A real-life weight loss pill. It’s been tried—unsuccessfully—countless times by pharmaceutical companies. But it actually exists, and the secret ingredient is seriously surprising: probiotic bacteria.
Supplementing with good-for-you gut bacteria has become much more common than it was say, 10 years ago, and it’s possible to find products boasting probiotic power everywhere from the vitamin aisle of the drugstore to the dairy section of the grocery store. But despite the plethora of Activia commercials on the air, a number of people don’t really understand what probiotic foods are, how they help your health, or how to add them to your diet.
What are probiotics?
In the simplest terms, probiotics are beneficial bacteria. Sure, we’ve been conditioned to think that bacteria is a bad thing that causes disease, but it turns out that it’s not all bad. In fact, your gut is filled with microorganisms that help break down foods, prevent certain infections, and promote healthy immune system function.
Probiotics fall into the category of beneficial organisms, and the kind that live in your body are generally a combination of bacteria and yeast strains. Most healthy people already have billions of probitics living in their stomach and gut, but it’s possible to eat fermented foods or take supplements to increase production of the good bacteria. Sometimes after taking antibiotics (which can have a detrimental effect on the body’s healthy bacteria levels) or if a patient is suffering from gastrointestinal distress, doctors will prescribe a probiotic supplement to support gut health and overall function.
What are some health benefits of probiotics?
There’s been a lot of research on the effects of gut health and the immune system in recent years, and scientists have continually discovered a connection between the functionality of the gut and other vital organs like the brain, heart, and liver. In the process of studying how the gut functions, researchers have discovered many beneficial uses for probiotics, including:
- Improved immune system function
- Better absorption of vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, and vitamins A and D
- Reduced symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
- Reduced symptoms of diarrhea
- Healthier skin and reduced signs of eczema
- Better overall digestion
- Improved urinary health
- Improved vaginal health
- Improved oral health
- Reduced occurrence of illnesses like colds
- Improved allergy defense
Probiotics work by moving food through the gut and to fight off the bad bacteria that can lead to various health issues. Using these supplements can help promote a healthier gut and overall better wellbeing.
Types of probiotics
So you’ve decided to try a probiotic, but there are so many types that you’re not sure where to start. In general, there are two primary types of bacteria that most food-based or supplement-based probiotics come from. Most probiotics contain both of these strains, as well as a few others.
- Bifidobacterium: Found in certain dairy products, bifidobacterium have been shown to alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in particular.
- Lactobacillus: The more common of the two, lactobacillus is found in yogurt and fermented foods, and has been linked to better energy levels, improved digestion and lactose tolerance (it may even help treat diarrhea and other symptoms).
Are probiotics safe?
There’s little evidence that connects any health problems directly to probiotic use. Instead, almost all of the research shows that they’re beneficial in most cases. Some people with immune system disorders like Lyme’s disease may need to avoid them due to the potential of developing infections, but the vast majority of the population can benefit from probiotics.
Keep in mind, the first time you down a probiotic pill, you may notice some side effects including:
- Upset stomach
These symptoms are usually temporary and stop after a couple of days of use. In some instances, allergies may occur as well if you are allergic to specific cultures or to other ingredients in a supplement.
As with any supplement, it’s best to talk to your doctor before you start using probiotics. They’ll help you make the right decision for your body and needs.
Best foods for gut health
Your gut already has some healthy bacteria. And while there are supplements that can help them flourish, it’s more beneficial to build probiotics in your gut through dietary sources, ein other words—eating the right foods. Modifying your diet to include the following will often improve your overall health and wellbeing.
Probably the most mainstream fermented food available, live cultured yogurt delivers a huge amount of probiotics. Try to avoid ones that are loaded with artificial sweeteners, like aspartame or Splenda, and flavors that contain additives and fake colorings. Go with all-natural or Greek varieties wherever possible.
That’s right! This one might be surprising, but thanks to the fermentation process, sauerkraut is a powerful source of healthy bacteria. It’s made from fermented cabbage and other veggies, and filled with live cultures that can help boost your health—and it’s packed with vitamins like vitamin K and B6, which are beneficial for everyone.
Another surprising source of probiotics—the humble pickle. Try to get local or organic (versus mass-produced) pickles to ensure you get the maximum amount of probiotic. Refrigerated jars are best—those that are shelf-stable at room temperature have had all that beneficial bacteria removed from them.
Miso is a paste made from fermented rye, rice, beans, or barley, and during that process this salty soup grows tons of active cultures. Add a little to hot water and boil to create miso and get a healthy dose of probiotic power.
This ancient Chinese beverage dates back more than 2,000 years and is created by fermenting black tea. You can get a kit to brew it at home or find it bottled in specialty stores.
With less than 0.5% alcohol by volume, ginger beer is naturally fermented and a great option when you want a refreshing drink that’s packed with probiotics.
Similar to yogurt, this dairy-based beverage is made by the fermentation process that happens when kefir grains are added to milk. It’s great over cereal or on its own, is available in different fruit flavors, and supplies lots of probiotics and a healthy dose of protein.
A staple in Korean cuisine, this spicy version of sauerkraut is usually made with vinegar, garlic, salt, and chili peppers.
Fermented meats and fish
Pickled eggs or pig’s feet, corned beef, pickled herring, and other similar fermented meat and fish products can also have healthy bacteria (even if they might not be as appetizing as other probiotic-rich foods).
You might not realize it, but things like fermented mustard, hot sauce, and relish can all contain probiotics. Check labels to find different products that list beneficial organisms as ingredients.
You don’t have to build your entire diet plan around these foods—just by adding them in wherever you can, you should reap some rewards. Something as simple as eating a cup of yogurt a day can have a big impact on your gut health. By eating the right foods, you won’t just up your probiotic levels—you’ll boost your overall health, too.
For example, items like yogurt or sauerkraut contain plenty of beneficial vitamins and minerals, like vitamin D and E and calcium.
Final considerations to keep in mind
Probiotics are worth adding to your diet, and can have a tremendous impact on your health and wellbeing. But there are several things you’ll need to keep in mind that can impact the results you get.
- Talk to your doctor first. A medical professional can help you figure out whether or not probiotics are right for you and your lifestyle.
- Pay attention to ingredients. Even a yogurt that’s packed with probiotics may not be the best choice if it’s filled with artificial sugars and flavorings. Going organic and natural is always better.
- Know what to expect. Getting a healthy gut doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, you’ll gradually start to see improvement in digestion and overall health as you add fermented foods and probiotics to your diet. Don’t give up after a few days—stick with your probiotic regimen and you’ll should start to see a difference soon enough.
- A healthy overall diet will get you better results. All the probiotics in the world can’t undo a diet filled with sugar and processed food!
Simply put, probiotics are worth looking into—research has shown these beneficial bacteria can have a tremendous impact on your wellbeing. Adding probiotic-rich foods into your diet could be the right first step toward a healthier gut, and better overall health.
Illustration by Foley Wu, Photo credit: Paul Delmont