Probiotics are live bacteria that are good for your health, especially your digestive system. We usually think of bacteria as something that causes diseases. But your body is full of bacteria, both good and bad. Probiotics are the “good” or “helpful” bacteria because they have been known for years to help keep your gut healthy. Probiotics are naturally found in your body to varying degrees. You also can find them in some foods and supplements.
Your digestive tract, in particular the intestines, contains both probiotic and disease-causing bacteria. Encouraging the growth of probiotic bacteria is important in maintaining an effective intestinal barrier, enhancing nutrient absorption, and blocking toxins and pathogens. As a result, a main function of probiotics is to lower the risk for traveler’s diarrhea and diarrhea caused by antibiotics, rotavirus, and impaired bowel function. Probiotics also help treat diverticulitis and encourage optimal immune function. They shorten or reduce the risk for infections (especially intestinal viruses and fungus infections), curb the severity of lactose intolerance symptoms, and reduce the risk for certain allergies. Probiotics also reduce the severity of gut inflammation, acute gastroenteritis, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, Helicobacter pylori infection, and colorectal cancer. Benefits are noted in all age groups, from infants to the elderly. Current research suggests probiotics also have a beneficial effect throughout the body. Maintaining a healthy gut environment appears to affect the circulatory, hormonal, immune, and even appetite systems, possibly lowering the risk for everything from heart disease, allergies, colds, and diabetes to food cravings and obesity.
How much do you need? A daily dose of 109 to 1010 organisms, preferably a variety of strains rather than a single strain, appears to be most beneficial. A strain of bacteria is only considered a probiotic if it survives the acidic environment of the stomach to exert healthful benefits in the intestine. Strains found to be beneficial include Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium, and L. rhamnosus. It is believed that probiotics do not permanently adhere to the intestinal lining, but exert their benefits as they metabolize and move through the intestines. Thus, daily or frequent intake is required to maintain populations. What are the best sources?
Yogurt: Yogurt not only effectively supports the survival of “good bacteria” in the intestinal tract but may also improve the bacteria’s capacity to provide health benefits. Choose plain yogurts that contain at least 5 different strains of probiotics
Kefir: This fermented milk drink is made with yeast and lactic acid bacteria cultures. Up to 12 stains are found in some kefir, some of which have long-lasting benefits in the gut.
Sauerkraut: Homemade or refrigerated sauerkraut or Kimchi contain probiotics, but bottled or canned varieties have been processed for safety, killing all probiotics.
Tempeh and Miso: These fermented soybeans are kept refrigerated, so main viable bacteria.
Kombucha: Bottled kombucha has been pasteurized for safety reasons, thus the healthy bacteria are destroyed. Unpasteurized kombucha is available, but there are reports of contaminated during processing.