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Dan Pardi – Full Interview

 

I’m Dan Pardi. I do sleep research, and I am also very interested in the question of how do we be healthy and all the different ways that we can understand what that looks like and how to implement it in our lives right now. I think there’s a lot of theories about what makes us healthy and live long, and I think it’s always important to look at the examples of the world where that’s actually a reality and whether or not we want to implement what they do in these different zones prescriptively is another question, but I think understanding those populations as well as possible is a really smart thing to have at our disposal. It’s such a good question, and I don’t really have the answer in my mind, at least in terms of I like the idea of have strong opinions and hold them loosely, but can we just reproduce what they’re doing and expect the same result? We live in a very different world. I think what we can do now is we can test and see how we feel, and that sometimes can be misleading and sometimes it can be really informative. We’re trying to read the tea leaves, and it’s understanding what’s known in the world, understanding ourselves better, understanding ourselves now and then having things that we want to test and try to see does this meaningfully augment my day-by-day experience? Do I feel better? Do I think better? I think having a very tight relationship with how you think and perform is one of the smartest things we can do.

We are products of our environment in so many ways, and the world in modern life is different than it’s ever been in all of human history. Not only that. If you’re born this year, life is different than it was 10 years ago, and that trajectory is not going to change. It’s going to accelerate. We’re born into a world that is really different than what our biology expects. We have the ability to live at all different parts of the world within a lifetime. We have modern forces that are shaping what we do and what we should be aspiring and driving towards, and so a lot of people aren’t thinking necessarily about their health every day as much as people that are more geeked on the subject, and so they are really subject to the pressures of their job, pressures of their family and then ways that we can manipulate interests and behavior to use an app a lot, to spend less time with people and more time inside, to seek conveniences so in the limited amount of time we have, we get more personal time. There’s a lot of things that shape how we live, and we definitely need ways to take charge of that so that how we are living is not entirely affected by those pressures, those modern pressures and forces. There are many organizations, companies, VCs investing in technologies, the point of which is to entirely take control of how the person is living. We’re going to tell you what to eat, when, when to go to sleep. That I think is the misappropriation of potentially useful technology. Technology is better when it helps us become more in touch with ourselves, not less in touch. I don’t think that we need something that always is telling us this is how you live right now. I do understand that there are probably use cases where that might be useful. It can get people better, but I think we should… We have this relationship with ourselves. We should aim to understand ourselves better in the world. What is health? It’s proper biological functioning. That’s how I think of it, a good general description. What the World Health Organization says health is the ability to withstand insults and challenges and maintain homeostasis or an internal balance, but I think probably one of the most important aspects of health is their second aspect of their definition, which is health as an attribute to helping you realize your aspirations and to live a high-quality life.

We know that delayed discounting is something where if you don’t eat this cheeseburger now, then how much health benefit will you get in the future? That tends to be intangible, and it’s not a very powerful motivator. While most people are… recognize that they don’t want a chronic disease, we don’t do anything healthy usually so that you prevent peripheral arterial disease, right? You do it because of culture, and it feels good, and you do have a recognition that it’s good for the body. I think one of the best ways to implement health in your life, to be healthy, to do those things that are hard or at least different than what everybody else is doing is to focus on performance. Am I thinking well? Am I going to perform well in my life, in my social relationships, in the things that I care about. My performing well at a meeting tomorrow in a presentation. I think if you can harness that understanding and potential, then it can really fuel your ability to do the right things or things you want to do to be healthy. It is a tighter feedback loop and that we know from a behavioral perspective that that really does matter. On one hand, technology can completely distract us from our health. It can lead us astray. You could spend all your time engaged in theoretical health behaviors of testing and diagnosis and reading without a lot of doing. I have this saying that knowledge itself does not immunize you from living a healthy lifestyle. Right. You could have theoretically be the most knowledgeable professor on a certain topic, and they are not protected by their knowledge if they don’t implement that into their lives. Conversely, you could have this teenager that has a very natural lifestyle, is out waking up early and surfing and eats good food with their family and has low social stress in a good community. They might not know any of the theory or benefits of why the things that they’re doing are good, and they’re going to get all the benefits from it. I do think that knowledge matters because in our world, again, as we were talking about earlier, our behaviors are often shaped by what’s convenient and what is everybody else doing, so knowledge on something can help us make choices that are different than what everybody else is doing around you. I think that to a degree, having fluency around certain subjects can help, and I think technology can facilitate that. I also think having more knowledge about yourself can potentially be useful, but it can also potentially lead you down some rabbit holes that aren’t that helpful.

