beneficial bacteria

How to feed your inner garden

I love the analogy of our guts being like the soil in a garden. For plants to be strong, robust and vibrant in colour, the soil needs to contain the perfect balance of nutrients and micro-organisms. The connection between our guts and skin is very similar. For skin to be radiant, strong and healthy, our guts need to be fed with nutrient-rich foods and also foster the growth of good bacteria.

More and more studies show the link between gut inflammation and skin inflammation, and that people with balanced microbiota have fewer skin issues plus a better fatty acid profile in their skin, which means it’s more moisturised, plump and radiant.

Research is ongoing but scientists believe cultivating better gut flora is also the key to robust immunity, more energy, healthier digestion, detoxification, weight loss, longevity, better brain function and the production of the happy hormone: serotonin.

Good gut flora can be reduced by ingesting antibiotics or antibiotic residues in foods, eating too much sugar, stress and alcohol. This can lead to a proliferation of bad bacteria or an unbalanced microbiome, linked to many health conditions including obesity, digestive complaints, skin problems, depression, anxiety and even cancer.

Raw fermented cabbage is a rich source of vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes and probiotics.

Too much bad bacteria can even damage the integrity of the intestinal wall (causing a condition known as “leaky gut”), allowing toxins to pass directly into the bloodstream where they trigger an inflammatory response around the body and often on the skin.

So how do we get more beneficial bacteria in our guts? It’s time to tap into the probiotic healing powers of the gut-loving lactobacilli in lacto-fermented foods, which are rich in nutrients and also naturally carry better microbial diversity than just the one or two strains found in a commercially bought probiotic.

Lacto-fermenting vegetables is a wonderful biological process that creates broad-spectrum probiotics, increases the nutritional value of the veg and helps you better digest the other foods you eat with them. And they enable you to absorb more nutrients from your meal and repopulate your gut with healthy flora.

This is especially important from a Beauty perspective because poor digestion means your skin may not be getting the nutrients it needs to repair itself, maintain good elasticity and produce collagen.

To help get you get your daily dose of lactobacilli, here’s an A–Z guide to fermented foods, drinks and condiments to try. Think of them as the fertiliser for your inner garden and try to mix them up to help diversify the beneficial bacteria in your gut.

  • Apple-cider vinegar. Raw ACV enables better digestion, encourages the growth of friendly gut bacteria and is high in minerals and potassium. Look for the unpasteurised kind with the cloudy “mother” floating in the bottle.
  • Coconut yoghurt or kefir. Coconut yoghurt is a dairy-free way to get digestive enzymes and probiotics. Plus, it’s simple to make at home using the flesh of a young coconut and probiotic capsules. You can make coconut kefir using kefir grains and coconut water.
  • Cultured dairy products. Buttermilk, cultured butter, some soft cheeses (such as cottage cheese), sour cream and kefir all contain probiotics plus natural enzymes, vitamins, minerals, protein and calcium.
  • Dark chocolate. While not technically a probiotic, researchers have found that when you consume dark chocolate good microbes eat it and then ferment it, producing anti-inflammatory compounds that benefit your gut and heart health.
  • Kefir. A fermented, slightly tangy drink with a thin yoghurt-like consistency. It can be made from dairy milk or coconut water using live kefir grains that grow in liquid.
  • Kimchi. Sauerkraut’s spicy Korean cousin is also made from fermented cabbage and is believed to help lower blood pressure, improve immunity, boost metabolism and protect against cancer. Be wary of kimchi made with excess salt and sugar.
  • Koji. A fragrant, umami-flavoured Japanese paste made from rice that has been inoculated with the koji mould. Use it as a marinade, toss through steamed vegetables or whisk through a salad dressing.
  • Kombucha. A fizzy, probiotic tea brewed from a rubbery clump of bacteria called a SCOBY (symbioticcolony of bacteria and yeast), it has been drunk in China for thousands of years. Rich in inflammation-fighting B vitamins, vitamin C, digestive enzymes and probiotics. Plus you get the benefits of the antioxidants in the tea. Just avoid brews with too much sugar.
  • Kvass. A traditional Eastern European fermented drink brewed from beetroots or stale bread.
  • Miso. Made from fermented soybeans or grains and rich in nourishing minerals such as potassium. Choose raw, unpasteurised miso and stir it into hot (not boiling) water. Or add to a homemade salad dressing. Or blend with grassfed butter to use on fish, chicken, steak or even steamed vegies. Also use in place of stock.
  • Natto. Another Japanese staple made from fermented soybeans but it’s not for every palate as it has a pungent smell and taste.
  • Pickles. Lacto-fermented pickles can be made from everything from carrots and radishes to watermelon. Simply press into a sterile, airtight jar with salt or whey and wait for the sugars and juice to ferment. Add some herbs and let your imagination run wild.
  • Prebiotics. Many fibrous plants contain an insoluble fibre known as inulin, which ferments in the colon and feeds your good gut flora. Eating prebiotics and probiotics together builds better gut health than just eating one without the other.
  • Rejuvelac. This cloudy, non-alcoholic fermented liquid made from sprouted grains is less common but also rich in live enzymes and beneficial bacteria. It can be drunk on its own or used as a starter culture for other fermented foods.
  • Sauerkraut. Raw fermented cabbage is a rich source of vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes and probiotics. Look for the raw, lacto-fermented (not-pasteurised) kind that is refrigerated.
  • Switchel. A traditional drink brewed from water, apple-cider vinegar and a sweetener such as maple syrup, molasses or brown sugar.
  • Tempeh. Made from fermented soybeans, tempeh is a complete protein with all the amino acids. It’s also rich in B vitamins and great in stir-fries or on vegie burgers.
  • Yoghurt. Avoid the flavoured yoghurts or those with added sugar. If you can tolerate it, go for natural, unflavoured cow, goat or sheep yoghurt. Otherwise, try soy or coconut yoghurt.

Carla Oates

Carla Oates

Carla Oates is the CEO of The Beauty Chef, a natural beauty expert and the author of Feeding Your Skin and The Beauty Chef Cookbook.

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