Most of you have heard about probiotics. It's a topic in the news more and more these days. There is also at least one probiotic yogurt advertised on TV that guarantees the relief of digestive symptoms such as gas and bloating. Maybe you know someone who takes a probiotic supplement. Or maybe you already take one. A lot of people are starting to talk about their probiotic's benefits!
However, I find with my clients that there is still a lot of confusion. What are the actual benefits of taking probiotics? Is it strictly about digestive health? Is the only way to get probiotics is as a supplement? Many people are not aware of all of the foods they can eat that are probiotic-rich.
So today, I am going to do a “Probiotics 101” and talk about why you need probiotics – as well as possibly prebiotics – in your everyday diet. You may be also wondering what are some of the sources of probiotic-rich foods that you can easily find. There are many!
There are trillions of bacteria in your gut!
A lot of these bacteria are probiotics. An expert panel was convened in October 2013 by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) to discuss the field of probiotics. It was 13 years since the definition of probiotics and 12 years after guidelines were published for regulators, scientists, and industry by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO). The FAO/WHO definition of a probiotic is “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”.
Probiotics are usually bacteria that are naturally part of your digestive system – from mouth to anus. They are considered living cultures that have been in your system since you were born. Probiotic bacteria are the friendly flora known as the good guys in your gut’s lining. Although most probiotics are a bacteria, Saccharomyces boulardii is a unique, non-pathogenic yeast supplement that has also been utilized worldwide as a probiotic to support gastrointestinal health. As you age, the production of good bacteria, along with immune system function, becomes compromised.
It appears that your gut bugs influence far more than your digestive function and your ability to stay ‘regular.’ We’re learning that the mechanisms behind the effect of probiotics are far more complicated than simply ‘topping off’ your supply of intestinal flora. Your gut bugs (even the transient ones) actually help modulate your immune system, and a robust immune system is necessary for the proper function of every other part of the body. Through the effect on immune regulation, probiotics can influence a number of conditions that may seem completely unrelated to the gut, such as nasal congestion and oral health. Inside your gut, probiotics are responsible for supporting nutrient absorption and immune system health. They keep “bad bacteria” from taking over. Because they are living micro-organisms, however, they can die off and may need to be re-populated.
Our ancestors naturally consumed a lot of probiotics in their diets. People ate fresh foods from mineral-rich, healthy, and non-toxic soil. No one took antibiotics, birth control pills, and steroid medications that killed off the good bacteria already in their guts. Everyone ate fermented foods, as that was how they had to prepare things to keep them from spoiling. They didn’t have refrigerators. Their food wasn’t processed, commercially raised, or pasteurized, which can kill off the good bacteria in foods like dairy, almonds, and vinegar, for instance. Our ancestors were not exposed to as many toxins in their environment. Nor were they faced with the consequences of changing agricultural practices like we are today, through the use of GMOs, pesticides, etc.
These days, there are a lot of toxins that impact the balance of the flora in your gut. The use of antibiotics, high stress levels, poor diet, and environmental factors can disrupt the bacterial balance in your gut, leading to overproduction of unhealthy gut bacteria. Upsetting your body’s microbial balance can then have negative effects on your digestive system, nervous system, metabolic system, and immunological system. Probiotics are just not as available in everyday food sources through all the antibacterial ingredients we use. Your good bacteria in your gut are under ongoing attacks from every direction!
Many people believe – me included – that this degradation in our diet has not only led to many people having incredibly poor digestive health, but has also been a primary contributor to people developing a poor immune system, along with many other more serious and chronic health issues.
As a nutritional endocrinologist, one of the most important things to me – for your health – is eating healthy foods. Probiotic foods are healthy foods!
Why are probiotics important to your long-term health?
It is important that you continually consume probiotics so that you repopulate the good bacteria in your gut. Where did those little friendly flora even come from in the first place?
They actually first come from your mother during delivery, when you are exposed to your mother’s bacteria in the birth canal. The digestive tract continues to produce good bacteria through breastfeeding, and then the foods you next consumed.
Probiotics are very important to maintain a healthy digestive balance. A healthy digestive system will help minimize gas and bloating. Probiotics also can help with many cases of irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and even leaky gut. Some strains may also help with specific food allergy symptoms. Having a healthy bacteria population protects you from unwanted “bad bacteria” taking over in your system, such as an overgrowth of yeasts, fungi, bacteria, and viruses that can cause digestive issues. When your gut is healthy, it also helps with nutrient absorption along with the synthesis of B-vitamins.
More and more research is showing that having a healthy gut – or a lot of healthy flora – is critical for a strong immune system. 80% of your immune cells are located in your gut. It's also essential for healthy skin, autoimmune diseases like fibromyalgia and arthritis, and even cancer.
What are some of the most popular – and easy to find – probiotic-rich foods
It is important for you to eat probiotic-rich foods.
If you can’t fit enough probiotic foods into your diet for some reason, talk with your health practitioner about taking a probiotic supplement. I think real food is always the best choice over supplements, and I love to be in my kitchen! I find it a creative outlet to make my own fermented foods, but you can buy many of them as well.