Right now, we see that with things like Fitbit. You see reports that some people are trying to do it for weight loss, and it actually made them gain more weight. There is again potential for these things to be useful, but you have to understand how to use them, that it’s not a silver bullet. It’s a part of more of a whole ecology of health behaviors that we need to engage with ,and if it is again reinforcing a lifestyle pattern, that itself is good, then I think technology can help us live more naturally. When it helps us live more like a technocrat and disconnected from our natural behaviors, then I think we get into trouble. For a long time, I’ve been compelled by the idea of ancestral patterns of living, and I think that some people put all of the answers into trying to replicate and understand what do hunters, gathers, modern day or ancestral estimates tell us about how much potassium we should be getting, what’s our movement patterns like. I think is another valuable, informative source, so we combined ancestral understanding; we combined modern-day science; and we combined an understanding of behavioral science and then technology to facilitate all that. I think we have a nice ecosystem in the realities of modern life to help us say, “Okay, I’m going to try to live more naturally, and what does that mean? It means that you’re not over-indexing one behavior, you’re not trying to say, “All of my health efforts are going to go toward exercising more.” It’s a linear… The more I exercise, the healthier I get. But rather that there’s a lot of different factors. There’s sleep; there’s food; there’s stress both dealing with handling psychological stress and also seeking out stressors so that we have different exposures. Exposure to the sun, exposure to cold and hot. Those are all stressors, but those actually will facilitate our important biochemical signals that are a part of our health. We sometimes think that we’re perfectly healthy as these free-standing units, and the reality is that our health is in relation to the environment around us, so the exposures and how we live. That means that we probably instead of trying to just run more miles per week, that we want to just get more of a variety of exposure types. I think that ancestral patterns can provide a nice template to say there’s a heuristic, like what do they do? How can that guide me in the type of behavior now? A good example would be do I want to just get up in the morning, run a couple of miles, and then sit at my desk all day in a low-lit room at a computer? Probably not.

On the other hand, do I want to get some morning light exposure? Do I want to be up and have different types of movement throughout the day, so more low-intensity exposure, more high intensity? Do I want to also rest and nap?That can all be informed by thinking, “How do our ancestors live?” Then using that as a guide to try to help us do better across more of those domains. I think that that’s some really informative heuristics. Yeah, so if you look at equatorial regions, the band of temperature that they experienced across a year was somewhere between maybe 50 degrees to 90 and then sometimes beyond that, depending on where you live. That is actually a relatively narrow band for what a lot of people are exposed to, but we have a way to use institutionalized shielding, so we control our environments when we’re inside a room. We control our environments when we’re outside by putting on multiple layers of clothes. That all adds to more comfort, less stress. What happens though is then the body becomes less comfortable in different heat ranges. We have a harder time controlling with heat, although you can have air conditioning when it’s really hot, but it’s a lot easier to manage cold. Now why is that potentially important? Well, if that was over millennia, the natural exposures that humans got, then there might be, there might be important signals that are derived from those types of exposures. There might be benefits to specific exposures in temperature, particularly cold and also hot, that facilitate something important in our health ecosystem of our body. For example, we do know cold exposures will trigger something called heat shock proteins and also cold shock proteins. What these do, these are chaperone proteins that will help to prevent protein aggregates. We know Alzheimer’s disease built up a protein aggregate called beta amyloid. We also know that they will add to stress resistance, so the old idea that don’t go outside when it’s cold, and you’re going to catch a cold, that’s probably true if you don’t get cold exposure often, but if you do get cold exposure often, then you’re actually building resistance. You’re building resilience.

