Creating a Healthy Gut with Probiotics and Prebiotic Foods

Probiotics and prebiotics have continued to be hot health buzzwords over the last couple of years. And why shouldn’t they be? Research is continually emerging, and they both provide numerous health benefits when it comes to gut health. It can be challenging to sift through information on the internet when a vast number of sites are simply trying to sell you a supplement, without providing information on getting pro and prebiotics through their natural source – food!

What are probiotics and prebiotics?

Probiotics are live and active bacteria living in our digestive system. While bacteria historically have received a damaging reputation, it’s essential to realize that not all bacteria is harmful! Scientists have discovered we need bacteria to survive. And when it comes to the gut, we need a lot of it – up to 4 pounds per person!

Our good bacteria is our best friend when it comes to many functions in our gut. They protect us against pathogens, synthesize vitamins, digest foods, and keep our immune system healthy. The bacteria we think of as bad can coexist nicely with the good bacteria. It’s when there is an imbalance, called dysbiosis, in which problems arise. Dysbiosis is associated with irritable bowel disorder, inflammatory skin diseases, autoimmune arthritis, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and atherosclerosis.

Prebiotics are complex plant-based sugars. They act as food for our probiotics, nourishing, and promoting the growth of probiotics in the gastrointestinal tract. Prebiotics work to help protect the digestive system.

Probiotic and Prebiotic Foods

Many foods that are considered probiotics are fermented. But it’s essential to recognize that not all fermented foods are probiotics, and not all probiotics are fermented foods. For instance, bread, beer, wine, and distilled alcoholic beverages are made by fermentation, but the live bacteria are removed by filters or heat. To be considered a probiotic, the bacteria must be alive!

Probiotic foods work to increase the beneficial gut bacteria, which helps with digestion, immune function, and alleviation of gastrointestinal intolerances. Probiotics can are in foods like cultured dairy products such as yogurt kefir, miso, and tempeh. They are also found in fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, olives, pickles, and kimchi. One thing to note is fermented vegetables are only probiotics if they are fermented in salt, not vinegar. Look for the words “naturally fermented” on the label and bubbles in the liquid when you open the jar. Probiotics will typically be in the refrigerated section of the grocery store.

Most prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber, although only soluble fiber is a prebiotic. Soluble fiber is “soluble” in water and forms a gel-like substance in your digestive tract, which cannot digest without the help of probiotics, which work to break it down.

You can find prebiotics in foods such as onions, garlic, bananas, asparagus, leeks, avocado, honey, dandelion greens, and legumes. Some people have a hard time digesting prebiotic foods. If you’re not currently consuming any prebiotics in your diet, it’s best to start in small and allow the gut to adapt. It also can help to cook prebiotics if you continue to have issues.

What about supplements?
It’s always best to get your pro and prebiotics from food versus taking a supplement. They are often sold separately or are combined in the same product and called a symbiotic. The issue with supplements is that researchers still don’t know exactly what makes a good pro or prebiotic supplement. Everyone’s gut bacteria is as unique as a fingerprint. This makes it difficult to know what strains of bacteria are best, the correct dosage, and who is best suited to take a supplement.

The Food and Drug Administration also does not regulate supplements, and there’s no generic equivalence, so one product, even if it contains the same species, cannot be considered the same. It’s been found that supplement ranges of bacteria in each serving range from 100 million to 1.8 trillion! Also, the quality doesn’t go through the rigorous process that the foods we eat go through, so you may not know what you’re getting.

There is always a chance of not getting what is listed on the label as far as microorganisms and other quality issues. While there is still a lack of research on probiotic supplements, they are considered generally safe. Always talk with your doctor before taking any supplements.

Got Something Other Than Milk?

Years ago, it may have been difficult to find milk alternatives for everyday life.  Luckily today, there are many options available at the grocery store.  Milk alternatives can now be made out of cereals, legumes, vegetables, seeds, and nuts.   There is bound to be an option you enjoy!

Drinking cow milk for calcium and bone health is a standard message heard all the time.  But going plant-based and giving up cow milk doesn’t mean you’re putting your bones at risk. When fortified, plant-based kinds of milk will contain just as much and often more calcium and vitamin D than cow’s milk.  

Let’s break-down the different types of plant-based milk available and what’s unique about each of them. 

