Probiotics: The Key to a Healthy Gut
What do yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut all have in common?
These all contain probiotics, something you’ve likely heard mentioned as an important part of a healthy diet. In fact, you might’ve already incorporated them into your daily meals. So, what exactly are they, and how do they contribute to your gut health? We’ll answer this and discuss the role of good bacteria in our body below.
The word “probiotic” is a combination of the prefix “pro”, meaning “in favor of”, and “biota,” meaning “for life” in Latin. When combined, the word “probiotic” is a substance that encourages the growth of bacteria.
When we talk about bacteria, we often associate it with disease and infections. At some point you probably had to take antibiotics to end infections at some point in their life. However, there are also good bacteria in our bodies that promote healthy digestion, and probiotics are the best way to replenish them, so to speak.
By introducing more bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium into our gut, probiotics are able to increase the number of good bacteria in our microbiome.
You might be thinking, “that’s it?”
However, while it may seem like probiotics have a minor role, you’d be surprised by just how important this role is, especially when you’re maintaining a balanced microbiome.
As modern medicine progresses, scientists and medical professionals have started to realize how much our gut health impacts the body as a whole. “Gut health” doesn’t mean the condition of our entire digestive system — it refers to the function and balance of the bacteria and microorganisms living in the gastrointestinal tract. They are part of the human microbiome — the ecosystem of bacteria that live inside the body. It’s the gut that contains most of them; trillions of them, in fact.
So why are doctors and health experts suddenly paying attention to our gut health? Well, research in the past few years has shown just how influential the gut microbiome is in our overall health. The microbiome is an organ in its own right, providing more than just a means to help break down food. Gut bacteria synthesizes nutrients, contributes to our metabolism, develops our natural immunities, and defends against pathogens, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As research advances in genetics and pathology, we continue to discover more ways that our gut microbiome contributes to our general health.
So, where do probiotics come into play?
The good bacteria in our stomachs aren’t invincible. Their population and diversity are affected by many factors, and they can die off under the right — or, rather, wrong — conditions. Diets that are high in bad fat, low in fiber, and high in sweeteners can disrupt the normal processes of these microorganisms, wiping them out. When this happens, you can expect a host of problems, not just diarrhea or constipation.
So, how can we replenish a depleted population of good bacteria? By consuming food sources that already have them!
Probiotics reintroduce the good bacteria to the gut, helping the population multiply and return to normal levels. They are an easy way to address issues in our microbiome, since all it takes is eating them. When you take into account the delicious foods where probiotics are found, it’s really a win-win.
Now for the fun part: what foods can you eat to get a good amount of probiotics? As mentioned before, yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi are all good sources. But why these, exactly? Well, they’re fermented foods. Any food that has undergone a chemical change thanks to bacteria and other microorganisms is a good source of probiotics.
This means that drinks like kombucha, kefir, and yes, beer and wine, are great for gut health. Of course, these should be taken in moderation, especially alcoholic beverages. Cheese, sourdough bread, miso, and chocolate also contain healthy cultures of good bacteria. Dieticians and nutritionists also recommend eating lots of food with fiber, since this feeds the bacteria, so toss in some leafy greens, whole grains, and fruits, too!
There’s a lot of debate about the effectiveness of probiotic foods as the only source of good bacteria. Keep in mind that the stomach is an acidic place, and most of the bacteria doesn’t survive the trip to the intestines where they do most of the work. That’s why some experts recommend taking supplements, like pills and tablets. Since the bacteria are protected in special casings in this format, more of them survive the trip to your intestines.
When probiotics supply good bacteria and balance the gut microbiome, they can ease the symptoms of or even or treat conditions like:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Urinary Tract Infections (UTI)
- Skin Problems
- Yeast Infections
- Lactose Intolerance
Probiotics are a great way to support the unsung heroes of our body: the good bacteria. They synthesize nutrients, boost our immunity, and do so much more. To keep them at healthy levels, incorporate probiotic-rich foods into your diet. It’s a great way to take control of your gut microbiome and your overall health!