That’s a part of our health is to build resilience, so a great example is sunshine on your skin. If you have not been getting much sunshine over the winter, and you step outside, and you want to let’s say get a tan, don’t go spend seven hours in the sun. You’re going to burn, but if you get a little bit of exposure, that stress, that hormetic stress will cause an adaptive response causing melanin to produce a dark pigment in your skin, which makes you more resistant to more sun exposure, and you build your resistance. We can do that with cold. We can do that with heat as well. We do it with exercise. Adding stressors into our life is actually an important part of our health. It is that stress that facilitates and adaptive response. That adaptive response ends up being health promoting and keeping our body functioning as we want it to. How can you add more cold to your environment and to your life, and how do you do that? Well, an easy way to do that is to take a cold shower in the morning. I think that there’s additional benefit of having a strong sympathetic response from that cold exposure, which will then help with circadian alignment, so you have better circadian rhythm alignment. If you think about what are circadian rhythms, I’ll introduce that. These are repeatable, 24-hour processes that help keep our body in rhythm. We know that there are certain times of day where we have what are called phase relationships where one hormone might be high, another one is low, and that’s going to then create almost like a lock and a key in terms of the cellular response that’s being instigated. There are different activities that the body does at different times of day that are, again, part of our health process. Yeah, so circadian rhythms are a really fundamental part to our health. Only in the last 10 or 15 years have an understanding of circadian rhythm that’s now been derived by science, has it become a part of the equation of our health. Same with gut microbiota, same with epigenetics. Before that, it was diet and exercise, right? Now we know that there’s these other things that are really fundamental that are at play, and so what circadian rhythms do is they help to look at past behavior to then try to predict a physiologic response for that time of day. That’s why we don’t want… The body doesn’t try to have you get up seven times during the night while you’re sleeping to go to the bathroom.

You feel hungry during the day. You feel like going to the bathroom during the day, and at night, there’s a whole other set of physiological activities that take place that are suited for that time of day. Now, when we have light exposure, which is the main synchronizer of circadian rhythms at times when your body usually would be getting darkness, so having artificial light at night, that’s going to tell the brain that it is daytime. It’s going to act naturally to that signal, which is then going to create an unnatural or potentially pathogenic response in the body. Another signal there is getting cold exposure early in the morning, and so you have this robust catecholamine response from epinephrine, and that is going to make you feel more alert. It’s going to help to align your circadian rhythms, so it’s going to contribute to that panoply of signals that helps your body understand this is daytime,and that’s going to keep a lot of your rhythms in line. Let me stress the importance of this. We know that people who do shift work or that have chronically misaligned circadian rhythms, they have fourfold increases in cancer rates. They have multifold increases in cardiovascular disease and risk. It is a clear indication that the body is not functioning as it should because it doesn’t understand what time it should be doing things, and so you have this misalignment that is affecting our health and our performance. We know that it impacts memory. We know it impacts cognitive functioning and physiological processes too.That’s one thing that’s talked about less is the cold exposure-induced catecholamine response, but that’s one thing that I’ve noticed that helps me have more robust alertness during the day, which then actually will facilitate deeper sleep at night. Circadian rhythms are again trying to anticipate what the needs are of the body based off of past experiences and exposures so that, for example, if you typically eat at every morning at 8 a.m., the body is going to prepare enzymes that are going to help to process that meal. If you are eating a certain type of food every single day at that time of day, those enzymes are going to be suited for breaking down that type of food at that time of day. In a recent podcast of mine, we talked about breakfast skipping, and I think if you have high variability in your meal times, that is a condition that is less favored for proper metabolic responsiveness to the meals that you take in, which could lead to poor regulation of blood glucose and could also lead to things like obesity.