  • Soy milk: Probably the most popular kind of plant-based milk.  It’s made by soaking, crushing, cooking, and straining soybeans.  Soy is a complete protein and contains as much protein as a cup of cow’s milk (8g).  
  • Almond Milk: Made from ground almonds highly diluted with water.  This creates a milk that is lower in calories, but also very low in protein.  
  • Cashew Milk: A creamier alternative to almond milk, cashew milk is made by blending water-soaked cashews with water.  Like almond milk, the protein content is low.  
  • Flax Milk: Made by combining cold-pressed flax oil with water, thickeners, and emulsifiers.  Low in calories and protein.
  • Rice Milk: The most hypoallergenic of plant-based kinds of milk, it’s made from boiled brown rice and brown, rich starch, and has a thin consistency.  It’s often manufactured with added sugars, so watch the label with this one! 
  • Oat Milk: Made from oats and water.   The flavor is generally mild and slightly sweet with a consistency similar to 1% or skim cow’s milk.   
  • Coconut Milk: Actual coconut milk is not meant for drinking, but the coconut milk you see in the milk section of the grocery store is diluted coconut milk with water.  It naturally contains iron and fiber but is low in protein.
  • Hemp Milk: Made from the hulled seeds of the industrial hemp plant.  The flavor can be described as earthy.  It contains about 2-3g of protein per serving, along with calcium.  
  • Pea Milk: The newest plant-based milk, pea milk, is made from yellow field peas.  The peas are milled into flour, and the protein is separated from the fiber and starch.   Lastly, the protein is purified and blended with water and other ingredients.   It contains at least 7g of protein per serving and the taste and consistency is similar to cow’s milk.   

When choosing a plant-based milk, always check the nutrition label to ensure that it contains nutrients like calcium and vitamin D.   Watched for added sugar and choose unsweetened versions.  

What Makes Green Vegetables Green & Why are they Great for Blood & Bone Health?

Ever hear the saying that you should eat a rainbow of vegetables?  That’s because each different color of vegetables contains a different set of vitamins and minerals.  

Let’s take a look at green vegetables…. 

First off….where do they get their green color

You may remember the word chlorophyll from elementary science class when learning about photosynthesis, the process in which plants absorb energy from the sun. 

Leafy green vegetables like lettuce, spinach, collard greens, and broccoli get their spectacular green color from chlorophyll.  The pigment, chlorophyll, is present in all green vegetables. The crazy thing…. when put in acid, the pigment converts from chlorophyll to pheophytin.  When this happens, the green color changes to olive green.  Ever notice how canned green beans have more of an olive-green color than fresh green beans?  This is because the canned green beans turn color because the acids are released but unable to escape. 

On the other end of the spectrum, try cooking a green vegetable like broccoli in water and add a little baking soda.  The water turns more alkaline, the opposite of acidic.  Your broccoli will then have a bright green color.  

What about vitamins?

Leafy green vegetables are a terrific source of many vitamins, but let’s focus on vitamin K.  One of the few vitamins the body can make on its own in the large intestine, vitamin K is imperative to help with blood clotting and bones.  Even though your body can make some vitamin K, you still need to consume vitamin K in the diet for optimal health.  

When babies are born, their stores of vitamin K are inadequate until the bacteria in the gut can produce vitamin K on its own, and the baby can obtain the vitamin from feedings.  It’s so crucial that the United States, shortly after birth in the hospital, newborns typically receive a vitamin K injection.  This is to prevent hemorrhagic disease, a bleeding problem that can occur in a baby during the first few days of life.

Whenever you get a cut, notice how at first it bleeds a lot, and then it slows down.  Part of clotting process is thanks to the help of vitamin K. The blood clot slows and stops the bleeding, so you do not lose too much blood.  

Vitamin D and calcium are frequently touted about when it comes to bone health, but vitamin K is also an essential vitamin when it comes to bones.   Studies have found that vitamin K can not only increase bone mineral density in osteoporotic people but can help reduce fracture rates.    Not consuming enough vitamin K can increase the risk of osteoporosis and decrease bone strength.  

One thing to ALWAYS pay attention to when it comes to Vitamin K is that it does interact with certain medications.  If you’re taking an anticoagulant, such as Warfarin, you need to work with a dietitian or physician on ensuring that you’re consuming the same amount of vitamin K every day.  The physician will typically adjust your vitamin K dosage based on the foods you consume.  

Looking to get more vitamin K in your diet? Focus mostly on leafy greens, but other great sources include soybeans, carrot juice, pumpkin, bluberries, and olive oil.  

Can Massage and Diet Reduce Infertility Associated with Endometriosis by Reducing Oxidative Stress?

It’s estimated 6-10% of women of child-bearing age in the United States suffer from a condition called endometriosis.  While many women are asymptomatic and do not realize they have the disease until they attempt to become pregnant, for others, it can be debilitating on daily activities.   

