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Natural Awakenings Naples and Fort Myers

It’s All About the Balance

Jan 30, 2015 08:54AM ● By Linda Sechrist

Dee Harris, dietician

The key to maintaining optimal digestive and immune health depends largely on sustaining an optimal balance between the different species of bacteria. This can be done effectively with a healthy diet that includes prebiotics and probiotics.

Prebiotics are a special form of soluble dietary fiber found in many fruits and vegetables; sources include apple skins, bananas, onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory root, yams and lentils. Prebiotic fibers promote digestive health and appetite control and may improve mineral absorption and immunity to disease.

Probiotic foods, such as fermented dairy products and sauerkraut, and probiotic supplements contain live bacteria that assist in maintaining or restoring the balance of healthy gut bacteria.

This balance may be more important than most people realize. When the gut’s delicate microflora populations are in balance, communication between the bacteria in the gut and neurochemicals in the brain takes place via the vagus nerve, which extends from the brain stem to the abdomen.

Scientists, such as Helen Papaconstantinos, a research specialist at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition, in Toronto, Canada, and Michael Gershon, Ph.D., an expert in the nascent field of neurogastroenterology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, are discovering that this enteric nervous system is more complex than previously thought. Interfacing with the parasympathetic control of the heart and digestive tract, this “brain in the belly” is an extensive network of neurons lining the gut that regulate the chemical levels in the digestive system so that the intestines can process food and keep track of what types of nutrients are being gained from ingested foods.

Gut microflora imbalances are the result of stress, antibiotic overuse and nutritional deficiencies. The consequence is a change in brain chemistry, which impacts mood, mental clarity and sleep.

“Even though the science of probiotics and prebiotics might seem new to the general public, the idea of eating fermented foods for health benefits has been around for centuries,” says Dee Harris, a registered, licensed dietitian/nutritionist and owner of D-Signed Nutrition, in Bonita Springs. “Our ancestors, especially of European descent, knew their value and ate them to avoid digestive problems. Today’s gut problems are largely the result of the standard American diet, which is devoid of prebiotics and probiotics. Overuse of antibiotics, as well as the consumption of a class of over-the-counter medications known as proton pump inhibitors (PPI), has contributed significantly to the problem. PPIs block the production of stomach acid and create an alkaline environment in the stomach and small intestine, which are supposed to be acidic.”

Harris explains one of the negative, trickle-down effects of changing the pH environment. “Bacteria, which live in the alkaline environment of the large intestine, migrate upward to find a new home in the small intestine, resulting in an overgrowth of good and bad bacteria where it doesn’t belong. Maintaining a proper gastric pH and eating probiotic and prebiotic foods, as well supplementing with fiber and probiotics, are essential for our health,” advises Harris, who is also a practitioner of functional medicine.

D-Signed Nutrition, 27499 Riverview Center Blvd., Ste. 214, Bonita Springs. 239-444-4204.

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