Below you’ll find a variety of foods that are rich in probiotic strains. Take note, though, as a variety of foods have different strains of bacteria in them. It is good to eat a mix of foods so that you get the benefits from the maximum number of probiotic strains.
Cultured veggies – my favorite!
Cultured vegetables are easy to make and very tasty. Simply cut up your favorite vegetables. I like to include kale or other dark green vegetables, along with cabbage, carrots, and herbs like ginger, garlic, and cayenne. The possibilities are endless. Grate the vegetables or cut them into small chunks, then bruise them by smashing with a potato masher or whatever you have handy in your kitchen. Massaging with your hands works, too. Add some kefir starter, cultured vegetable starter, or probiotics, and let sit for 3-4 days. Delicious!
You can make or purchase sauerkraut and kimchi. These are both based on fermented cabbage, and are preserved via natural lacto-fermentation. Simply put, lacto–fermentation is a microbial process using beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium spp., and other lactic acid bacteria (LAB) (commonly known as probiotics), which thrive in an anaerobic fermenting environment,, meaning it's free of oxygen. This will help it to be very high in probiotics. Kimchi is Korean, and is extremely spicy and sour. Made with cabbage, it is also a good source of beta-carotene, fiber, and many vitamins. It is high in digestive enzymes which can also further aid digestion.
There are a lot of recipes online regarding how to ferment various veggies. Sour pickles are an easy one. Just use sea salt and water will jump-start the growth of good bacteria.
I also really like using sea-vegetables such as spirulina, chorella, dulse, and blue-green algae. Sea-veggies are sooooo good for you.
When purchasing sour or dill pickles, or other supposedly fermented veggies, make sure you see words like “naturally fermented”, “raw”, “unpasteurized”, or “contains live and active cultures” on the product.
Yogurt – but note my caveats!
For many people, when they think of probiotics, another food item they think of is yogurt. After all, there are many ads in the media talking about how much it will help your digestion. They may even go so far as to remind you that their product has live cultures, which you do want to make sure your yogurt has. But you also need to be careful that you don’t purchase a pasteurized yogurt. You’ll find that is the main option in a lot of chain-grocery stores.
Most of yogurts at the store, though, contain dairy, which you know I am not a fan of. Among the dairy yogurt options is Greek yogurt, which has become synonymous with being healthier. “Greek” does not necessarily mean probiotic-rich. Traditionally, Greek yogurt is made by straining the yogurt to remove the whey (the liquid remaining after the milk is curdled), so that the end result is supposed to be a more-solid yogurt with less sugar, fewer carbohydrates, and more protein compared to regular yogurt. It takes a lot of milk—about four ounces—to make a single ounce of Greek yogurt. Once it’s fermented on a large scale, the mountain of whey that has been produced provides another problem. Acid whey is toxic to the environment and kills off aquatic life, so it can’t be dumped, and cattle can only tolerate it in their feed up to a point. In the meantime, there’s all this leftover whey. Some of the larger producers try to find ways to return it to be of use, but the acid content of the whey makes it difficult.
So how can you take advantage of this wonderful idea of feeding your body all that good bacteria in a great tasting dish? I generally use cashew or coconut yogurt that I have made. These non-dairy yogurts may have more noticeable benefits since you won’t be contending with lactose maldigestion symptoms from the yogurt, too. The members of the Lactobacillus family are usually predominant in the making of yogurt to help you breakdown and digest certain proteins, but the real benefits of probiotics are created in the process of fermentation. What is important is the level of live active cultures in the finished product, those not destroyed in the production of the yogurt, and how well it is stored to avoid destruction of these cultures before they are able to reach your gut. Chilled mediums are usually best for storing both supplements and foods.
The main issue with pasteurization is that the process kills off the bulk of the probiotics, as it is high in heat processing. Many yogurts, especially the frozen varieties, don’t even contain probiotics. Remember, probiotics are living, so intense heat, freezing, and all of the things that would kill YOU will also kill the probiotics.
I always make sure to eat live-cultured yogurt. Read labels to see what types of probiotics are actually contained in the product. Look for names like lactobacillus and acidophilus. The more probiotic names listed the better, as that means you are getting multiple strains of the good guys in your gut. This is like having all your military forces fully recruited and ready to go.
I don't think I can encourage you enough to read labels, as you don’t want anything with artificial sweeteners and artificial flavorings, high fructose corn syrup, and other unhealthy ingredients. Look for a high number of probiotic cultures per gram (100 million is good).
Fermented nut cheeses
One of my favorite “go-to foods” when I travel is to pick up some fermented nut cheeses at the local health food store. I actually “Google” to find a local store before I step on my plane.
What's really wonderful about this dairy-free, grain-free, starch-free, protein-rich cheese option is that as you soak and then ferment your nuts and/or seeds, they turn into a food that is now incredibly easy for your digestive system to break down, thus making all those nutrients more absorbable. As an extra bonus, the fermentation process further creates other sources to continue the health of the gut. It's a win-win situation no matter how you look at it.
Kefir (a fermented drink)
Similar to yogurt, kefir uses something like coconut water and fermented kefir grains.