Hormone therapy, pain relievers, and surgery are the most common treatments. However,  many other evidenced-based therapies exist that are often overlooked such as a low-inflammatory diet and massage therapy.  Particularly for women trying to conceive, taking oral contraceptives isn’t an option and dealing with the pelvic pain can be unbearable. 

How does endometriosis occur? 

The inner lining of the uterus, the endometrium, normally thickens and renews itself every month during the menstrual cycle.  If conception does not take place, the lining is shed during menstruation. With endometriosis, the endometrium grows outside of the uterus in areas such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes, GI tract, or bladder walls.  This can cause symptoms such as pelvic inflammation, dysmenorrhea (painful periods), scarring, and infertility.  

While the exact cause is unknown, it has been attributed to retrograde menstruation. This occurs when menstrual blood flows back through the fallopian tubes and into the pelvic cavity instead of outside of the body.  

There is a scientific correlation between the condition and oxidative stress.  Studies have found that women with endometriosis have higher levels of oxidative stress markers than women without the disease.  

What is oxidative stress?  

You may be familiar with the term, as oxidative stress is most well-known in its role in cancer and aging.  

It is essentially the imbalance between the natural production of free radicals and the body’s antioxidant defense mechanism.   Free radicals are essentially atoms in our body with one unpaired electron.  The unpaired electrons are continually trying to find a match.  So they take other electrons from other atoms, such as our cells. When a free radical pairs up with our healthy cells, it causes havoc.   With endometriosis the damage is done in the peritoneal environment, affecting the follicular fluid and ovaries.  This could be an explanation of why infertility often occurs with endometriosis. 

The Good News – Antioxidants! 

Our bodies do not give up very easily.   We have several defense mechanisms to stop the oxidative damage.  Antioxidants are molecules that will inhibit the oxidation of the atoms in our bodies that we don’t want to be oxidized.  Antioxidants are produced by the body and also found in healthy foods – especially fruits and vegetables.   While taking supplements can be beneficial if you have been diagnosed with a deficiency in a particular vitamin, they can be detrimental if taken in excess.  The best source of antioxidants is eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables.  

The Connection! 

With higher levels of oxidative stress,  those diagnosed with endometriosis should focus on reducing inflammation to minimize oxidative stress.  

How? Reduce Inflammation through an Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Massage Therapy 

An anti-inflammatory diet focuses on foods that reduce inflammation such as olive oil, leafy greens, fruits, nuts, and fatty fish.   It cuts foods that cause inflammation such as fried foods, soda’s, refined carbohydrates, and processed meats.   Check out the anti-inflammatory food pyramid.  

Massage therapy is well-known to reduce inflammation.  Numerous scientific studies have been conducted, and it’s widely accepted that it is an inexpensive treatment method for reducing the pain associated with endometriosis.   One study (The effects of massage therapy on dysmenorrhea caused by endometriosis)looked at 18 patients with endometriosis and found that pelvic pain significantly decreased in response to massage therapy before and close to menstruation and ovulation. 

Another concluded massage therapy reduces uterine spasm and cervix adhesion.  The same study found that massage on various points of the abdominal and pelvic soft tissues not only reduced pelvic pain but also increased fertility.  

If you’re looking for evidenced based methods to combat the symptoms of endometriosis, try combining a low-inflammatory diet with regular massage visits! 

5 Winter Workouts That Will Make You Look Forward to Winter!

When darkness comes early, the bitter cold and grey skies can wreak havoc on your motivation to exercise during the winter months.

We can all agree that it’s way easier to stay in bed or on the couch in a comfy sweatshirt and sweatpants, rather than changing into lightweight workout gear to exercise.

However, the cold months are a great opportunity to embark on the journey of trying new workouts or embracing exercise through other methods and making the most of the cold!

Here’s a list of the best way to burn calories during the winter:

1. Shoveling Snow

Some consider inches of snow as a hassle, but I see it as an opportunity to work some muscles that don’t typically get attention.

Harvard’s Medical School estimates you can burn 223 calories per 30 minutes of snow shoveling.  If your own driveway/sidewalk doesn’t take 30 minutes, consider shoveling a neighbor’s driveway or sidewalk – bonus points with your neighbors!

In addition to being a great cardio workout, depending on the intensity that you’re working, shoveling also works muscles in the legs, back, shoulders and arms.

And the heavier the snow, the better the workout!

2. Sledding

A favorite childhood past-time, sledding is a HUGE calorie burner. You can burn approximately 480 calories per hour sledding – and an hour goes fast when you’re having so much fun!

