Sure, you can wash your hands and get a flu shot, but your diet can play a big role in preventing colds and the flu this winter.
Want to stay healthier this winter? While flu shots and frequent hand washing are key strategies for warding off cold and flu viruses, there’s another set of tools that you should add to your toolbox — foods that support a healthy gut.
About 80 percent of your body’s immune cells live in your gut or intestine. The population of bacteria and other microbes — roughly 100 trillion — that make up your gut microbiota play a big role in the strength of your immune system. A healthy, diverse gut microbiota makes it difficult for illness-causing bacteria and viruses to take hold. A weak, sparsely populated microbiota with a shortage of “good” bacteria can leave you open to both minor illnesses — like colds and the flu — and more serious health conditions.
Improving your gut microbiota
Your microbiota is as individual as you are, shaped from birth by your environment and the food you eat, which means you can influence it for better or for worse. Foods to include for a healthier gut and immune system — and maybe a better mood — include probiotics or prebiotics.
Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain actual live beneficial bacteria. They can help maintain the delicate balance between your gut microbiota and your immune system. Probiotic bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli are added to milk to make yogurt, kefir and cheese. Probiotic bacteria are also found in fermented nondairy foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented vegetables, as well as kombucha tea, miso and tempeh.
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Prebiotics are foods containing fiber that the good bacteria in your gut like to eat. If your good microbes don’t have enough to eat, they’ll eat the mucus layer lining the inside of your intestine, which could lead to leaky gut and other health problems. A plant-based diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, along with beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds, will give your friendly microbes plenty to eat. These foods have the added benefit of being anti-inflammatory. To contrast, a diet high in sugar, refined grains (like white flour), saturated fat, fried foods and alcohol can cause a chronic state of inflammation in your gut and the rest of your body.
Shopping for your gut
With so many gut-friendly foods to choose from, it’s easy to include one or more in your daily diet to help keep your microbiota happy. Yogurt or kefir slip easily into breakfast, and fermented vegetables make a tasty side for lunch or dinner. There are several brands of sauerkrauts and other fermented vegetables available at farmers markets and in the refrigerated sections of most Seattle-area grocery stores, including local favorite Firefly Kitchens. The refrigerated part is key, because any shelf-stable products will have been heat-treated, killing off the probiotic bacteria. Always look for a “live and active cultures” on the label — if all you see is “made with active cultures,” the bacteria may not be active anymore.
Not a fan of fermented vegetables? You may have been scarred by the experience of eating mushy, canned sauerkraut. “We started canning for the wrong reasons,” said Kathryn Lukas, founder of California-based Farmhouse Culture, a line of probiotic foods available at many Seattle-area stores, including Whole Foods, Metropolitan Market, New Seasons and Central Co-Op. While canning made transporting and distributing foods more convenient, Lukas points out that fresh sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables are an entirely different experience — while still having a long refrigerated shelf life.
I met Lukas at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ recent Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Chicago, and was intrigued by how she started experimenting with making krauts and kimchis over a decade ago, inspired by her time as a chef in Germany and her studies of traditional foods. At first, she approached fermented foods from a culinary perspective, only later that appreciating their health benefits. She said her attitude was, “They’re healthy, whatever, but they taste really, really good.”
If working in a serving of fermented veggies every day feels like a longshot, you could consider a Gut Shot. Each 1 ½-ounce serving of Gut Shot probiotic beverage contains at least 10 billion probiotic bacteria. (Yes, that’s billion with a “B.”) You can take your Gut Shots neat, or use them as an ingredient in salad dressings and smoothies. Lukas recommends combining the ginger-beet Gut Shot — my favorite — with tahini, sesame oil and a bit of cider vinegar and use it as a dressing. Or try her sister’s lemonade recipe: mix the juice of six or seven lemons with two or three shots of “classic” Gut Shot, along with water and stevia to taste in a half-gallon container. The acidity of the gut shot, along with the slight amount of salt it contains, enhances the lemon flavor.
I’ve long been a fan of kombucha (fermented tea) as a healthful, probiotic-rich weekday mocktail (it just feels a little more special than sparkling water). While you can find kombucha pretty much everywhere in Seattle, bottled and on tap, newer on the scene in this country is kvass, a fermented beverage that has Eastern European origins. Classic kvass is made from fermented bread, but Lukas makes kvass-style carbonated beverages, called Gut Punch, out of the brine of fermented vegetables, adding “gorgeous, organic flavors” to make healthful sodas with flavors like cola, cherry cacao, mango guava and ginger lemon. Each is sweetened with stevia and erythritol and contains at least 4 billion probiotic bacteria per bottle, some naturally occurring from the fermentation process, others added before bottling.
Or, what about a tortilla-style chip made from … sauerkraut? Farmhouse Culture’s Kraut Krisps, which are made of 52% sauerkraut, have a pronounced but not overwhelming kraut flavor, and a texture that is stunningly similar to a traditional tortilla chip. In case you’re wondering, those probiotic bacteria don’t survive the chip making process — they’re added after. The dill flavor is delightful, using white vinegar powder and real dill. Other flavors include sea salt and white cheddar.