In the intricate landscape of our bodies, there exists a microscopic world teeming with life, where beneficial bacteria and yeast work tirelessly to support our well-being. These tiny superheroes are known as probiotics, and their impact on our health is nothing short of extraordinary.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are living microorganisms, primarily bacteria and yeast, that confer health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. These microorganisms are often referred to as "good" or "friendly" bacteria because of their positive role in maintaining a balanced microbial environment in our digestive system.
Understanding the Microbiome: Your Body's Ecosystem
Our gastrointestinal tract is home to trillions of microorganisms collectively known as the microbiome, outnumbering our cells ten to one. This diverse community includes both beneficial and harmful bacteria. Probiotics play a crucial role in maintaining a harmonious balance within this microbial ecosystem, contributing to overall digestive health and bolstering our immune system.
Health Benefits of Probiotics:
Digestive Harmony: Probiotics promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria, aiding in digestion and nutrient absorption. They can be particularly beneficial for individuals dealing with digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel diseases.
Boosting Immune Function: A significant portion of our immune system (around 70%) resides in the gut. Probiotics help modulate the immune response, supporting the body's defense mechanisms and reducing the risk of infections.
Balancing Gut Flora: Antibiotic use and certain lifestyle factors can disrupt the natural balance of gut bacteria. Probiotics act as reinforcements, restoring equilibrium and preventing the overgrowth of harmful bacteria.
Mood and Mental Well-being: Emerging research suggests a strong connection between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis. Probiotics may play a role in mental health by influencing neurotransmitter production and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Support for Women's Health: Probiotics can aid in maintaining a healthy balance of vaginal microflora, reducing the risk of infections such as yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.
Probiotics are also responsible for producing vitamin B12, butyrate and vitamin K2
Every person has her or his own distinctive blend of specific probiotics strains in the gut- no microbiome is the same. In majority of the cases, getting more probiotics into your body doesn't require you to go and get additional supplementation in a form of pills, as they are found in probiotic foods and probiotic drinks. But if you are anyone who has been taking courses of antibiotics in your life due to various bacterial infections, have not eaten so healthy in the past, live in an environment with toxic chemicals- you will most probably do good by adding good probiotics as supplements to your diet for a period of time.
How to get probiotics from foods and drinks?
Historically, we had plenty of probiotics in our diets as we ate fresh foods from good soil and we fermented foods to keep them from spoiling. In modern world, because of our agricultural practices, refrigeration, most of our foods contain little to no probiotics as well as our diets are low in fibre, which is food for the bacteria in our guts.
Therefore it's recommended to consume specific foods and drinks that are fermented. The process of microbial fermentation turns the ordinary foods into more nutritionally and functionally rich products, resulting in probiotics, prebiotics, and bioactive components. These functional ingredients act together in our gastrointestinal tract to modify the gut microbiota, activate the immune system, promote the absorption of nutrients and remove toxins. Below is a list of some fermented foods to add to your daily diet.
Very similar to yoghurt, this fermented probiotic drink is a unique combination of milk and fermented kefir grains. 'Kefir' originates from Turkey and Russia and means 'feel good'- it has been consumed thousands of years. It has slightly acidic flavour and it contains anywhere from 10 to 34 different strains of probiotics. It's fermented with yeast and bacteria and is higher in probiotics and lower in lactose than yoghurt.
It's typically made from fermented cabbage, but can also be made from other vegetables. Though it's not diverse in probiotics, it's high in organic acid, which supports the growth of good bacteria. It's also high in vitamin C, natural lactic acid bacteria and digestive enzymes.
It's made from young coconuts by fermenting the juice with kefir grains. It is typically not as high with probiotics as dairy kefir, but has some strains beneficial for your health. You can make a refreshing drink by adding some water, lime juice and stevia to coconut kefir.
Made by adding kefir grains to sugar water, which as a result of fermentation turns into a fizzy drink filled with probiotics. As it's dairy-free, it's a great option for vegetarians and vegans. You can also add spices, herbs and fruit to the drink to customise it for your liking.
Is a fermented drink, made from black tea, raw cane sugar and its most important ingredient, SCOBY- a symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria. Kombucha's origins are from Japan and it has been consumed for over 2,000 years. Main health benefits include digestive support, liver detoxification and increased energy.