That’s one indication and an example. Now does that always mean that breakfast skipping is a bad thing? Actually, I don’t know because maybe if you always skip breakfast, and your first meal is let’s say at noon, that could be favorable. There’s more research that needs to be done to understand these things more closely, but another good example is just for example how blood glucose is regulated at night. When the body releases melatonin, which it does in response to something called dim light melatonin onset, which means that the certain tone and intensity of light is coming into the eye, it’s affecting something called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, which are types of photosensitive cells in the retina that will communicate not to the primary visual cortex, but back to an area of the brain called the master clock. That master clock then is then saying okay this is the time of day that it is, therefore, initiate these programs. Again, how does the body maintain stable blood glucose levels over the course of the night? Well, one thing that dim light does it stimulates melatonin. Melatonin will directly affect pancreatic beta cells to suppress insulin release. Insulin, as we know, will store glucose, right? If you’re suppressing insulin, it’s going to actually help to keep blood glucose available in your bloodstream for longer, right? You’re going over a seven-hour fast. Now,that’s not the only thing that happens. You also see a buffering of blood glucose by a growth hormone response in response to slow-wave sleep. That will also will cause insulin insensitivity, which typically is thought of being a bad thing, but it’s actually an adaptive physiological response to maintain blood glucose. Then during the night, it changes, so as you go through your slow-wave sleep and then into more REM sleep, you see towards the end ofthe night more cortisol being released. That then helps to then produce more gluconeogenesis in the liver and also to release some glucose from your cells. Altogether, you have different mechanisms, all circadian controlled, that then help keep stable blood glucose levels while you’re fasting. That’s a really nice explanation to see how this orchestration of your physiology is all being timed so that you end up having good, stable energy levels, and you’re not waking up in the middle of the night because you’re starving or because something is alerting to you because of poor bioenergetics. That’s a nice example then.

Biomarkers are theoretically these things that we can rely upon that indicate current or future health. If you get, for example, a measurement of inflammatory marker, that can tell you that there’s something going on or that you’re healthy. A lot of the establishment of our biomarker ranges were within a context that has already shifted greatly from a more ancestral natural living condition. How much we can rely upon those markers, all ofthem, is variable. Some of them are more productive, and I think we’re going to learn a lot as we enter into the space of big data, where we’re able to collect a lot more data on a lot more people and also during what we’ll consider more natural healthy times versus just trying to predict a disease oryou may already have it.You have already had a heart attack, and so now we’re actually trying toprevent the second one, and we’re going to measure these certain markers. Do I think that we’re going to enter into a period where we’re going to be able to collect a lot of data on ourselves? People are going to be making decisions off of that data that is going to lead them down some wrong paths potentially, but through it all and through a period of sort of awkward teenage years of big data, eventually, we’re going to arrive at a place where we understand populations and subpopulations and perhaps even somethings that are uniform for all humans that are predictive and indicative ofhealth. I have higher confidence that if we manage two of those markers will indeed will be driving towards health, will help an individual get towards health. That’s I think the reality of the situation. How soon we’ll get there, I don’t know.We know that we live in a much more sterile environment than we have in the past, and children that grew up with dogs and grew up on farms, they have more diverse ecology in their microbiota. That seems to correlate with future health outcomes, positive ones. Less cardiovascular disease, less cancer. We also know that for example children that are born in the ICU, the NICU, so if they’re born prematurely, what did they use to do? They wouldkeep them under 24-hour light exposure because the nurses will want to monitor the health of the child. Well, it turns out that their circadian system doesn’t fully develop until for six months after the child is born, so they’re getting circadian cues from their environment and also from the mother.

