What our guts really need are foods that will keep them healthy and able to do their job, which is to break down foods into nutrients and waste. The foods the microbiome really needs and desires are those that provide either the enzymes they need to function or the building blocks needed to create these essential enzymes. These substances are live cultures known as pre- and probiotics.
In the last few years, it’s become fashionable for major manufacturers of yogurt products, especially those marketed to women, to add extra, living probiotics to their recipes, and this is a good thing—in theory. That’s because the science confirms how good for us probiotics are. What’s not so great is that the actual viability of factory-added probiotics is questionable because the mix of probiotics they add to their products is usually limited, and even these few live cultures may be killed or weakened in the heating and preserving processes these mass-produced foods must undergo. But getting probiotics via natural, fresh whole foods, or naturally fermented raw foods, promotes fabulous flora health. So does including prebiotic rich foods (raw foods that contain insoluble fiber, such as onions, leeks, bananas, Jerusalem artichokes, and chicory) that provide food for the helpful bacteria, allowing them to grow and multiply, thereby improving our bodies’ ability to absorb key nutrients like calcium and magnesium, and to support the creation and elimination of healthy stools.
Something I’m fascinated by is how ancient cultures, separated by seas and continents, intuitively understood the importance of adding pre- and probiotic foods to their diets. Red wine is a great example of a fermented food that can aid our digestion, as do other fresh, raw fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi. Ancient cultures also understood that fermented raw foods (think ancient Greek yogurt) also supported digestive health, and that allowing food to ferment naturally (which means simply allowing the bacteria in the air to interact with the raw vegetables and a little salt) preserved foods, too.
The fermentation process turns sugars from food into healthful agents like enzymes. The alchemy turns grape juice into wine, grains into beer, carbohydrates into carbon dioxide to leaven sourdough bread, and sugars in vegetables into organic acids, which preserve them.
Ancient Greeks and Romans used sauerkraut (salted shredded cabbage exposed to air) to treat and prevent intestinal infections. Captain Cook and other explorers on the high seas used sauerkraut and lime juice to prevent scurvy. Throughout Europe and Russia sauerkraut and other fermented foods (kefir, yogurt, buttermilk, kvass, borscht, etc.) have been eaten for centuries. Many African cultures still use fermentation as a way of preserving gruels made from corn and sorghum. The people of India use a delicious, pungent paste made from the juice of sauerkraut, as well as yogurt, to aid digestion. Eskimos even bury fermented seal and whale meat to preserve it for use over long, frozen winters.