Probiotics: What are they and do you need them?

Probiotics: What are they and do you need them?

Probiotics: What are they and do you need them?

There’s been a lot of talk and media hype about probiotics over the past couple of years.  We see probiotics promoted in yogurts, chocolates, even cookies!  But what are probiotics and do you need them?

The term “probiotic” means “for life”, the simple definition is that probiotics are live, naturally occurring microorganisms (usually bacteria) that function internally to promote healthy digestion and beneficial bacteria, boost the immune system, and contribute to general health.

Here’s the longer definition.  The intestinal system of an unborn baby is sterile, there is no bacteria present in the gut.  However, from the moment the baby passes through the birth canal, the baby is introduced to many strains of bacteria (good and bad).  If the baby is breast-fed, the baby is also given a good dose of good bacteria, this helps the baby build a good strong immune system.  You see, 70-80% of our immune system is located in our gut.  It’s the good bacteria that fight the bad bacteria to keep you healthy.

The beneficial bacteria or “good flora” is required in our gut (intestines) for many important reasons. There are many diseases associated with low levels of good flora, these can include such things as acne, ADHD, PMS, IBS, constipation, colitis, allergies, sinus issues, yeast infections, headaches, hormonal imbalances, colon cancer, ear infections, breast pathologies and a compromised immunity to name a few.

A properly functioning intestinal tract is one of your body’s first lines of defense against invaders. That’s because the good bacteria stimulates lymphoid tissue associated with the gut to mucosa to produce antibodies to pathogens.  Therefore, it is extremely important to keep our intestines in optimal shape in order to keep the rest of our body healthy.  Here are just of few of the benefits of probiotics and how they can improve your health:

  • lowers cholesterol
  • prevention and correction of constipation, diarrhea, colitis and IBS
  • inhibition of cancer
  • protection against food poisoning and stomach ulcers
  • enhances immunity
  • improvement in the appearance of skin
  • protection against yeast infections and candida overgrowth

So, where can we get probiotics?  Well, we have known and used probiotics for thousands of years.  Naturally cultured or lacto-fermented foods contain enzymes and bacteria to help digest food and eliminate wastes.  Some examples of naturally fermented foods are:

Yogurt – Be aware of the marketing ploys with yogurt.  There are many brands out there stating they have probiotics in them.  Well, all yogurt has naturally occurring probiotics and usually these yogurts in the store have a lot of sugar in them.  Sugar kills the probiotics.  Therefore you are spending a lot of money for nothing.  When choosing a yogurt save your money and choose organic plain yogurt, you can add your own fruit to it later.

Kefir – Similar to yogurt, this fermented dairy product is a unique combination of milk and fermented grains. Kefir is not only a rich source of probiotics but is also full of antioxidants.  Look for an organic version, again without the added sugar, you can add your own fruit to it later if you need to.

Sauerkraut – Made from fermented cabbage (as well as other vegetables), sauerkraut is not only extremely rich in healthy live cultures, but also aids in reducing allergy symptoms. Sauerkraut is also rich in vitamins B, A, E and C.

Dark Chocolate – A good, high-quality dark chocolate has four times the amount of probiotics as many forms of dairy. This is only one of the health benefits of chocolate. Remember to eat chocolate in moderation and look for at least 70% cocoa.

Spirulina & Chorella – These super-food ocean-based plants are commonly known as microalgae. These probiotic foods have been shown to increase the amount of both Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria in the digestive tract. They also offer the most amount of energetic return, per ounce, for the human system.

Miso Soup – Miso is one the mainstays of Japanese traditional medicine, and is commonly used in macrobiotic cooking as a digestive aid. Made from fermented rye, beans, rice or barley, add a tablespoon of miso to hot water to make an excellent probiotic-rich soup, full of lactobacilli and bifidus bacteria. If you buy the pre-packaged soup, be aware of the sugar content. Beyond its important live cultures, miso is extremely nutrient-dense and is believed to help neutralize the effects of environmental pollution, alkalinize the body and stop the effects of carcinogens in the system.

Pickles – Yes, believe it or not, pickles are an excellent source of probiotics.  Try your hand a pickling other veggies too such as carrots, asparagus or beets.

Tempeh – If you are going to eat soy, it’s best ingested in it’s fermented form, and  tempeh is a great substitute for meat or tofu.  It’s an excellent source of vitamin B12, which can be sautéed, baked, tossed into a stir fry or crumble on a salad. If prepared correctly, tempeh is also very low in salt, which makes it an ideal choice for those on a low-sodium diet.

Kimchi – In Korea, kimchi is served with most meals. It is an extremely spicy and sour fermented cabbage. Besides from beneficial bacteria, Kimchi is also a great source of beta-carotene, calcium, iron and vitamins A, C, B1 & B2. Kimchi is one of the best probiotic foods you can add to your diet, assuming you can handle the spice, of course.

Kombucha Tea – This is a form of fermented tea high in healthy gut bacteria. This probiotic drink has been used for centuries and is believed to help increase your energy, enhance your wellbeing and maybe even help you lose weight. However, kombucha tea may not be the best fit for everyone, especially those that already have a problem with candida.

Probiotic Supplements – I personally believe a good supplement used daily is a great way to maintain healthy bacteria especially in flu season.  It gives you that added protection when you can’t always get your probiotics from foods.

In conclusion, probiotics are very important to the health of our gut, our immune system and over all well-being.  Just as the name suggests they are “for life”.


Photo credit: Janine