Bacteria. The word itself seems repugnant and creepy-crawly. From our earliest years in school, when our teachers would explain the dangers of germs and the need to wash our hands, most of us have had a natural aversion to bacteria. We buy antibacterial soap and use bleach to clean the bathroom and keep our food cold in the fridge … all to prevent bacteria from spreading and harming us.
Yet in recent years, there has been a growing popular understanding that this once universal enemy is actually alive and active - and useful - deep inside our digestive system. Scientists estimate that a typical human has approximately 100 trillion bacteria, from up to 1000 different species, living in the nooks and crannies of our digestive tract. This thriving system of microorganisms is itself a gut microbiome that we have somewhat of a symbiotic relationship with.
These bacteria—often referred to as “gut bacteria” or “gut flora”—live in various parts of our digestive tract, but the site of the largest variety of bacteria is in the colon. In the colon, these naturally-occurring bacteria perform a number of different beneficial functions, including the production of vitamins (like biotin and vitamin K), the prevention of the growth of harmful bacteria species, and the fermentation of unused energy substrates.
Scientists are just now beginning to grasp that these beneficial bacteria are not only important for a healthy gut but also for our overall health and well-being. Recent studies have shown that gut bacteria may be instrumental in fighting a number of diseases as well as improving immune system health. Additionally, researchers are exploring the “gut-brain axis,” the chemical pathways between the gastrointestinal system and the central nervous system; it is possible that good gut health may assist in reducing susceptibility to autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis.
What Are Probiotics?
So what does this have to do with probiotics? Probiotics are essentially externally grown live microorganisms that are meant to supplement our naturally-occurring gut flora. Their purpose is to go beyond adding to our gut microbiome and additionally foster the development of the healthy bacteria already present in our digestive system. In other words, they are the gastrointestinal equivalent of fresh troops sent to the front line to help do the work of making our digestive processes healthy and effective.
Many probiotics are naturally present in foods that are readily available. However, in recent years, there has been a sharp increase in probiotic supplements; usually in the form of pills, these supplements are meant to be an immediate infusion of tens of millions of good bacteria that are theoretically incorporated into our gut microbiome when digested.
What are the Health Benefits of Probiotics?
Why do we need probiotics? Do they work? Since this area of research is still relatively new, there is still some debate about whether they are needed or are truly beneficial. Preliminary studies haven’t shown a benefit for those who already have a healthy gastrointestinal system, but there have been promising results for those with some specific digestive problems.
One of the best examples of probiotics being beneficial to health is in connection with antibiotic treatments. Any time a doctor prescribes an antibiotic—almost always to combat a specific bacterial infection—there is a high chance that large swaths of native and beneficial bacteria can be wiped out by the medication. In these instances, probiotics have been shown to foster the regrowth of some of the bacteria that was lost because of the antibiotics.
Other research has shown that probiotics can be beneficial in neonatal care in hospitals. The gut bacteria that we rely on so much isn’t immediately established at our birth; on the contrary, it can take until we are 1-2 years old until our gut flora is fully developed and functioning properly. One study showed that the use of probiotics reduced the chances of prematurely born infants developing necrotizing enterocolitis, an often deadly condition that can affect babies who are born before their due dates.
Another more common benefit of probiotics is for those with irritable bowel syndrome, a chronic condition that can have a whole set of unpleasant symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, or abdominal pain. Though the precise reasons have not been fully understood, evidence has shown that probiotics have helped control some of these symptoms that accompany IBS.
Misconceptions About Probiotic Foods
With all the apparent “hype” about probiotics these days, it’s easy to be confused or overwhelmed by all the different sources of information. One of the biggest misconceptions is the certainty with which many companies advertise their products; indeed, many claim that their products can have a positive impact on various digestive functions in addition to afflictions like obesity and depression. The truth of the matter is, though, that the scientific community has still found very little evidence for many of the claims. For this reason, it is wise to be skeptical when you see seemingly outlandish claims.
Here are some other misconceptions to be aware of:
- More bacteria or a greater number of species aren’t necessarily better. Some products tout the number of bacteria in the food or supplement, but having a greater number of bacteria hasn’t been shown to necessarily have an enhanced effect.
- Sugar in a food doesn’t negatively impact the effectiveness of the probiotics.
- Probiotics don’t have to change your gut microbiome in order to be effective; with some strains, simply passing through the digestive system can be beneficial.
- Not all fermented foods have probiotics; foods and beverages that have been additionally processed (like beer or wine) after the fermentation process end up eliminating the helpful bacteria.
- There is little to no evidence that probiotics are beneficial to those who already have a healthy and well-functioning gastrointestinal system.
What are the Best Probiotic Foods for Gut Health?
The jury is still out on probiotic supplements, in part because researchers seem to have found agreement that there is no “one size fits all” collection of probiotic strains that can have a positive impact on all people. But the probiotics naturally found in certain foods, however, have a demonstrated positive impact in people with various gastrointestinal maladies.
While not all fermented foods contain probiotics, a number of popular ones do, including yogurt and pickled vegetables; it is the process of using live, active cultures of microorganisms that transforms food into a fermented state. Below are some great options if you’re looking to add foods to your diet that are a good source of probiotics. The good news is that there is a rich, culturally diverse set of options to choose from:
- Kefir (fermented milk-based beverage)
- Sauerkraut (traditional German shredded, fermented cabbage)
- Tempeh (fermented soybean patty)
- Kimchi (traditional Korean fermented cabbage)
- Miso soup (traditional Japanese soup)
- Kombucha (fermented green tea-based beverage)
- Natto (Japanese dish similar to miso)
- Select cheeses (gouda, mozzarella, cheddar, cottage cheese)
- Brine-cured olives
- Sourdough bread
- Acidophilus milk
How to Add More Probiotic Foods to Your Diet
For some people, the list of foods above may not seem very welcome or appetizing. But the good news is that many of these foods can be added as elements to other more familiar options. One example is stirring in oats or nuts to yogurt or making a yogurt smoothie. Also, tempeh is a versatile product and, like tofu, can be used as a flavorful meat replacement in burgers or stir fry. Miso as a seasoning can be incorporated into almost any soup.
Talk Probiotics With a Doctor
If you still have questions about the possible benefits of probiotic foods—or if you have been experiencing some digestive health problems that are causing you discomfort— make an appointment to talk with a gastroenterologist at the GI Associates Endoscopy Center. The staff are experts in bowel health and will provide excellent medical advice.