You likely hear about probiotics at least a few times a week on TV or social media and see it advertised at your favorite grocery store. Even gas station convenience stores stock probiotic drinks in their refrigerators.
But what exactly are probiotics and why should one consider having them in their diet via food, beverages, or a daily probiotic supplement?
The word “probiotics” means live microorganisms (bacteria), that when consumed as a food, drink, or supplement, improve or restore the balance of the microbiota in your GI system.
Where The Microbiome is in Your Body
The number of bacteria your body hosts actually outnumbers the number of your own cells! Scientists have estimated the approximate number of microbes on your body to be 39 trillion with about 30 trillion of your own cells. These bacteria line the GI tract, may be found in your mouth, nose, throat, sinuses, and lungs, and surround every organ of your body. They are in your saliva and tears and in your stool. You have so many because they are in fact multiplying inside your body.
These bacteria are collectively called the microbiome. Some of these microbes are helpful and some of them are potentially harmful. The ones that are harmful are in reduced numbers, but if their numbers grow, you could end up with an infection that needs medical attention.
Probiotic Foods and a Daily Probiotic Protect You From Infections
The big key to your health and wellness is having a high number of the good bacteria and a low number of the bad ones. The microbiome is like a shield against harmful bacteria that might cause infections in the lung, vagina, gut, and elsewhere in the body.
For example, these healthy bacteria enhance your lung and respiratory tract’s defense from colds and pneumonia-causing infectious agents by activating and stimulating white blood cells called macrophages that act like real-life Pac-Mans, swallowing up pathogenic and infectious organisms that come their way. Good bacteria also send out signals for the microbial army in your body to clear out all the infectious agents and debris that have been destroyed.
You May be Killing Your Microbiome Unintentionally
Unfortunately, we may inadvertently do seemingly normal things to throw off the balance in our microbiome. Some of these things include:
Even just one dose of an antibiotic has been shown to alter the number of bacteria in your body. Although the antibiotic may kill the bacteria causing an infection in our body, this comes at a price. At the same time, the antibiotic is also causing the destruction of a substantial number of good bacteria necessary for our health and immunity. In some studies, German scientists found that this collateral damage done to the gut bacteria can be enough to cause dysbiosis (disrupted balance in the microbiome) and disease.
For this reason, it’s incredibly important to eat probiotic foods and/or take probiotic supplements whenever you take an antibiotic. This will help replenish the lost good bacteria in our body and restore balance to the microbiome for improved digestive and immune health.
A diet high in fat and sugar and low in fiber
Fiber feeds the probiotics growing in your gut. The wrong types of fat in your diet or in high amounts, coupled with extensive consumption of sugar, will also cause the good bacteria in your body to suffer. The good news is that you can modify your diet to better balance the needs of your body and support your microbiome.
Only eating a few different foods instead of a lot of different foods
Your body was designed to consume many different foods in all four seasons of the year. Limiting the foods you eat can potentially hurt the diversity of your microbiome and leave room for harmful bacteria to grow. Expanding the variety of foods in your diet is essential to helping out your good bacteria flourish in your body.
Studies have shown the harmful effects of excessive alcohol consumption, leading to disease and imbalance of the gut flora. These studies recommend probiotic or synbiotic supplements to help repair the damage caused to the gut.
There are several different foods you can start incorporating into your diet right now that will help in replenishing the armies of bacteria in your gut that act as your defense against infections.
Here are just some of them:
Yogurt – This has traditionally been one of the most well known sources of probiotics because of the strains used in the fermentation process. Those with low sugars are recommended as most beneficial.
Kefir – Similar in concept to yogurts, kefir is a probiotic food and has been used in studies to replenish gut bacteria for those with GI disorders.
Sauerkraut – While this is a good natural food source of probiotics due to the fermentation process involved, varieties that have been pasteurized or include vinegar, sugar or preservatives may no longer contain the beneficial probiotic cultures.
Miso – This is a fermented soybean paste used to make miso soup and several foods.
Kombucha – This is a fermented black or green tea drink, often with fruit, spices or other flavors added in.
Pickles – Just as with sauerkraut, these provide probiotic benefits when fermented and preserved in salt and water, but not in vinegar.
Some types of cheese – Varieties like cottage cheese, cheddar, mozzarella, and Gouda. The cheese should have the words “active cultures” or “live cultures” on the label.
Eating a serving a day of any of these or other probiotic foods is a great way to start positively balancing out your body’s microbiome. However, just as good bacteria often can’t withstand the acidic content of vinegar, they also can’t always make it past the acids in your stomach to get to the intestines where they are most needed to support gut immunity and health. This is where probiotic supplements can help!
What About Probiotic Supplements?
There are so many probiotic supplements on the market. How do you pick the probiotic right for you? Below are some guidelines to help you make a decision:
If you have never taken a probiotic before, start with a lower dosage supplement. The supplement will state on the label how many colony forming units (CFU) it contains. As reference, a lower dosage supplement may contain between 1 and 10 billion CFU.
If you have been taking probiotics for a while, it may be time to try increasing the number of strains the supplement has in it. Some supplements have only one to two strains – such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Bifidobacterium bifidum. Though these are good as a starting point, over time, it’s helpful to step up the number of strains in your probiotic to enhance the diversity of good bacteria in your gut.
Health practitioners use high doses of 150 billion CFU, 40 strain formulations when someone is sick with infections, and may even recommend taking this dose twice daily. So don’t be afraid to try out 20 – 40 billion CFU formulations!
Check with your nutrition-minded health practitioner if you have any qualms about what to take or how much each day. Talk with the supplement companies as well; they often offer information that you may not get elsewhere.