Joanne SmithAt any given time, we have trillions of microbes living in our intestines. These are essential to our well-being and survival. Among many other purposes, everyone needs them for proper digestion, bowel function and immune health, and they are even more critical for individuals with conditions such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries, who are at high risk for compromised digestive and/or immune function. Dr. Nigel Plummer estimates that healthy bacteria, or probiotics, make up 50 percent of our fecal matter, produce 2-4 liters of gas per day and constitute 2-3 pounds of our total body weight. The more good bacteria we have in our guts, the better our physical and mental health. Without these healthy bacteria, we would become ill and, estimates say, die within five years of birth.

Initially we acquire probiotics from the birth canal and our mothers’ breast milk, then as we age, through the consumption of fermented foods. Before the invention of the ice box and refrigerator, fermentation was used for centuries by different cultures around the world to not only preserve food, but also support peoples’ health. Fermentation occurs when food is exposed to microbes that consume carbohydrates (sugar) as a fuel source and give off alcohol and acid as a byproduct. These byproducts create an uninhabitable environment for harmful bacteria, thus preventing food from rotting and ultimately extending its shelf-life.

Kombucha, a non-alcoholic fermented drink, is a good source of probiotics.

Kombucha, a non-alcoholic fermented drink, is a good source of probiotics.

The gastrointestinal tract is one of the largest immune systems in the body, and maintaining its integrity is critical for immune function. For example, probiotics enhance the normal function of the intestinal mucosa, which in turn decreases intestinal permeability and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, as well as decreasing allergic reactions and inflammation, the latter of which wreaks havoc in the body and brain. Probiotics also protect us as they produce substances such as lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide, which stop harmful bacteria from growing in the body, therefore reducing the risk for individuals with neurological conditions who have a tendency to develop chronic bladder and/or respiratory infections.

Furthermore, probiotics help facilitate a wide variety of biochemical processes that impact hormonal, cognitive and central nervous system function. That means these tiny microorganisms have the enormous capacity to affect conditions such as traumatic brain injury, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

One of the best ways to support gut health and reap all these health benefits is to eat fermented foods that are loaded with good bacteria. To help enhance your microbiome and in turn support your gut, immune, neural, hormonal and overall health, I highly recommend you consume fermented foods such as yogurt, cheese, sour dough bread, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kefir and kombucha several times a week and take a daily probiotic supplement.

When choosing between probiotic supplements, look for a minimum of 15 billion active microorganisms and try to find ones that contain multi-strains (at least five) including lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium. It’s best to store probiotics in the fridge. Keeping them at eye level is a great reminder to take them every day. Take them at bedtime when your stomach acid tends to be lower so more of the microorganisms will pass into the intestines where they are most effective. If you are taking antibiotics, you can also take probiotics, just ensure they are consumed at least two hours apart.

Perfect Probiotic LunchPerfect Probiotic Lunch

1 slice sourdough bread
3-4 slices salami
¼ cup sauerkraut, drained
1 bottle favorite kombucha
Place salami on sourdough bread.
Top with sauerkraut. Serve with glass of kombucha.

Joanne Smith is a nutritionist and co-author of Eat Well Live Well with SCI and Other Neurological Conditions. For more information on nutrition for neurological injuries, go to