We often hear the term “probiotics” tossed around. Some of us even take probiotic supplements because we have been told that they are good for us. Yet, many people don’t actually know what probiotics are or how they are beneficial. Probiotics foods are essentially foods that contain live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your body and can help to restore healthy gut flora.
We tend to assume that bacteria are bad for our health, and in many cases this is true. Many bacteria can be detrimental to health and can even cause serious health problems. Probiotics are important because they work to hold unhealthy bacteria in check. Probiotics foods contain the “good” bacteria that contribute to digestive or “gut” health and if you wish to restore your gut flora to good health, then probiotics in the diet will help you get there.
How Do Probiotics Work?
The basic concept behind probiotics is that the bacteria in the probiotic food can seed the growth of a good bacterial colony in the gut. Many people assume that probiotics simply adds the good gut bacteria to the gut, making up the numbers so to speak. But there are literally trillions of bacteria in the gut already and the addition of a few billion bacteria from a probiotic food is just a drop in the ocean.
No, for probiotics to work, the gut is where the work is done. Probiotics can help kick-start the growth of good bacteria, but it can’t top up the numbers of good bacteria in any meaningful way.
Now for probiotics to work effectively, the environment in the gut has to conducive for the growth of the good bacteria. This means there must be a plentiful supply of food for the good bacteria. This is where prebiotics comes in.
Prebiotics foods are essential for a healthy gut. Prebiotics are foods that contain special fibers that good bacteria digest and ferment. Many people with a gut flora imbalance eat very unbalanced fatty diets which restrict the growth of good bacteria.
Probiotics will do nothing for these individuals: even if the ‘yogurt drink’ bacteria make it past the destruction metered out by stomach acid, the good bacteria will find the gut a hostile place to arrive at with trillions of competing bad bacteria and no food. However, if the diet is enriched with prebiotics, then those lucky few probiotics bacteria that make it past the stomach, will find the gut welcoming, with bad bacteria in retreat and plentiful food to recolonize the gut.
What are the different types of intestinal bacteria?
There are many different types of intestinal bacteria but when it comes to probiotics, they are basically classified into two groups:
- Lactobacillus is found in yogurt and other fermented foods. It can help individuals who are lactose intolerant and can help when you are suffering from diarrhea. Lactobacillus may be the most common type of probiotic.
- Bifidobacterium is found in some dairy products. Some people say it can relieve some of the symptoms and discomfort associated with irritable bowel syndrome and some other conditions.
Diseases probiotics prevent by restoring a Gut Flora Imbalance
The balance of gut flora is one of the most exciting areas of research today. The is now a wealth of evidence linking an imbalance in gut flora with a wide variety of both mental and physical diseases which one would never have guessed were to do with the gut.
If there is an absence of prebiotics in the diet, the good bacteria slowly die and are replaced by bacteria that may be a pathogen or a bacteria associated with one of the many gut bacteria diseases.
Probiotics can help restore healthy gut bacteria as long as it is combined with prebiotics. But if the gut flora imbalance becomes too severe, a range of diseases can result. The disease caused by an imbalance of gut flora are covered extensively here, but below is a summary of the diseases with research sources attached.
- Immune system (3)
- Infant Colic (4)
- Diabetes (5)
- Heart disease (6)
- Brain development (7)
- Obesity (8)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (9)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (10)
- Brain function and morphology(11)
- Schizophrenia (13)
- Parkinsons disease (14)
- Althzeimers (15)
- Metabolism (16)
- Arthritis (17),(18)
- Lupus (19), (20)
- Multiple Sclerosis (21),(22)
- Liver disease (23), (24)
I bet you didn’t think your gut bacteria were that important! Everything from obesity to brain function now seems to be related to changes in gut flora. This list if nothing else should make you think very carefully about you gut bacteria. Probiotics are only half the answer to restore healthy gut flora with prebiotics the other half.
Although there are many probiotic supplements on the market, you can get sufficient amounts of probiotics from the food you eat. In fact, chances are good that you already consume many foods with probiotics. But if you are not sure, below are the best probiotics that you can eat and if you combine them with prebiotics, you will be well on your way to restoring your healthy gut flora.