While hills are easy going down, walking up to the top is going to do wonders for your legs and butt.  Plus, the cardio effects are tremendous.

Visit your local Walmart, invest in a cheap sled or toboggan and go kill those hills.  No children required, but if you have them or can borrow a few,  you will make a kid’s day while getting your workout in.

Bonus calories for pulling a child up the hill!

3. Take a Peaceful Winter Wonderland Walk

Ever notice how quiet it is outside during the winter months? Especially after 8 PM when people are done with work or after work activities and are curled up inside.  While you may prefer a warm and sunny walk, a winter walk can actually be quite peaceful.

The tranquilness of darkness, merged with the brightness of the moon reflecting off the snow is a fantastic time to burn some calories walking, while reflecting on the day.

Grab those snow boots, bundle up and enjoy the peace and quiet of the outdoors this time of year.

Plus, you’re burning more calories walking in the winter vs walking outside in the summer.  This is due to the extra weight of clothing and the energy needed to warm the body up.

4. Ice Skating

For a large part of my adult life, I was intimidated by ice-skating.  As a slightly uncoordinated person, I drove past my local outdoor rink,  jealous of all the skaters having a blast.

But once I embarked on the ice, after a couple times around the rink, holding the edges, it was easy!  And I was sore – especially my core and legs.  So I knew it was a great workout.

This calorie burner can burn around 400 calories per hour!

Plus,  ice skating can be made into a social event or go on your own!

5. Try a New Fitness Class

Winter is the absolute best time to get out and try new fitness classes at your local gym or studio.

Many of us will admit that when it gets dark at 5 PM,  finding projects around the home or going out to a social gathering is pretty much not going to happen.

What better way to spend the dark nights than to get out and try a new fitness class.  Especially when you may have just been watching TV on the couch, burning next to zero calories anyways! 

New classes are popping up every day, so go out and try something new, like a Barre, Yoga, Cardio, Chisel, or a HIIT class.

With new year’s resolutions, classes will likely be busy with many new people, so the intimidation factor is low.  Plus, you’ll probably make a few new friends!

So make this the winter that you keep up your fitness motivation.  Don’t let the cold or snow ruin your plans! 

Get out and embrace winter with a new activity….starting today!

Running Out of Steam Running? Try Checking Your Ferritin Levels

Nothing is more frustrating as a runner than suddenly becoming “slow” !  Especially after tons of training, building up speed and endurance.

While there are many health and environmental factors that may be attributed,  one commonly overlooked reason is low ferritin levels.

What is ferritin? Basically the body’s storage tank of iron, like the gasoline in a car.

One study found that iron depletion was present in 28% of female runners!

Why? As a runner, the pounding impact of the feet hitting the ground with such a powerful force causes an abnormal breakdown of red blood cells. This often contributes to the loss of iron.

While iron-deficiency anemia is one of the most common deficiencies in females, it is far more common to be iron-deficient without having anemia.  Many physicians will typically run tests checking 2 levels of iron in the blood –  hemoglobin and hematocrit levels.  They will often not check ferritin.

Often cases, in non-professional athletes, the hemoglobin and hematocrit levels are totally normal.  But without the testing of ferritin, you may not know the whole picture.  Ferritin storage levels are extremely important and can be causing an array of symptoms if low.

Back to the car example, low ferritin is like running your car on fumes; while it may still run, it’s slow and eventually, the car will not be able to run anymore, unless it’s gas is restored.

Having low ferritin is like constantly running on fumes! 

Ferritin lab value ranges are quite large.   The values can range from 20 – 500 ng/mm for men and 20-200 ng/mm for women.  Tests may show a range considered normal, but teetering on the low end will not help with speed and endurance.

What should you do if your lab values show low ferritin levels?  Consult with a physician.  The physician most likely will recommend an iron supplement.

Take note –  do not take a supplement without knowing your ferritin levels because the kidneys cannot excrete excess iron in the urine.  Iron overload can be toxic to the body!

The moral of the story is get your ferritin levels tested if your running is causing you to run out of steam quickly!

Is Oatmeal Really the Healthiest Breakfast Option?

Walking through the grocery store, staring at food labels and trying to make healthy choices can be an overwhelming experience, especially when the packaging is screaming at with claims such as “all-natural”, “low-fat”, “gluten-free” and other persuasive terms.  Many claims on the front of food packages are approved by the FDA and follow strict guidelines. For example, a food item labeled, “low-sodium” constitutes the item must contain < 140 mg of sodium.  However, other claims such as “natural” or “pure” really are just marketing terms and have no legal definition.   Basically, any food manufacture could throw those on the package.