If the mother is up late at night reading a book or gets up to feed the child late at night and turns on a light and that alters their circadian rhythm, those signals are being passed to the child and that’s having an influence on the child’s future for the rest of their lives because it’s affecting the health of the circadian development. Excuse me, it’s affecting the development of the health of the circadian system. Those are some interesting exposures, but we also know that who we’re surrounded by, life purpose, there’s a lot of things that can lead to subconscious psychological stress, whether you’re aware of it or not. One very interesting thing about people is that we will acclimate to our stressors in our lives. If things are improving, and it takes eight weeks forthem to improve, it can be meaningful but invisible. The same meaningful but invisible trajectory can happen in the other direction where you’re performing better at one point, things have gotten worse over eight weeks, and you don’t see it. You don’t really see it. We don’t have that objective feedback that’s constantly telling us. Sometimes you can. It’s not unseeable, but it’s easy to overlook, and how do we address that? I think, again, really understanding ourselves and checking in and yeah, are there some things some objective measures perhaps that you can… a battery of life health and quality of life? Those things are all I do believe in the power for objective technological measurements to inform us and help us have that ah-ha moment. Ah, thereis something here. But I think that subjectively just having that really good relationship and taking a moment for some metacognitive processes of saying stepping back and then thinking about your life, like how am I doing? How do I feel? How are my behaviors aligned with my goals for how I want to be living? All of that really matters, and so yes, I’m super excited about technology. I think that eventually it’ll help us in our own efforts, but we have a lot of power right now, and I don’t think we should be looking for one silver bullet that’s going to explain everything or waiting for the future tohave all of our problems solved. We don’t know what’s going to actually happen, and we have a lot of information right now that resides within you, but the problem with listening to yourself is that we have confirmation bias. We can see things that aren’t there, so just try to be very accurate with what you see. Hold your opinions loosely, and realize that you might be doing something right nowthat you think is good for you, and it might not be.

Be open to modifying your approach to find something better if it’s not serving you as much asyou think it is. So many aspects of our health and how we live are dependent on one another, so the food we eat will impact the sleep we get at night. The sleep we get at night will impact our desire to be physically active the next day. The physical activity types, modes, and modalities that we actually engage in will affect what we choose to eat and how we sleep, so they’re all interconnected. We think of them in silos, but the reality is is that … and that’s okay to try to understand individual contributors with better fidelity, but ultimately, they’re all interrelated, and so we have 24 hours to affect how we’re living, the exposures that we’re under, the behaviors that we engage in. That is our template, right? That’s what we have to work with, so all the knowledge that you have, all the technology needs to be coalescing in this period of a day to guide to then hopefully have you have these right types ofexposures and to including exposures to friends and including exposures tothe right microbes and foods. Now we do know that light during the day have a very important impact on light at night … or excuse me sleep at night. Part of that is hormonal signaling. Part of it the entrainment or the anchoring of our circadian rhythm. Let’s say you get eight hours of sleep,and you typically sleep from midnight to eight. That’s your usual pattern, and one night you go to bed and you go to bed at 4 a.m., and you wake up at noon. Eight hours of sleep, right? That sleep willnot be as restorative, and the reason why is because your body … sleep itself is a circadian rhythm, and your body is used to getting slow-wave sleep at acertain time and REM sleep at a certain time. Consistency of schedule ingeneral is a valuable thing. Now we also know examples where cultures will stay up way past their typical bedtime and dance late in the evening, and that’s one thing that I’ve always noticed is that dancing was a big part of ancestral communities. It was a way to bond. It was a way to be physically active, and so this concept of orthorexia is an important one, which is I do think we need to be mindful and drive the right behaviors against this backdrop of common lifestyle patterns that we know lead predictably to disease. At the same time, we have to have the ability to just embrace the opportunity to go out late one night with friends and live life in that regard as well. That’s the art of health.

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Full Interview: Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein

00:00 My name is Maya Shetreat-Klein. I’m a pediatric neurologist from New York City, and I do integrative pediatric neurology and herbal medicine, and I’m an urban farmer.

00:23 I’ve always felt really connected to plants and trees since I was a child. I think when you’re in a relationship with plants, like the plants call you when you are open and kind of willing to hear what they have to say. So, my experience with plants was kind of being drawn closer, and closer, and closer. Even through med school, and residency, and fellowship I always had this little inkling that that was something really important to me. Then I started to train in herbal medicine.

