Probiotics: A Complete Guide
Turn on the news or open the latest newspaper and you will see the term probiotic popping up everywhere. Until 5 or 10 years ago, you rarely heard the term probiotic, let alone microbiome, but today it is commonly used in everything from television ads to food packaging. But do you even know what it means? Here is a simple guide all about probiotics; what they are, why you need them, and where you can get them in your diet.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeast that are considered good for our health. The word probiotic is the compound of two words; pro meaning “in favor of”, and biotic meaning “life”, defining probiotics as life-promoting. The World Health Organization defines a probiotic as any living microorganism that has a health benefit when ingested. Probiotics are essentially an army of beneficial bacteria present in the body, specifically the digestive tract, which support general health and well-being. These friendly bacteria are present in the billions in our bodies, in fact, our human cells are outnumbered ten to one by bacteria. There are a variety of different strains of probiotic bacteria, lactobacillus being the most well know, however other strains include bifidobacteria, saccharomyces, streptococcus, and many more which all have vitally important functions in the body.
Why do we need probiotics?
Probiotics, or our gut bacteria, make up our body’s microbiome which has many important influences on the body. In fact, research continues to show how incredibly interconnected our bodies are to our microbiome, some research even considers our microbiome an organ itself. Here are some of the many benefits of a healthy microbiome:
- Improves digestive health
- Improves nutrient absorption
- Supports the immune system
- Reduces inflammation
- Prevents overgrowth of “bad” bacteria
- Synthesis of B Vitamins & Vitamin K
Researchers are still discovering how exactly probiotics work in the body and their many benefits, however, there is growing evidence that our gut health can impact everything from digestive disorders like IBS and IBD to skin conditions, allergies, and even weight loss. Every individual’s microbiome is incredibly unique and diverse, much like our fingerprint, however, is equally as important. Probiotics have been present in us from the moment we entered the world, although our external environment and lifestyle can have a negative, and positive, impact on the health of our microbiome.
What impacts our microbiome?
Our internal bacterial environment is very lively and complex; at any one moment there are thousands of moving pieces and reactions occurring, and while our intestinal bacteria are pretty resilient, their health can be compromised when exposed repeatedly to environmental factors. There are many factors that can impact the health of our gut and microbiome, however, some of the most common include diet, lifestyle, and stress. A poor diet high in refined sugars, processed foods, and alcohol and low in fiber can have a negative impact on the microbiome, as well as high levels of stress and repeated antibiotic use. The word antibiotic is literally the opposite of the word probiotic (anti meaning “opposed to”, biotic meaning “life”) so although antibiotics can help to kill off any harmful bacteria, they also kill off any beneficial bacteria as well. In order to ensure we have a flourishing microbiome, it is important to focus on whole foods and limit processed foods to ensure that our beneficial bacteria greatly outways our “bad” bacteria as they help to keep out fungi and yeasts.
Where do we get probiotics?
Most often, probiotics are made via fermentation, and it is important to note that probiotics are not a new concept. Throughout history, cultures have produced and consumed at least one form of fermented food in their diet, as fermentation was a form of preservation long before refrigeration. Fermentation not only helps to increase beneficial bacteria but can help to remove anti-nutrients, ensuring that it is more easily digested. Nowadays, many of us consume little (if any at all) probiotics in the form of food, and although the word probiotic might conjure up images of yogurt, there are many more foods that are rich in probiotics:
- Fermented Vegetables
- Cultured Yogurt
Note that not all forms of fermented foods are created equal. In order for pickled vegetables and sauerkrauts to be rich in probiotics, they must be naturally fermented and not contain vinegar, while yogurts must be free of added sugars, additives, and their ingredients should only contain “whole milk and live bacterial culture”. Not only are the ingredients in these foods important, but their natural preparation method is important as well.
In addition to probiotic-rich foods, probiotics are also made naturally in our digestive tracts from consuming foods rich in prebiotics such as onions, leeks, garlic, bananas, apples, pears, asparagus, artichokes, yams, yicama, and oats. These types of food are rich in prebiotic fibers, namely inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides, that allow probiotic bacteria to grow and thrive.
What about probiotic supplements?
Probiotics can also be found in supplemental form varying in bacterial type (strain), quantity (CFUs), and format (capsule vs. liquid) and they can be beneficial in some cases. It is important to note that not all probiotic supplements are created equal, you get what you pay for, so not all forms are as beneficial. Additionally, the benefits experienced from one probiotic strain may be completely different from the benefits experienced from another strain so it is best to know what strain you need. For instance, if you are sensitive to dairy, don’t opt for a probiotic grown on a dairy strain, as it can make your digestive symptoms worse. If you are unsure, look for a trusted reputable brand with diverse strains without any additives, or speak to a healthcare practitioner to learn what is best for you.
The Bottom Line
In general, you can support your digestive health and microbiome by eating a diet rich in whole foods, and prebiotic-rich foods and incorporating fermented foods daily to help ensure you are thriving with beneficial bacteria!