Maybe you’ve seen the sudden influx of probiotic supplements on the shelves of your preferred supermarket or at your local pharmacy. Have you been wondering about probiotics in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir and kombucha? So what are probiotics and are they right for you? This article discusses the benefits of probiotics and who should take them.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live micro-organisms that are most commonly available and consumed as dietary supplements but they are also found in a wide variety of food. These micro-organisms are widely beneficial to your health which is why there has been a spurt of probiotic-rich foods such as kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi in the market these days.
You might associate micro-organisms, bacteria, fungus and yeast with super-bugs and sickness, but they’re actually found within every healthy body and some of them are absolutely vital to our health and wellbeing. These live microorganisms are individually known as probiotics and collectively called the microbiome.
Some of the most commonly found gut bacteria in adults are Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, Bacteroides, Clostridium, Escherichia, Streptococcus and Ruminococcus besides yeasts and other microbes. You may have hundreds of species within your gut but the human population as a whole has well over thousands. Together, they colonize your gut and the good bacteria live symbiotically with your body, conferring several health benefits.
What are the benefits of probiotics?
Probiotics provide the most benefits in cases of dysbiosis, which is a state of the gut in which the bacteria are out of balance. This may happen due to any number of reasons such as a bad diet and lifestyle, illness, or after a course of antibiotics.
These benefits of probiotics can be attributed to certain strains of good bacteria that have a positive interaction with our gut and the rest of the body. The benefits associated with them are:
- Improve digestive health
- Increase nutrient absorption
- Promote healthy bowel movements
- Reduce gastrointestinal issues like IBS, indigestion and gas
- Boosting energy levels
- Supporting and promoting immunity
- Improving skin health
- Augmenting mental health and mitigating the effects of anxiety, stress and depression
- Production several vitamins and fatty acids which maintain gut health
- Reducing the number of pathogenic bacteria
What are probiotics and prebiotics? Aren’t they the same?
Have you been hearing about prebiotics too? If you have, you’re probably unsure what are probiotics and prebiotics. While the terms do sound similar, there is a vast difference between the two. Here’s a summary of the biggest differentiating factors:
Probiotics are live beneficial microorganisms which include fungi, bacteria and yeast. In sufficient amounts, they are known to have tremendous health benefits such as:
- Improved digestion
- Enhanced immune function
- Protection against diseases
- Improved nutrient absorption
The two most common strains of probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These are known to survive the entire length of the gastro tract and make it all the way to the gut.
Probiotics need to be alive to have their desired effect and are easily killed by heat, light, stomach acid and moisture. They are consumed mostly as dietary supplements in the form of tablets, capsules and powder forms but are also found in certain foods.
These are a form of non-digestible food component that act as food for the probiotics and help augment the activity of good bacteria. They are essentially fiber and cannot be destroyed by conditions that would easily kill probiotics. As such they occur naturally in a whole range of food products which are high in fiber.
To sum it up, probiotics are the good bacteria in our gut while prebiotics is the source of food which nourishes them and allows them to thrive
Are there any risks associated with probiotics?
There is proof from individual studies and personal experiences that suggests a wide range of benefits of probiotics but well-studied cases are few and far in between. Most of the benefits are said to be helpful in relieving digestive discomfort and supporting the immune system. Some are slightly more specific such as prevention of colds, reduction in eczema and mitigation of symptoms related to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
There are studies that have shown that probiotics are good for those who have recently undergone a course of antibiotics. Antibiotics tend to eradicate the gut microbiome or kill the good bacterica with the bad. Probiotic supplements are highly effective at re-colonizing the gut following eradication, but this depends on many factors, including your health, your diet, and your medical condition. In other individuals the supplements simply pass through the gut without having any form of effect.
The most important thing to remember is that if you are healthy you probably do not need to consume probiotics. Most studies have shown that these supplements don’t affect the gut microbiome of healthy individuals and confer no medical benefits. In fact, they might have unexpected negative effects and so it is best to steer clear of such supplements and focus on consuming healthy food.
Know this before you begin with probiotics
If you are considering taking probiotics, keep the following in mind:
Microbial diversity is the cornerstone of a healthy gut. It is best to avoid consuming one type of probiotic for a long time. By switching it up, you can ensure optimal health of your gut.
Probiotics are known to be safe for healthy people but might pose risks for those who have compromised immunity. If you have any immunity-related conditions, do consult your medical practitioner before beginning any probiotic course.
Probiotics are usually available in fermented foods like sauerkraut or kombucha. These may have side effects such as gas and bloating when you start but these symptoms usually get better over time.
Probiotics work differently for everyone because we all have a unique and different gut ecosystem. If you want to reap the benefits of probiotics do consider taking them for a long time on a regular basis. Probiotics do not survive for long in the gut, so you would need to take them every day.
How to get your probiotics from natural sources
The most common way to add probiotics to your diet is through dietary supplements like pills, powders and tablets. However it is always recommended to get your probiotics from natural sources rather than through supplements as they contain other valuable nutrients.
The best way to safely take probiotics is through natural foods. If you aren’t convinced about supplements but want to enjoy the benefits of probiotics, you should consider eating different kinds of fermented foods.
Here are some fermented foods that are teeming with all sorts of beneficial micro-organisms:
Alternatively you could also consider prebiotics to help your microbiome function at optimal capacity. These are non-digestible food components that boost the activity of the good bacteria found in our guts.
Prebiotics are essentially fibre, which means that a diet high in fiber is high in prebiotics. Include foods such as the ones below to get your daily fill of prebiotics:
- Whole grains such as wheat, rye, barley and oats
The best way to support the microbiome is through a balanced and wholesome diet. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole foods fosters a healthy gut microbiome. Also ensure that you get regular exercise, avoid smoking and excessive drinking, and work on reducing stress to provide ideal conditions for a healthy gut.
How can I add probiotics to my daily diet?
The easiest breakfast is a bowl of muesli or granola with yoghurt, topped with berries or fresh fruit. The yoghurt adds a probiotic boost to the start of your day.
Add a scoop of kimchi, sauerkraut or pickled cucumbers to your meal to elevate it its probiotic benefits. Sauerkraut and kimchi taste great in salads or sandwiches, but if you don’t like the taste, add it to your stir-fry or rice.
Try drinking kefir or kombucha once a day. Both of these drinks are tangy and may take some getting used to, but can be mixed with more flavourful ingredients for those who don’t like the taste.
Sourdough bread is a good way to introduce probiotics slowly to your body. The fermentation process of the dough makes it rich in probiotics and taste.
Will the benefits of probiotics safeguard me against COVID?
No, probiotics will not protect you from COVID-10. Probiotics provide support to the immune function so they might support your body if you do contract the virus and experience symptoms, but it will not cure it or prevent it.
If you would like to discuss probiotics with a nutritionist, Avaana can help you find a nutritionist near you.