01:00 Eventually my son got sick, and at that time … basically as a parent, you’ll do anything to help your child. That was a way that the plants I think really did call me. I ended up traveling to the jungle in Ecuador to I think learn what I needed to learn both to help my son, and to heal myself, and to help my patients.

01:25 About 70% of pharmaceuticals are derived from plants, at least. And don’t be fooled, these guys are sending their scientists to the jungle, where it’s one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world to find unique compounds that are incredibly healing for humans. The trick is that plants are these very complex, living beings that really are a universe in and of themselves. They’re really as complex as we are in their own way.

02:01 So, what the pharmaceutical companies are doing is purifying one incredibly potent compound from the plant, and turning that into a drug.

02:11 The pharmaceutical companies purify one very potent component of the plant to turn into a drug, and then they produce that synthetically. But, actually plants, because they’re so complex, have a whole spectrum of compounds from very potent all the way to very weak. Then they actually have compounds that work against that potent effect of the plant. In that way, plants actually have incredibly diverse and nuanced ways of healing in our body that those drugs never really have.

02:50 So, we’re in a … we have this synchronicity with plants because our bodies have evolved with them, and our bodies recognize the compounds, and all the components of the plant.

03:03 The paradigm in indigenous cultures is so different than our paradigm. They use plants for everything. They use plants for their food, they use plants for their shelter, they use plants for their clothes and their baskets, and their jewelry and what they put on their face. Plants are totally integrated part of their world in every way. So, their paradigm is if you have that relationship with the natural world, and with plants, you won’t get disease. You’ll never get disease because you’re in this synchronicity with the natural world around you, and that’s what keeps you healthy.

 

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Why Your Gut Health Is More Important Than You Probably Think

Learn why your relationship with your gut and your gut health is more important for your health and well-being than you may realize.

By Ocean Robbins • Adapted from Ocean Robbins’ forthcoming book 31-Day Food Revolution (Grand Central Life & Style, February 5, 2019)

Deep in your gut, 40 trillion chemists are hard at work helping you digest your meals, making essential nutrients you can’t produce on your own, protecting you from disease, and even shaping which parts of your DNA manifest and which remain dormant.

These talented creatures are fungi, bacteria, and other single-celled organisms. And they are a bigger part of who you are than you have probably ever imagined!

While your body includes about 22,000 human genes, it also hosts as many as two trillion microbial genes that are technically not “you,” but rather benevolent guests working in exquisite harmony with your body. Some of these microbes flourish on your skin, but the vast majority take up residence in your digestive tract.

Study of the microbiome — the community of microorganisms living inside your body — could well be the most compelling frontier of health science.

The digestive process breaks down food and beverage particles so that your body can absorb the nutrients it wants and excrete the rest. Trillions of organisms join in the effort.

These microbes also play a critical role in shaping your appetite, allergies, metabolism, and neurological function. In fact, scientists have found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, all of which play a key role in determining your mood.

Studies suggest that your gut microbiota may factor into your risk of developing neuropsychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

In other words, the bacteria living in your gut have a huge impact on the way you feel.

Which One Are You Feeding?

There’s an often-told story, reportedly from Cherokee folklore, about a Cherokee elder who is teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy. “It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, lies, false pride, and ego.

The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, and compassion. The same fight is going on inside you — and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thinks for a minute and then asks, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee replies, “The one you feed.”

When it comes to the bacteria in your gut, every time you eat, you are feeding somebody. Unfortunately, the modern industrialized diet is all too often feeding the bad guys and, just as important, starving the good.

To put it simply, “bad” bacteria tend to feed on sugar and unhealthy fats (yes, I’m talking about you, junk food!). And the single most important nutrient that good bacteria need to thrive inside you is fiber.

When they have plenty of fiber, they can do their job — and your digestion, mental function, and even your mood reap the benefits.

It’s clear that fiber is critical to gut health. But less than 5% of Americans get the recommended 25 to 30 grams per day.

It’s estimated that our Paleolithic ancestors got an average of up to 100 grams per day. Compare that to the average Brit, who gets only 18 grams per day, and the average American, who gets even less — just 15.