Probiotic Foods to Restore Healthy Gut Flora
Yogurt has many health benefits and is one of the best options if you are seeking to restore healthy gut flora by incorporating more probiotics into your diet. To get full probiotic benefits, look for yogurt with live cultures. Yogurt made from goat’s milk is even higher in probiotics than yogurt made from cow’s milk. Many yogurts contain multiple probiotics, including Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis.
If you are trying to improve your child’s gut health, yogurt is the only probiotic that kids seem to like.
While homemade yogurt is best, it’s not always practical. One of the best widely available options for yogurt is Activia, a brand from Dannon (1). Beware: Many popular yogurts contain corn syrup and artificial flavors. Be sure to thoughtfully read the list of ingredients on any commercially purchased yogurt.
Kefir is a fermented dairy product, similar to yogurt. It is typically made from goat’s milk fermented with kefir grains, a combination of bacteria and yeast. Kefir is high in both lactobacilli and bifidus bacteria, and it also has the benefit of being antioxidant rich (2). Kefir, unlike yogurt, is usually consumed by drinking. It also contains high levels of vitamin B12, magnesium, calcium and folate.
Sauerkraut, made from fermented cabbage, is often hailed as a superfood. Certainly, sauerkraut is a good source for probiotics because it contains a number of live cultures resulting from the fermentation process. Some research suggests that sauerkraut may help alleviate some symptoms resulting from allergies (25). It is also high in vitamins A, B, C and K.
Similar to cabbage, kimchi is very spicy, fermented cabbage. In traditional Korean cuisine, kimchi is served as a side dish accompanying many meals. It has all the benefits of sauerkraut but also contains calcium, iron and potassium. Kimchi is one of the best choices for probiotic foods.
Miso is made from fermented beans, rye, barley or rice. It has traditionally been a cornerstone in Japanese healing. People on macrobiotic diets use it to regulate digestion (26). Miso contains lactobacilli and bifidus bacteria and is easily made into a health-promoting broth by simply mixing miso paste with hot water. Cubes of tempeh may be added for a double dose of probiotic goodness. Miso is particularly rich in a number of nutrients. Research suggests that miso may mitigate some effects of environmental pollution and reduce the effects of carcinogens in the body, effectively helping to fight cancer (27).
In the Western world, we often use the term “pickle” to refer to pickled cucumbers, but any pickled vegetable is a good choice for probiotics (28). Pickles are a fermented food, naturally containing “good” bacteria, while the brine used to pickle vegetables feeds these bacteria, especially when the brine is at the right concentration of salt (29).
6. Green Olives
Like pickles, green olives are typically prepared in brine, which ferments them. This process of fermentation means that they too have beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus pentosus. Green olives may be especially helpful for easing the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Tempeh is similar to tofu, except tempeh is created through a process of fermentation. Like tofu, it is high in protein and often used as a meat substitute. It is low in sodium and is a good source of vitamin B12. Tempeh, because it is fermented, offers many probiotic benefits as well.
Kombucha is a fermented beverage made from tea, sugars and other flavors. Because it is fermented, kombucha is another excellent source of probiotics, as it contains both yeast and “good” bacteria (30). Some studies suggest that kombucha may even support weight loss (31).
Green, or English, peas contain Leuconostoc mesenteroides, a probiotic found in many fermented foods. They work to stimulate immune responses. Canned peas aren’t the best choice, but fresh green peas are great.
10. Bonus: Chocolate
Ok, so chocolate is not technically a probiotic food. However, dark chocolate works as a carrier for probiotics by helping probiotics survive in the digestive tract (32). Go ahead then and enjoy high-quality dark chocolate in moderation!
- Do combine probiotics with prebiotics. Probiotics will not work without prebiotics.What’s the Takeaway?
- Avoid excessively fatty and unvaried diets. Your gut flora need a balanced diet to flourish
- Do take prebiotic supplements as an easy way of getting the necessary fiber into your gut.
- Don’t buy yogurt that is excessively sweetened with corn syrup and sugar. The sugars promote the growth of bad bacteria and undo all your good work
- Don’t give up after a few weeks if nothing has changed. Changing the balance of your gut flora is a slow process that can take months.