One common FDA approved claim is the health claim in which food manufacturers can label foods that have scientifically established benefits for disease prevention.

Oatmeal is plastered with health claims such as this:

With the high fiber content in oatmeal, it has highly been deemed a health food.  One cup of oatmeal typically contains about 170 calories, 30 grams of carbs, 6 grams of protein, 4 grams of fat and 4 grams of fiber.   With the daily recommendation for fiber of 25 grams, eating a cup of oatmeal gets you 16% there.

And while there is no arguing that oatmeal is good for you, is it better than 2 eggs a day?  You never see loads of heart-healthy health claims on eggs!

A recent study compared the effects of consuming two eggs per day for breakfast vs heart-healthy oatmeal to compare the biomarkers of cardiovascular disease risk and satiety measures.  In the study, 50 participants were randomly selected to consume either two eggs or one packet of oatmeal for breakfast for four weeks.  After the study, blood samples were collected.

The study found that participants consuming 2 eggs for breakfast:

·       Felt more satisfied prior to eating dinner

·       Had an increase of LDL and HDL cholesterol.  HDL is considered good cholesterol and LDL is bad cholesterol (aka artery blocking). However, looking at the LDL/HDL ratio, the good canceled out the bad.

·       Had lower plasma ghrelin concentrations.  Ghrelin is an appetite stimulant, meaning the more that is produced in the body, the hungrier one is.

While eggs are often not labeled with the “heart healthy” marketing claim that oatmeal often contains, it may be a healthier alternative for breakfast.

Looking to get the fiber benefits from oatmeal with your eggs?  That’s easy, just add vegetables such as:

·       Onions

·       Spinach

·       Broccoli

·       Peppers

·       Mushrooms

·       Tomatoes

And a sliced avocado on top is the icing on the eggs!

Too Much Iodine Killing Your Thyroid?

Dry skin, weight gain, depression, constipation, tiredness, and forgetfulness are symptoms that may have several underlying causes, but for many these symptoms are due to the body’s cells not receiving enough thyroid hormone because of a condition called hypothyroidism.

Many internet blogs and posts in the United States promote ways to heal they thyroid with iodine-rich foods such as seaweed, eggs, and seafood because of the correlation between iodine and the thyroid.  While these are all very healthy foods, iodine is most prevalent in something many of us consume too much-of….fortified table salt!

The question becomes, are Americans deficient enough in iodine to need to eat compensate by eating iodine-rich foods? Probably not and while Goiter, an abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland, is most commonly caused by iodine deficiency and was a prevalent condition in the U.S. up until the 1920’s, it is rarely seen today in developed parts of the world.

The bigger issue becomes the fact that studies have found high iodine intake is frequently associated with Autoimmune thyroiditis, the most common cause of hypothyroidism.  A recent study conducted in a southern Italian village, compared 1411 people from 1995 to 1148 in 2010, following the introduction of the salt iodization program.  The prevalence of hypothyroidism was found to be higher in 2010 vs. 1995 at 5.0 % vs. 2.8%, respectively.  That’s almost double!

So, are there any foods that will “heal the thyroid”?  Science is conflicted and not much research has been conducted, but below two healthy options to consider that won’t have negative consequences on health.

  • Brazilian nuts – with the thyroid containing more of the mineral Selenium per gram of tissue than any other organ, Brazilian nuts contain over 100% of the daily recommended value.  According to the National Institute of Health, Selenium is vital for reproduction, thyroid hormone metabolism, DNA synthesis, and protection from oxidative damage and DNA.
  • Vitamin D supplement – while a correlation between hypothyroidism and vitamin D deficiency has been found, scientists have not found a conclusion on whether hypothyroidism causes vitamin D deficiency or vitamin D deficiency causes hypothyroidism.  However, with so many people deficient in Vitamin D, taking a supplement is of minimal cost with low side effects.

Another idea is limiting intake of table salt and getting iodine from healthy sources which are seaweed, eggs, and seafood rather than relying on the fortified table salt.  It’s all about balance!

And are there any foods that are detrimental to the thyroid?  While this may sound comical, studies have found that consuming more than 2.2lbs per day for several months of Russian/Siberian kale of the species B. Napus, some collards, and Brussel sprouts was found to have a negative effect on the thyroid. And while these foods are super healthy, it’s almost laughable to think of someone consuming what would be the equivalent of over 11 cups of Brussel sprouts every day for months!  Talk about a cleanse!