Most of us are literally starving the good bacteria that would, if we only gave them the chance, be digesting our food and making the brain-boosting chemicals we need to thrive.

How to Nurture the Good Guys and Support Your Gut Health

We know that junk food, lack of fiber, glyphosate, antibiotics, and other toxins can compromise the bacteria upon which your digestion and brain health depend. Is there anything you can do about it?

Yes! There’s a lot you can do to nurture a healthy microbiome and to support a flourishing collection of beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract.

1) Don’t kill the good ones.

When you steer clear of unnecessary antibiotics, glyphosate, and environmental toxins, you help to create the conditions for microbial health. Organic food, anyone?

2) Don’t feed the bad ones.

A diverse population of health-promoting flora protects your gut from the less helpful strains. But not all flora are good for you. A diet high in sugar, unhealthy fat, and processed food can feed the very kinds of flora that will cause gas, discomfort, bloating, and chronic inflammation.

3) Feed the good ones.

Probiotics are the so-called “good” microorganisms inside your gastrointestinal tract. They aid in digestion and keep your tummy happy. Like all living things, probiotics must be fed in order to remain active and vibrant.

Prebiotics are the food that probiotics need to thrive. They’re a type of plant fiber that humans can’t digest and that take up residence inside your large intestine. The more of these prebiotics you feed to your probiotics, the more efficiently they’ll do good work inside you.

The simplest way to think of it is this: If you want to nurture good bacteria, eat lots of fiber. Whole plant foods — especially fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains — have the most.

As New York Times personal health columnist Jane Brody writes, “People interested in fostering a health-promoting array of gut microorganisms should consider shifting from a diet heavily based on meats, carbohydrates, and processed foods to one that emphasizes plants.”

If your probiotic bacteria were in charge of the menu, they’d want abundant sources of prebiotic fibers like inulin and oligofructose, as well as pectin, beta-glucans, glucomannan, cellulose, lignin, and fructooligosaccharides (FOS). If you don’t know how to pronounce these names, don’t worry. Luckily, you don’t need a degree in biochemistry to eat good food.

Some top superfoods that provide an abundance of the best microbe-fueling nutrients include gum arabic (sap from the acacia tree, often sold as the supplement acacia fiber), chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, baobab fruit, dandelion greens, garlic, leek, onion, asparagus, wheat bran, banana, jicama, apples, barley, oats, flaxseed, cocoa, burdock root, yacon root, and seaweed.

4) Eat the good ones.

The word probiotic comes from the Greek for “support of life.” The two main ways to consume probiotics are in dietary supplements and in fermented foods. Probiotics have been found to be helpful in treating irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, colitis, acne, and eczema.

But they don’t always work. A lot of people are taking probiotic supplements that are pretty much just a waste of money.

The challenge is that the vast majority of probiotic bacteria are active and effective in the lower portions of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, but to get there, they must survive the corrosive and highly acidic environment of your stomach.

When are the odds the best — on an empty stomach, or with a meal?

Researchers attempted to settle this question with a study reported in the journal Beneficial Microbes in 2011. (Yes, although it may never rival People magazine for newsstand popularity, that really is the name of a journal!)

The team built a fake digestive tract with a fake stomach and intestines, but complete with real saliva and digestive enzymes, acid, bile, and other digestive fluids. They put probiotic capsules into this stomach “empty” and with a variety of foods, and tested how many survived the trip.

What did they find? Probiotic bacteria had the highest rates of survival when provided within 30 minutes before or simultaneously with a meal or beverage that contained some fat.

This makes sense. Consuming probiotics with food provides a buffering system for the bacteria, helping to ensure safe passage through the digestive tract. But consuming them after a large meal could slow everybody down, making bacteria more likely to die in the corrosive stomach environment before reaching their intended new home in the lower intestine. So right before, or with, a meal that includes some fat seems the best way to go.

Which Probiotic Supplements Are Best?

