Gut-friendly probiotics are having a moment. Gut health has been a priority for many people over the past few years as researchers have become more aware of the vital role the gut microbiome has in helping to maintain overall health. From keeping harmful bacteria in check to supporting immune function and aiding in nutrient absorption, probiotics do a lot of work to keep your body functioning at its very best.
What are probiotics?
The word “probiotic” is a Greek-derived word that means “for life.” According to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, provide a health benefit to the host. Probiotics can be consumed in a supplement form or from some foods.
To break it down further, probiotic foods should contain specific strains shown in the research setting to offer health benefits. “Just because a food has live microbes, such as most fermented foods, it does not mean the microbes in the product are probiotics,” says Kate Scarlata MPH, RD, GI dietitian and New York Times best-selling author. The health effects are dependent on the genus, species and strain of the microbe. In other words, the different strains of a probiotic may provide different health effects. For example, if you are struggling with constipation, certain strains of probiotics like Bifidobacterium lactis or Lactobacillus plantarum may be more effective at treating constipation compared to other probiotic strains. Kumkum Patel M.D, adds, “Probiotics are important because they are often responsible for making neurotransmitters such as GABA, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine which are responsible for influencing mood and pain perception.”
One of the many ways you can support the health of your gut is by adding gut-healthy foods and probiotic sources to your diet. Here’s where it gets a bit complex: “Many fermented food products in the market contain microbes, but this does not mean that they contain probiotics,” says Scarlata — specifically, foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and some yogurts. She adds, “If the microbes in a fermented food are uncharacterized, which is the vast majority, then these foods do not meet the definition of probiotics.” With that being said, one small study suggests that adding six servings of foods with live and active cultures per day can be very beneficial for your gut microbiome. So if you are looking to diversify the good “bugs” in your gut and possibly reap its health benefits then add these 10 foods to your eating routine.
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Yogurt is made from milk fermented by lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria which are the friendly kind of bacteria, and it happens to be one of the best sources of probiotics. Packed with nutrients like protein, calcium and vitamin D, yogurt may improve bone health and lower the risk factors for cardiovascular disease and dysbiosis (an imbalance of good vs. bad bacteria in the gut microbiome). One study investigated the effects of yogurt consumption on the GI microbiome and found that regular yogurt consumption was associated with reduced stress indicators and also increased the diversity of the gut microbiome.
But not all yogurt contains live probiotics. The key to making the best probiotic yogurt choice is to look for “live and active cultures” on the label or check for the seal by the International Dairy Foods Association to verify the probiotic contents.
Sauerkraut is raw cabbage fermented through the process of lactic acid bacteria fermentation, during which it produces good bacteria. Lactobacillus, a beneficial probiotic, grows and thrives in this flavorful brine environment. It has a tangy, sour taste and “can be a nice addition to sandwiches, salads, and as a side dish,” says Amanda Sauceda, MS, RDN, a dietitian who specializes in gastrointestinal health. Sauerkraut also packs in other nutrients like vitamin K. “Sauerkraut has a variety of research looking at possible antioxidant benefits, effects on your gut health, and even some research looking at helping people with IBS,” adds Sauceda.
If you are looking to get into sauerkraut for its potential probiotic contents, it can be carefully homemade or you can purchase raw unpasteurized sauerkraut which will appear in the refrigerated section of your grocery store or farmer’s market. Even then, the chances that probiotics exist are pretty slim, according to the experts. The shelf-stable kind is likely pasteurized, meaning it has been heated to a temperature that eliminates or kills off all live and active cultures, including the good bacteria.
Kombucha is a drink made by fermenting black or green tea, sugar, yeast and bacteria and is commonly known as a potential source of probiotics. According to the current research, the fermentation process comes with many unknowns, from the various methods of tea extraction to the undefined compositions and effects of microorganisms on bioactive compounds from the tea. There’s room for future studies to confirm the health-promoting activities of this popular fermented drink. The downside is that there’s not a lot of live or active culture in a typical brew once it’s done, so it may not offer an abundance of probiotics compared to the probiotic drink kefir. But it contains several species of lactic acid bacteria which may have probiotic functions. The nutritional content of kombucha will vary depending on the brand you go with and how it’s prepped, so be sure to check the nutrition label for the specifics.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink typically made from cow’s milk that contains several strains of good bacteria and yeast. The most common microorganisms commonly found in kefir are L. plantarum and L. acidophilus. If you are lactose intolerant you may be able to digest kefir at ease with no GI discomfort. That’s because it contains active lactase enzymes which help to break down the lactose in food so your body can absorb it. Recent research highlights kefir as a functional food with many health-promoting properties, from supporting digestion to offering benefits for those with diabetes.
Kimchi is a Korean food staple that is made by fermenting vegetables with lactic acid bacteria. Kimchi is nutrient-dense and packed with iron, folate and vitamins B6 and K. “There is research looking at kimchi’s potential impact on the gut but many of these are small studies,” says Sauceda. Lacto-fermentation uses Lactobacillus to break sugars down into lactic acid, which gives kimchi its tangy or sour taste. Most kimchi you’ll see on the shelves at the grocery store undergoes pasteurization before it’s packaged and therefore does not contain any traces of probiotics. To make sure you’re getting your probiotics, double-check the food label to see if it contains live or added probiotics, including the specific strains.
