'Bacteria in our gut enable us to live. We could not survive without bacteria. … They allow us to digest food, to assimilate the nutrients in our food; and they play a huge role, just beginning to be understood, in our immune functioning and in many other processes in our bodies. All life has evolved from bacteria and no other form of life has lived without bacteria. … Our bacteria perform all sorts of essential functions for us, and because we are continually attacking them effectively with all of these chemicals in our lives, simply replenishing and diversifying these populations has a benefit for us.' Sandor Katz
Not all of us walk around aware that there is a living, thriving, non-human colony of organisms that resides in our digestive tract. Your large intestine is home to approximately 4 pounds of beneficial bacteria, collectively known as the microbiome. This microbiome consists of thousands of different strains of bacteria, totaling up at around one hundred trillion cells.
In fact, bacterial cells outnumber human cells by a ratio of around 10:1. They provide innumerable functions for us, many of which are probably still unknown, but include digestive, absorptive and assimilation functions. The microbiome influences the immune, endocrine and cardiovascular systems.
Fermented foods are foods that have been through a process of lacto-fermentation in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid. This process preserves the food, and creates beneficial enzymes, B vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotics (beneficial bacteria). The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented foods enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These bacteria promote and support the growth and development of those healthy bacteria throughout your intestines. Probiotics are a supplemental form of beneficial bacteria that can be used to bolster the microbiome, balance immunity or to be used for specific conditions.
It turns out that there are a lot of good reasons to consider incorporating probiotic rich foods or a good form of probiotic supplementation into your daily regime, including:
- Regulation of bowel function, improving both constipation and diarrhea
- Supporting the breakdown of proteins into free amino acids
- Aiding the digestion of lactose, improving intolerance
- Reducing intestinal inflammation, the cornerstone of many digestive disruptions and disorders
- Reducing gas and associated pain
- Optimizing intestinal pH, creating an unfriendly environment for pathogenic (unfriendly) bacteria, yeasts and other harmful organisms
- Short chain fatty acids are a major fuel source for the cells in the gastrointestinal tract and are manufactured by the good bacteria in your microbiome
- Supporting the manufacturing of B vitamins and vitamin K
- Changing the structure of certain plant compounds such as flavonoids so they can be optimized by your cells.
- Preventing and treating antibiotic-associated diarrhea
- Creating a buffer against food poisoning and the toxins released from bacterial, yeast or parasitic infections.
- Supplementation with probiotics aids in the treatment of urinary tract infections, yeast infections and thrush
- Activating and supporting the immune system.
- Helping your body break down and rebuild hormones
- The microbiome serves a role in body composition, altering leanness and fatness
- Recycling bile acids, indirectly boosting digestive fire in yet another way
- In those with liver disease, probiotics reduce ammonia levels in the blood
- Supporting cholesterol balance and aiding in the lowering of triglyceride levels.
- Protecting the entire gastrointestinal system, beginning by keeping teeth and gums healthy
Probiotics that have strains of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus in them do the best to rebalance the microbiome by increasing diversity, killing or crowding out bad guys, repairing the intestinal lining and calming down the immune system so it is not producing inflammatory compounds in excess.
Ideally, you want to get your probiotics from daily servings of fermented foods. They can be an acquired taste, but both you, and your microbiome will grow to enjoy their unique and health promoting qualities. Some options are:
Kimchi – a traditional Korean dish made of cabbage and spices. It is one of the world's 1st lacto-fermented foods
Sauerkraut - fermented cabbage traditionally made with salt and caraway seeds which both enhance flavor and boost nutritional content.
Unpasteurized Vinegar - among the world’s first preservatives, raw vinegars, made from unpasteurized juice of fruits, contain all the nutrients and enzymes of the fruit used, for example, apple cider vinegar contains all the nutrients of apples: pectin, acetic and malic acids and B vitamins.
Kvass - an old Eastern European brew traditionally created by fermenting rye or barley. In our modern era it usually made with fruits and various root vegetables.
Pickles - when cucumbers are preserved in vinegar, you get pickles, but when you soak cucumbers in salt-water brine, you get probiotic pickles!!! One pickle can contain up to 20 percent of your daily Vitamin K value. Pickles are commonly processed and come in many forms (including relish, dill pickle, sweet pickles and the like),it becomes important to make sure what you purchase is ‘cultured,’ ‘unpasteurized,’ or ‘lactofermented.’
Kombucha - a fermented beverage, composed of black tea and sugar that originated in China about 2,000 years ago. Once fermented, the sugary tea transforms into a carbonated, fizzy drink, high in enzymes, probiotics, advantageous acids, small amounts of alcohol, and vinegar.
Kefir – when made from water or coconut water, it presents a dairy free option, higher in probiotics than traditional yogurt.
As a nutrition consultant with a focus on digestive health, one of the most common questions that I get asked is what to look for in a non-food based probiotic supplement. There are so many probiotic products out there on the market, it can be tough to look through all the hype and label claims and truly decide which is best.
When looking for a good probiotic supplement, there are a few criteria to look for (1; 2; 3; 4):
- It contains both Lactobacilus and Bifidobacter strains
- Your supplement should have many strains of Bifidobacter and Lactobacillus species. Diversity is key and what is naturally prevalent in a healthy microbiome. Multiple strain probiotics are very well studied and show great benefit.
- Look for one that has at least 20 billion CFUs for general use, closer to 100 billion CFUs if you are struggling with GI complaints or conditions.
- Your probiotic should only contain probiotics. Many probiotic products have enzymes, prebiotics, veggie powders and other 'boosters in them. I have found these to be not as effective/well-tolerated as pure probiotics.
- If you are avoiding dairy or have sensitivity, make sure you look for a hypoallergenic product free from milk and other allergens. Probiotics are often grown on a dairy 9or soy) medium so beware!
- Avoid too many prebiotics in the product: Prebiotics are certain types of fibers that help feed the probiotics. If you eat vegetables, you get plenty of prebiotics and there is no need to supplement with them. The prebiotics often used in probiotics are FOS - fructooligosaccharide - and inulin which can be very irritating and gas-causing, and is one of the most common reasons for gas when supplementing with a probiotic.
- It should go without saying, but stay away from products with dyes and preservatives
When considering dosage, most dealing with digestive distress need to be on a dose of probiotics of 50-100 billion CFUs (colony forming units, a standard measure of quantity of probiotics). This is to effect therapeutic action of balancing the microbiome, repairing the lining of the intestine and reducing intestinal inflammation. Many products are insufficient and reading labels becomes important.
Many probiotics are marketed as being able to withstand the harsh stomach environment as if they are unique or of higher quality than others. The only way people have ever been inoculated with beneficial bacteria is through consuming them. From an evolutionary perspective, these beneficial bacteria can withstand the low pH of the stomach to colonize the large intestine.
I love probiotics. I have seen them, over and over, change lives, particularly done in the context of gut restoration. There are many facets in achieving digestive health and function and integrating them all can support your health goals and, if necessary, get you on the road to feeling better. Beneficial bacteria and the microbiome are such a huge piece of this digestive puzzle and through current and trending research, we are only going to learn more.