It's a dish from Japan containing fermented soybeans and contains an important probiotic Bacillus subtilis, which improves your immune system, supports cardiovascular health and also helps to digest vitamin K2. In addition it's loaded with protein and contains anti-inflammatory enzyme nattokinase.
Though yoghurt is most probably the most known food for containing probiotics, it's important to choose plain, organic and preferably from goat's or sheep's milk rather than from cows milk.
It's important to note here, that pickles made with vinegar do not contain live probiotics. Only pickles made with salt and water turn on the fermentation process.
It's a Korean version of sauerkraut and created mixing a main vegetable such as cabbage with other foods like radishes, carrots, garlic, ginger, onion and adding some spices, sea salt and fish sauce. It's a flavour-filled probiotic-rich food to add next to your savoury meals.
Widely used in Japan, it's made by fermenting soybeans, brown rice and barley with koji. Koji itself is a fungus and it can take anything from few days to few years for the fermentation process to complete. Apart from well-known Miso soup, you can add miso to stir-fries, marinades or spread it instead of butter on a cracker.
A fermented drink from Eastern Europe, where it is made of either barley or rye or probiotic fruits and beets including vegetables like carrots. Kvass is known of its blood and liver cleansing properties.
Other fermented milk products
The following list of fermented milk products are also good to consume: sour milk, buttermilk, cottage cheese, Skyr, sour cream, quark (curd cheese), Ayran, Villi as well as cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, Pecorino, Gruyere, Manchego, Cheddar, Edam, Gouda, Emmental, Mozzarella, Camembert, Feta, Chevre, cream cheese.
Dosa- Fermented rice and lentil crepe
Tamari- fermented Japanese soy sauce made from soybeans
Soy sauce- fermented sauce from soybeans that also often contains wheat (there are gluten-free versions as well where wheat is replaced with rice)
Douchi- fermented and salted black soybeans
Here is a periodic table of many different fermented foods and drinks, created by Michael Gänzle, PhD, professor and Canada Research Chair in Food Microbiology and Probiotics at the University of Alberta. Gänzle is regarded as an expert in fermented foods and lactic acid bacteria.
Source: The Fermentation Association
What to look out for when purchasing probiotics as supplements?
High CFU (Colony Forming Units) count- you should aim for 20-30 billion CFUs for adults and 10+ billion or children, but do consult with your healthcare provider as depending on your health condition you might need different strains of probiotics and avoid specific ones. With great probiotics, the CFU number on the packaging states the CFUs at expiration and not at creation.
Strain diversity and survivability- it should include different strains like Lactobacillus plantarum, Bacillus coagulans, Bacillus subtilis, Saccharomyces boulardii and other cultures to ensure the probiotics make it to the gut and are able to colonise.
Live and active cultures are better than 'made with active cultures'. The product could have been heat-treated to extend the shelf-life, but which kills both the bad and good bacteria.
Includes prebiotics- for probiotics to grow in the gut they need prebiotics. They help increase probiotics level in the gut. Very good quality probiotic supplement contain both prebiotics and other supplementary ingredients to support digestion and immunity. These ingredients (ideally fermented) can be astralagus, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, ginger, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, milk thistle, turmeric etc.
Stability- look for shelf-stable probiotic that contains soil-based organism. Don't trust probiotics that should be kept in the fridge as those typically don't past the stomach as they are not stable.
Includes postbiotics- these are produced as a byproduct of the fermentation process that is carried out by the probiotics in the gut. Some examples include organic acids, enzymes, carbonic substances and bacteriocins. They help to maintain colonic and intestinal homeostasis. Better probiotics also include these to help support the growth of probiotic good bacteria, lower inflammation diseases and oxidative stress. These may help lower blood sugar and prevent diabetes
When do take probiotics?
It's recommended to take your probiotics first thing in the morning 15-30 minutes before your breakfast or in the evening 2 hours after your last meal.
Not everyone needs probiotic supplements
If you have chronic digestive problems, you may not do well with probiotics, as your microbiome might not work right. In this case it's important to discuss with your health care provider before adding additional probiotics to your diet.
As we continue to unravel the mysteries of the human body, the role of probiotics emerges as a compelling narrative of symbiosis and well-being. Integrating probiotic-rich fermented foods and drinks into your diet or considering supplements is a proactive step towards enhancing your digestive health and overall vitality.