Bacteria! Germs! Dirt! Oh, my! When I was growing up, we scrubbed our skin with anti-bacterial soap, took antibiotics like nobody’s business, and feared touching public door handles (thanks to my dad who grabbed everything with a napkin). But now we’re realizing all of this sanitation has been doing us a disservice – we aren’t meant to be sterile. We are meant to be swarming with bacteria! Good bacteria, that is!
Our gut bacteria help modulate the immune system, absorb and utilize nutrients, produce anti-microbial substances, metabolize dietary carcinogens, and crowd out unwanted pathogens (1, 2). We need this bacteria to be plentiful in our guts. However, there is a lot of confusion out there about what probiotics are and how to incorporate them.
What form is most effective? Are shelf-stable probiotics providing live organisms? How much do you take? Are there side effects? What strains should you look for? Does beer count? So many burning questions that keep you up at night! Right? Hopefully, I can clarify a few things here for you, including the beer question.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are living microorganisms that promote health. Thus, the “pro.” They include live fermented foods and supplements. There are lots of different species and strains of probiotics and they exist in and outside of the body.
Do We Need Probiotics?
Seems like our gut would be able to sort itself out, that we wouldn’t need to rely on consuming bacteria from an outside source. But we also have sterilized our environment, are quick to take antibiotics from doctors who are quick to prescribe, and sustain on the American diet laden with foods that are feeding the wrong bacteria (like sugar). So it makes sense that our bacteria are often out of whack.
If we are having symptoms of an unstable gut population (gas, bloating, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, depression, diabetes, weight gain, allergies, and more) coupled with a less than ideal diet (sugary foods and refined carbohydrates), then getting probiotics on board can be a step in the right direction. However, you can’t just take your probiotics and call it good. Dietary changes must occur in order for the probiotics to do their job, otherwise you could be making matters worse and causing a civil war in your gut!
Having a happy, healthy gut means we are digesting better, absorbing more nutrients from our food, keeping our immune system robust, and possibly even experiencing better moods and mental stability (3, 4). When your microbiome is in harmony, your overall health will improve.
So if you already have a healthy diet, do you need probiotics?
Probiotics are one of those things that will serve to improve. I would say that even if you have a healthy diet (lots of fiber, leafy greens, starchy veggies), then probiotics will help maintain the balance of bacteria you worked so hard to achieve through diet!
What are Fermented Foods?
Fermentation is a process that converts sugar like glucose to other compounds like alcohol and lactic acid. Not all fermented foods contain living organisms. For example, you might try to convince yourself that drinking beer and wine provides probiotic benefit, but alas, these beverages undergo a process that removes live probiotics. The good news, however, is that if you like cloudy beers, microbrews that are not filtered or heated can still contain live bacteria. But I wouldn’t rely on that being your only source of probiotics. There are anti-nutrients that may cancel out the benefits, such as sugars and alcohol.
Fermented foods vary widely – some examples are sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, natto, tempeh, kefir, and kombucha.
Quality of Fermented Foods
I prefer a “food first” approach – try to get your nutrients through food before you rely on supplementation. It’s more natural and more fun (eating is way more intriguing than swallowing capsules!). But the one thing to keep in mind is what’s in your fermented foods. For example, yogurt is a great source of probiotics, but it can also trigger inflammation. A lot of brands also have loads of sugar, hormones, artificial sweeteners, and are pasteurized, which destroys a lot of the bacteria.
My favorite way to eat probiotics is in the form of fermented vegetables! I love sauerkraut, fermented beets, and pickles. Just make sure you get the refrigerated products so you’re getting live bacteria. Fermented vegetables are a good source of Lactobacillus plantarum, a probiotic strain that can withstand the acidic nature of your stomach. And they are fun to add to veggie bowls, eggs, and sandwiches. They kick the flavor up a notch!
What’s Up With Kombucha?
While it seems like kombucha has been a trendy food fad that recently popped up, it has actually been around for a long time. I remember my first experience with kombucha about 10 years ago when a yoga teacher recommended it to me. At that time, the only brands in the stores tasted like carbonated vinegar with “the mother” visibly floating around in it. Not particularly inviting.
Now there are tons of tasty kombuchas on the market and even kombucha tap rooms! You have to be selective when choosing the right kombucha though as some of them have just as much sugar, if not more so, as a soda.
Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage made from sugar, caffeinated tea, water, and a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). While it sounds strange (and looks even stranger), many of them are actually quite tasty and provide support for detoxification, antioxidation, and immune functioning. I consider it my vice and pretend it’s a beer because some of them actually taste a lot like beer! And if you’re hooked on soda, this might be a nice alternative for you.
The final product does contain caffeine, sugar, and small amounts of alcohol, so do be careful if you’re trying to avoid any or all of those.
Capsules Versus Fermented Foods
While fermented foods are my preferred method of delivery for probiotics considering their diversity in strains and ability to survive through the stomach’s acidic environment, they aren’t for everyone. Perhaps you’re not into the sour taste or the idea of a colony of yeast and bacteria floating around in your drink. Fermented foods can also aggravate certain conditions, such as those with a histamine intolerance. Histimine intolerances lead to allergy-like symptoms (sneezing, headaches) when foods high in histamines are consumed.
Probiotic supplements can still be quite beneficial. In fact, some research from Boston University (5) was just published stating that there are live cultures in the shelf-stable capsules, though in less-than-ideal amounts.
When taking probiotic supplements, make sure it’s a reputable brand. Ask your doctor, your nutritionist, or do your research. Look for the potency count (also known as CFUs which stands for “colony forming units”) of 50 billion or higher. Yes, lots of bacteria! You’ll also want to take a glance at the strains (and then try to pronounce them) to make sure you’re getting species of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, which are the most common.
How to Implement Probiotics
If you’re adventurous enough to try fermented foods and you’ve never incorporated them before, start small – as small as 1 teaspoon per day with a meal. Then increase over time. I usually recommend 2 forkfuls at mealtime. Taking too much too soon could increase symptoms of diarrhea, gas, and bloating. These symptoms can occur as your digestive system rebalances itself to favor the good bacteria, so slow is best.
For supplements, you could start with a low dose of 10 billion CFU’s and then work up to a higher dose.
Creating an Optimal Environment For Probiotics
We want to introduce the good bacteria to a safe neighborhood of welcoming hosts. If we’re eating a lot of sugary food, then the good bacteria are going to have to fight all sorts of gangs to establish territory. This could actually worsen your gut woes. Think of probiotics as a supplement to a nutrient-dense environment – they will be able to establish dominance faster and easier if you’re feeding them the right food to do their job. Prebiotics are foods that feed probiotics and are found in fruits and veggies such as asparagus, apples, onions, bananas, garlic. So be sure to include plenty of those in your diet as well.
Probiotics and Antibiotics
Seems like antibiotics are given out like candy on Halloween. While they definitely help in many situations, they can also cause some major health issues later in life. Antibiotics are given for infections and to clear out the bad bacteria causing issues, but they wipe the whole slate clean. They sterilize your gut of bad and good bacteria.
Taking probiotics before, during, and after your course of antibiotics can be very beneficial in keeping your gut populated with the good guys (6). Make sure to ask your doctor about timing as you’ll want to take your probiotics a few hours away from your antibiotics.
Other Ways to Love Your Gut
There are lots of ways to support a happy gut in addition to adding in probiotics. Having a healthy diet rich in a variety of vegetables will keep your good bacteria content. Limiting sugary and inflammatory foods (vegetable oils, dairy, conventional meats) will keep the bad bacteria to a minimum.
Chewing your food thoroughly also has a major impact on your ability to digest food, avoid heartburn, and feel more satisfied with what you eat. It may seem simple but we often forget to pay attention to how well we chew our food.
Digestive enzymes are also a great way for your body to break down food better. You can take different enzymes for different foods, such as carbohydrates, dairy, gluten, or vegetable cellulose.
Addressing stress – of course – is a big one. Remember the gut-brain connection? It works both ways. Have you ever noticed that when you’re under a lot of stress, your bowel movements are irregular? Finding ways to manage your stress not only improves your mental and emotional health, but it keeps your bowels moving.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re into sour tasting foods or prefer to take a probiotic capsule, supplementing with live beneficial bacteria can be a great addition to a healthy diet, supporting your digestive system, immune system, and mood. Just make sure you’re taking good quality probiotics so as not to counteract all of the benefits probiotics and fermented foods have to offer.
There’s a Tea For That
There are lots of teas that support healthy digestion – my favorites are dandelion, milk thistle, and peppermint. And then, of course, there is fermented tea like kombucha and even kefir water tea! Cheers!
Do you like fermented foods? What is your favorite? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!