are themselves very acidic and briny. This is why we use brined fermented vegetables to make our probiotics. These conditions allow only the good types of bacteria to grow and proliferate. This means that making high potency and world class probiotics is cheap, easy, fun and tasty. I can generally make a 3 to 4 month supply in less than a 1/2 hour preparation and a trip to the grocery store for fresh veggies. So here we go…my favorite recipe for a pickled pepper relish!
- Obtain vegetables. More peppers equals more heat. (Figure 1)
- Weigh salt. High quality sea salts are best. Make sure the salt is non iodized. Iodine will kill the bacteria! Mixture equals variety. Anywhere from 4.5-5.2% salt by weight is best. A small dietary scale is necessary because different salts have different densities so tablespoons don’t work well. 9.5 grams of salt into 1 quart of water is approximately 1.0 % by weight. So to make a 4.8% brine solution (my favorite) , we would need 4.8 * 9.5 = 47.5 grams of salt in one quart of water. In this particular batch, I am using closer to 1.5 quarts of water and a proportionally larger amount of salt. (Figure 2)
- Mix brine and let completely dissolve at room temp. (Figure 3)
- Chop vegetables to the consistency and size you like.
- Mix in spices. I use only a pinch of minced garlic (not much needed) and fairly liberal chili powder (Figure 4)
- Pack jars. It is important that no vegetables float to the top and poke above the water line. This can cause the growth of fungus. As long as everything is below the brine level, only good bacteria can grow. To help this, I take one or more pieces of an onion and place over the top of the chopped vegetables. This acts as a sort of cap. I then place a smooth clean river stone on top of the onion section to hold the veggies down. Recently I have moved up to a nice German fermenting crock. I will use it next time. (Figures 5, 6, 7)
- Fill with brine. Make sure to leave at least 1/2 inch of air gap above the liquid. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) will build during the ferment and raise the pressure. The CO2 build up will form anaerobic conditions, ideal for fermentation. This air gap will prevent the jar from exploding as long as you vent it each night. You can try to leave the lids a little loose to prevent pressure, but make sure to place them onto a platter because the jars may leak juice due to the bubbles. (Figure 8)
- Place in a dark cabinet. Vent each night to release CO2. 5-9 days is my best time. Less time is not sour enough, and more time leaves the texture less crispy. Some like months of fermentation. More time equals better flavor blends, but less crispness. Each can find their own favorite fermenting time.
- Vent each night. You can taste each night to experience the lactic acid and flavor blend develop. Really don’t forget to vent, or you can have a big mess!
- When the fermentation is complete, place in refrigerator to quench the process.
- Enjoy small servings several times per week. Fermented foods are powerful and in addition to beneficial nutrients, also contain stimulating vitamins like K2-MK7 and the B series, as well as mild toxins like histamines. Large servings can cause insomnia and anxiety. Just one small serving each day or less is enough! You can magnify the beneficial processes by eating the live vegetables with a starchy prebiotic food like an apple or potato to feed the microbes you inoculate into your gut. A batch like the one shown above will last us several months. I like them with eggs, by themselves, with olives, and with salads. I also make a milder variety of carrot based pepper relish for others in my family.