THE FIRST TIME I paid attention to probiotics was during a class on making kimchi. I took the class because I really like kimchi. I left thinking it was time to eat more fermented foods to boost my immune system and the good bacteria in my gut.
It took me another year to get cracking. I’m terrible at remembering to take supplements, so I experimented with food. Sauerkraut on eggs or with bacon is delicious, helps me eat vegetables for breakfast and is gentler than spicy kimchi first thing in the morning.
The jarred sauerkraut got expensive fast, so I started making my own. I’ve got my homemade-sauerkraut system down, and now I always have some in the fridge.
Adding probiotic foods and/or supplements to your diet is the first thing Birgitte Antonsen tells her clients to do. Antonsen, a certified healing foods specialist who teaches a fermented-and-cultured-foods class at PCC Cooks, said much of the American diet of refined and processed foods depletes rather than replenishes gut bacteria.
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When your gut bacteria are healthy, it’s more difficult for pathogens and viruses to establish themselves. The bacteria also break down the food we eat.
“You can improve immune function,” she said. “That’s a great place to start.”
The gut is often called the second brain. Probiotics are known to keep harmful bacteria in check, aid digestion and help your body absorb nutrients. They also can help with gastrointestinal problems and delay the development of allergies in kids, according to Harvard Medical School.
More research is being devoted to our gut’s microbiome, including mapping it. Antibiotics are also part of the problem, both the ones we take that kill our gut bacteria and the ones fed to animals we eat, Antonsen said.
One of the key signs that your gut may be out of balance is irregular bowel movements, such as constipation or diarrhea. Other potential signs include eczema, food sensitivities and chronic ear infections. The list goes on.
“We’re so afraid of bacteria that we don’t have any, and that’s exactly what protects us,” Antonsen said.
I was very proud of my sauerkraut-eating ways until Antonsen kindly recommended eating a variety of probiotic foods so you get various strains into your body. Eat sauerkraut and kimchi — buy the refrigerated kind if you’re not making your own — and also kefir and kombucha. Remember, nonrefrigerated jars of sauerkraut on the shelves have been pasteurized, which kills the good bacteria. Also, don’t cook your probiotic food if you want the full probiotic benefits.
If you take probiotic supplements, get one with as many strains of bacteria as you can, and switch kinds every time you finish a bottle, she said.
If you don’t have any probiotics in your diet, Antonsen recommends easing in. If you bring in too much all at once, you can experience a die-off of bad bacteria with bloating and gas. Start with a teaspoon of sauerkraut at every meal.
She has seen big changes with clients, although it’s also due to an overall shift in their diet. She encourages clients to move toward as much organic food as they can afford. If you like dairy, get organic or cultured dairy. Cut down on portions of meat; go with organic and grass-fed whenever possible. Eat more vegetables.
The first time I left my sauerkraut to ferment on the counter, I had to remind myself it was OK to sit there. I poked at it every day, wondered what it was supposed to smell like and kept tasting it.
After multiple batches, I don’t worry much. It’s so easy to prep I can have a batch fermenting in 15 minutes. Whenever I go crazy on foods that are rough on my stomach, like bread or cheese, I make sure to eat sauerkraut the next day.
Apparently, I could still do more. Kefir, here I come.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.