I really like coconut kefir, which is made by fermenting coconut water with fermented kefir grains. This is a great dairy-free option that has probiotic benefits. You need to make sure that you get the non-dairy kefir grains. It tastes so good.
I love miso soup. Miso is usually made by a double fermentation process of a combination of soybeans, a cultured grain such as rice or barley called koji, and salt. The end result is healthy and very tasty. Uunpasteurized miso is a living fermented food containing a vast store of natural digestive enzymes, Lactobacillus, and other probiotic microorganisms, which aid in the digestion and assimilation of foods. You can buy it as a paste and add it to dishes after they have been cooked. When I buy miso, I usually get the chickpea variety. It is made with chickpeas instead of soybeans, and it usually also contains sea vegetables. I've also seen aduki bean miso, garlic red pepper miso, and dandelion leek miso.
Also from Japan, kombucha has been around for thousands of years. It is a special brew of black tea which is combined with bacteria, yeast, and natural sugar. The bacteria and the yeast actually consume the sugar, so the result is a tangy probiotic brew. However, because it is more of a wild fermentation, you don't always know what kind of bacteria you will end up with, so I don't consume this on a regular basis.
Wild ferments are uncontrolled and unregulated. They rely on the microorganisms that are found in the starter or SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). When it comes to wild fermented drinks, environment also plays a role.
While some people can and do benefit from wild fermented foods and drinks, many more cannot tolerate some microorganisms that show up in the wild ferment. This is especially true if you are battling:
- Candida overgrowth
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Kombucha may contain many beneficial strains of probiotic lactic acid bacteria. It can also contain several strains of yeast. Some of these yeasts are beneficial to the body; however, others are not.
This, then, becomes the problem with wild fermented kombucha tea – we have no way of knowing what strains of yeast the kombucha SCOBY contains.
One study found that some kombucha samples harbored Candida albicans, the yeast that is responsible for Candida overgrowth.
If you know that you are more susceptible to bacterial or yeast infections, I would put a hold on consuming these fermented drinks for now.
This is another fermented soybean product, but this time coming from Indonesia. Tempeh is made by fermenting whole cooked soybeans with a mold called Rhizopus oligosporus. This mold encourages the growth of Bacillus subtilis, a bacteria that may be used as a beneficial probiotic. Although traditionally wrapped in banana leaves during the fermentation process, nowadays it is done in more controlled conditions. While it is fermenting, it binds the tempeh together into blocks, making it easier to slice for meal preparation. Many people use it as a substitute for meat in various dishes as it is high in protein and also because of its texture. It also has a good supply of iron and calcium. It has a nutty, smoky taste. Some people eat it raw or marinated with coconut aminos, vinegar, and ginger. You can then put it into a salad. Think of it as a cousin of tofu. It works great in stir-fries. However, since soy is involved, you do want to be careful with it as soybeans are one of the top GMO products, as well as it possibly having an unpleasant response if you have thyroid issues.
What’s a prebiotic and do I need to eat them?
Probiotic-rich foods contain live bacteria, while prebiotic foods help feed the good bacteria already living in your gut. Prebiotics are not digested by the human body, but are instead digested by gut bacteria.
Besides having a positive physical impact, there is some very early evidence of a link between gut bacteria and mental health. A new study from England found that supplements that boost “good” bacteria in the gut – those prebiotics – may alter the way people process emotional information, suggesting that changes in gut bacteria may have anti-anxiety effects.
Scientists in the University of Oxford's department of psychiatry are now interested in studying whether probiotics those strains of good bacteria – or prebiotics – those carbohydrates that serve as food for those bacteria – could be used to treat anxiety or depression, or if the substances improve patients' response to psychiatric drugs.
The best thing is for you to eat both as they really work synergistically in your gut. Prebiotics are contained in many different food types. A few examples are: legumes – especially white beans, bananas, asparagus, onions, garlic, the skin of apples, chicory root, and Jerusalem artichokes.
Final word on probiotics
Probiotics benefit gut health as well as longer-term immunity and disease prevention! It is just something that you should incorporate into your daily diet. It is easy to include and delicious.
If you want to learn more about probiotics, digestive health, and how to protect your family’s health join my Unstoppable Health Facebook group page. This thriving community shares information and recipes on all of the best health secrets and tips.
For those who are geeky and want the deep dive like me, you will want to check this radio interview out with one of my Nutritional Endocrinology Practitioner Training students, Steph Jackson. It has more details on the types of “good” bacteria found in your gut. “5 Probiotic Bacteria and the Best Ways to Use Them” is a fascinating discussion on how you may be able to actually populate specific probiotics in your gut. By eating certain foods, you may be able to address certain health conditions.
We also have VITAL Healing Kitchen shows where we show you how to make many of these fermented and probiotic-rich foods. To see these and many other VITAL Healing Kitchen shows and VITAL Health Topics where we further discuss issues that affect your life, join the VITAL Health Community.
And finally, for those of you who recognize many of these health issues in your own life, we invite you to look at the mentorship and guidance we offer in our GRAND program – Gut Repair and Alkalizing Nutrition for Digestion. Sometimes we have researched and know a great many things, but having the support of a community will help us as we follow through on each of the steps.