Some soft cheeses like gouda or goat cheese may contain healthy bacteria that survive the cheese-making process. The natural bacteria in raw, or unpasteurized, milk stays alive during cheese-making, as the cheese ferments. A number of studies have tested the effects of adding probiotics to the cheese-making process. One study suggests that incorporating probiotic strains L. acidophilus or B. lactis during goat ricotta cheese-making may be beneficial to the gut as it creates an environment that can maintain the viability of these probiotics during storage. To find a good cheese, talk to an expert at the store to help you select the best kind. You can also check the food labels to see if the cheese is either aged or made from raw unpasteurized milk and ensure that the cheese was stored properly and not cooked or melted to better preserve any existing cultures.
Cucumbers left to ferment in salted water using their natural lactic acid bacteria may act like probiotics or contain small traces, but it’s not super clear. When it comes to store-bought pickles, they’re not always fermented. Most store-bought pickles are made with vinegar and cucumbers, and although this gives the pickles a tangy taste, it doesn’t mean that it leads to natural fermentation. Quick tip! When choosing a jar of pickles, look for “lactic acid fermented pickles” which are often made by a manufacturer that uses organic products and brine. Most pickles are high in sodium, so be mindful of that too.
A popular Japanese breakfast food, natto is a fermented soybean product with a stringy texture. It’s often consumed for its nutritious nature because the soybeans undergo a process of fermentation creating conditions that can help promote the growth of good bacteria. During this process of forming natto, the soybeans are soaked and cooked, then mixed with the strain B. subtilis to allow fermentation for up to 24 hours at a set temperature. Shortly after, it is cooled and aged in the fridge. Natto is also a good source of protein and vitamin K, which promotes healthy bones. “There is research looking at natto having anti-osteoporosis effects with perimenopausal women,” says Sauceda. Natto is typically eaten with rice or with simple add-on ingredients and can be found in most Asian supermarkets.
Fermented beets undergo a similar process to fermented pickles and may contain some live and active cultures, along with other nutrients like folate, iron and manganese. The strain likely found in raw fermented beets are L. plantarum and L. paracasei according to one study, but larger studies are needed to confirm this. To reap the greatest benefits of raw fermented beets, choose those made by natural fermentation or with raw, unpasteurized vinegar. Some varieties of pickled beets may pack in extra salt and added sugars, so check the labels.
Miso is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji which is a type of fungus. It is a nutritious Japanese food staple rich in B vitamins and the unpasteurized form may contain some good bacteria that can help promote digestive health, including L. acidophilus or A. oryzae. “There hasn’t been a lot of research specifically looking at miso, but that doesn’t discount the benefits of this fermented food,” says Sauceda. One study suggests that the probiotics in this condiment may help reduce symptoms linked to digestive problems including inflammatory bowel disease.
Prebiotics are unique plant fibers that help probiotics thrive in your gut. “They may be even more important for our gut health in many ways, helping feed the innate health-promoting commensal gut flora,” says Scarlata. Foods that contain natural prebiotics include but are not limited to bananas, onion, asparagus, garlic and oats, both cooked and raw. When you look at a food label, you might notice “inulin” or “chicory root powder” — they contain prebiotics and are commonly used in many food products. Prebiotics may also help increase the bioavailability of calcium, reduce the likelihood of pathogenic microbes, support immune function and improve intestinal permeability.
Probiotic Foods vs. Supplements: Which is better?
Both probiotic foods and supplements have their own benefits. “Probiotic foods offer nutrients and by-products of fermentation in the final product. Yogurt for instance provides calcium and lactic acid,” says Scarlata. She also adds that when it comes to supplements, “They have the potential benefit of providing a more specific amount of probiotic per caplet or tablet — the specific amount associated with a positive health outcome based on the research.”
How do you know if you need more probiotics?
The research isn’t super clear on that, but generally, “you need more probiotics in your diet for indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, depression and fatigue,” says Dr. Patel. In addition, “there are some disease states such as IBS, abdominal bloating, C.Difficile infection and antibiotic-associated diarrhea where probiotics have been shown to be helpful,” says Scarlata. As we all have our own individual gut microbes, taking specific probiotics should be individualized and that typically requires a trial-and-error approach. For more information, you can refer to the US clinical guide for probiotics for specific data.
Can you consume too many probiotics?
As of now, there is no specific recommended amount of probiotics to consume per day as research is still ongoing. Depending on your current health status, your healthcare provider may recommend more or less. According to the National Institutes of Health, the probiotic supplement dosage is 1 to 10 billion colony-forming units (CFU). If you’ve been dealing with uncomfortable digestive symptoms while taking probiotics, chances are you might be taking too much. “Too many probiotics can actually lead to bloating and gas because it is a change in the gut bacteria which will ferment fiber,” says Dr. Patel. “The gut microbiota is so individual that we cannot make a formulation that fits all guts.”
Things to Remember When Shopping for Probiotic-Rich Foods
- Probiotic-containing food products will have “live and active cultures” listed on the food label.
- Be mindful of added sugars. It’s best to eat probiotic foods closest to their natural state to reap their health benefits.
- The food product should also list all the probiotic strains found in the product on the food label. The more strains, the merrier.
- Many shelf-stable fermented foods might claim to have probiotics, but many varieties of these products have been heat-treated for food safety reasons, which means probiotics have been killed off.
- If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, many health organizations recommend avoiding unpasteurized fermented products. Consult with your doctor for all medical advice.
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