There are thousands of probiotic products on the market, with each company or retailer telling you theirs is best.

The factors I look at in evaluating a probiotic supplement are:

  1. Price. No one likes to waste money.
  2. CFUs (Colony-forming units). This is the total count of all the bacteria in the probiotic. There’s a huge range, with brands offering anywhere from 1 billion to 100 billion CFUs per dose. The bigger the number, the more beneficial bacteria you get.
  3. Strains. The total number of different types of bacteria in each probiotic varies greatly. Diversity is good. Every expert has a favorite combination, but the reality is that we know very little about how the various strains interact with the human body. A broad spectrum of different kinds is likely to give you the best odds of success.
  4. Expiration date. Some probiotic supplements get so old that the bacteria are literally dead by the time they reach the consumer. Check expiration dates.

What About Fermented Foods?

Fermentation helps to preserve food and creates beneficial enzymes, B vitamins, and numerous strains of probiotics.

Natural fermentation has been shown to preserve nutrients and to break some foods down to a more digestible form.

The most studied is kimchi, a traditional Korean food made from fermenting salted cabbage with a variety of vegetables and spices (sometimes salted shrimp or anchovy is included, as well).

In addition to, or perhaps in part because of, its probiotic properties, studies have shown that kimchi can help fight cancer, obesity, effects of aging, and constipation while contributing to your immune system, skin health, and brain health.

Other popular fermented foods include sauerkraut, yogurt (which can be made from cow, soy, coconut, or almond milk), kefir, miso, natto (made by boiling and fermenting soybeans with bacteria), beet kvass (a fermented beet drink), vinegar, and kombucha.

Some fermented foods are used in condiments, while others make a tasty snack or topping. Remember not to cook them if you want to preserve the probiotics.

Keep in mind that some probiotic kefirs and yogurts come loaded with added sugar. Even if there are beneficial bacteria in these probiotics, the sugar will feed “bad” bacteria already in your gut. Always check labels for sugar content.

If you want to do your own fermentation, I recommend finding a good book or website to guide you. A book to consider is Fermented Vegetables by Christopher and Kirsten Shockey.

Some people using homemade fermented foods are experiencing great benefits.

Like Emily Iaconelli, for example. At the age of 17, after growing up on the modern industrialized diet, Emily developed irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, and emergent arthritis. She suffered from massive bloating and chronic pain, and became resigned to a life of embarrassing pain and urgent bathroom runs.

After 20 years of misery, she joined a Food Revolution Network event I was hosting and decided to turn her kitchen upside down.

Emily began enjoying a whole-food, plant-powered diet that featured an abundance of fermented foods, such as kimchi, fermented vegetables, tempeh, homemade almond milk yogurt, and miso. Her fiber consumption went up dramatically, providing abundant nourishment for the probiotics now streaming into her body every day.

The journey was difficult. Emily had to squeeze in all her learning and food preparation while working full-time and raising a two-year-old daughter. But every step she took seemed to give her more energy and stamina, which fueled her actions as well as her determination.

Eventually, her irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, and emergent arthritis all disappeared. And her daughter, now five, loves to cook and has decided that her favorite food is… broccoli!

Listen to Your Gut

True gut instincts can provide an essential source of wisdom, clarity, and discernment. Does your gut tighten when you confront danger, or soften in the presence of an epiphany?

Whatever your relationship is with your gut, and however clearly it does or doesn’t speak to you, I’d like to invite you to consider a possibility.

What if you didn’t think of your gut as being yours alone? What if you conceived of it as being home, also, to trillions of microbes that can tell you what’s good for you or let you know when you’re hungry (because they are)?

When you’re in a symbiotic relationship with the community of critters inside you, you can feel pride in feeding the good ones. You can feel gratitude for how they help you digest food, secrete brain-boosting neurotransmitters, and protect you from harm. And you can feel it’s your responsibility to protect and work in harmony with them for your own ultimate well-being along with theirs.

To learn more about Ocean Robbin’s new book, 31 Day Food Revolution, click here! <=