Trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses inhabit our bodies. They’re the human microbiome. Restoring their proper balance can play crucial roles in our health.
Health Benefits of Probiotics
The New York Times is calling the study of the human microbiome “perhaps the most promising yet challenging task of modern medicine,” dividing that task into two parts: “Determining the normal microscopic inhabitants of every organ and knowing how to restore the proper balance of organisms when it is disrupted.”
Because of the huge potential of improving human health with in-depth knowledge of the microbiome, a large group of scientists are working under the umbrella of the National Institutes of Health to achieve this goal. This project has been named the Human Microbiome Project and the scientists are focused on creating a map of how the following tissues should ideally look: “gastrointestinal tract, oral cavity, skin, airways, urogenital tract, blood and eye.”
In the past, scientists have not been able to identify 20 to 60 percent of microbiota organisms because the technology wasn’t advanced enough. Thanks to new technology, though, large samples of genetic material can now be analyzed, and that can mean incredible strides in what we know about how to become and stay healthy.
A big challenge for researchers is figuring out whether changes in microorganisms are a cause or an effect. In other words, which comes first? The disease itself, which then changes the microbiota – or changes in microbiota that then lead to disease? Stay tuned!
Microbiota and Gut Health
One finding, according to the New York Times, is that gut microbes can likely impact distant places in the body. These microbes can even influence your immune responses, some researchers believe. As an example of both concepts, in some experiments with mice, gut bacteria have caused antibodies to form that attack joints. The result? The type of joint damage that resembles rheumatoid arthritis.
Gut bacteria may play a role in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), chronic fatigue syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism and even schizophrenia. How? Gut microbes that become altered in people who are genetically susceptible to a certain condition can interfere with the blood-brain barrier. This leads to antibody production that can hurt normal development of the brain.
Role of Probiotics
An article published by Harvard Medical School does an excellent job of describing how live microorganisms called probiotics can play a key role in maintaining good health, including gut health. Benefits of probiotics listed in this article include:
- boosted immune functions
- protecting against hostile bacteria, which can help to prevent infection
- improved digestion
- better absorption of food and nutrients
As a brief overview of how probiotics work, our bodies contain significant amounts of bacteria in our guts, and in our mouths and skin, both good and bad. Ideally, the “friendly” bacteria are more common than ones that aren’t so friendly, and in the right proportions. Unfortunately, though, imbalances occur, with antibiotics serving as a common culprit by killing off good bacteria along with the bad; illness and poor diets can also serve as contributing causes. This can lead to poor gut health, with distressing symptoms including gas, cramping and/or diarrhea, along with other conditions and diseases.
To prevent imbalances, or to correct them, probiotics can help. Here’s how Harvard Medical School explains how it can work. “Probiotics may help break down protein and fat in the digestive tract — a valuable benefit to help infants, toddlers or patients who need to build strength throughout and after an illness.”
The article also notes how probiotics have the potential to help prevent or treat multiple gut conditions, including ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease. Plus, here is a link to a study that found how probiotics can be a tool in fighting diarrhea. Other studies have concluded the following strains of probiotics (more about strains later) are most effective in doing so:
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
- Lactobacillus casei
- Saccharomyces boulardii
Additional information about the health benefits of probiotics can be found in Healthline.com, including mental health. More and more studies are showing a connection between gut health and mood, while others are demonstrating how probiotic intake can help in improving some mental health disorders. Conditions include “anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, and memory abilities, including spatial and non-spatial memory.”
Another study showed how people who ingested 100 grams of probiotic yogurt daily or took a comparable capsule every day experienced better health, overall, as well as improvements in anxiety, depression and/or stress. The Healthline article shows multiple other benefits and associated studies to back up their statements, but we’ll just focus on one more here: heart health. Probiotic intake may lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol to some degree. And, since cardiovascular diseases (heart attacks and strokes) are the biggest killers in the world today, finding a simple and healthy way to address this, including through probiotics intake, would be huge. (To give context, in 2015, 31% of deaths globally were caused by cardiovascular disease.)
Prevention.com shares another way in which probiotics can be helpful: if you suffer from eczema. This condition causes red, itchy, flaky skin, and multiple studies have indicated that probiotics can help, perhaps by combating skin bacteria that leads to irritation and inflammation.
How Exactly Do Probiotics Help with Gut Health?
The science of why probiotics work is still emerging and will be for some time to come. According to the UNC School of Medicine, here is what we do know. Probiotics are believed to:
- absorb or destroy byproducts of bad bacteria that contributes to illness
- create infection-preventing substances
- block harmful bacteria from connecting to your digestive wall and staying there
- boost immune systems
- strengthen intestinal mucus to perform as a barrier against infection
- produce helpful B vitamins
- decrease the production of gas and, therefore, bloating
Certain foods have what are called prebiotic effects. To understand what they are and why that’s important, it’s easiest to discuss dietary fiber first. Increasing your fiber intake has long been known to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and to boost your gut health.
Recently, substances known as oligosaccharides began being classified as dietary fiber because of its positive effects on health. These substances are the best-known prebiotics, defined in a medical study as “a selectively fermented ingredient that allows specific changes, both in the composition and/or activity in the gastrointestinal microflora that confers benefits upon host well-bring and health.”
Dr. Axe lists the following substances as the best natural sources of prebiotics:
- acacia gum (or gum arabic)
- raw chicory root
- raw Jerusalem artichoke
- raw dandelion greens
- raw garlic
- raw leeks
- raw or cooked onions
- raw jicama
- raw asparagus
- under-ripe bananas
- yacon syrup
He also lists benefits of prebiotic intake, which include better gut health and improved digestion. Additional health benefits include:
- reduced risk for cardiovascular disease (heart attack/strokes)
- improved cholesterol levels
- better balance in hormones
- reduced obesity risk
- lower inflammation levels
- lower autoimmune reactions
- higher immune function, overall
- lower stress response
Prebiotics and Probiotics Working Together
In combination, sufficient intake of both prebiotics and probiotics is a powerful one-two punch for reducing overall risk of disease. In tandem, activity in the gut changes in a positive way – and, because gut health is key for overall health, it’s important to focus on getting enough of both substances.
Here is a recipe for a Coco-Berry Probiotic Protein Shake that is both prebiotic- and probiotic-rich. This link also provides a great explanation of how the two substances work together: “Prebiotics are food for the good bacteria. They’re specialized forms of dietary fiber that aren’t digested by the body, but rather are used to promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut. When the good bacteria are happy, that’s when the body functions best.”
Best Probiotic Strains for Gut Health
Not all probiotic strains are equally as helpful, and an article at GlobalHealingCenter.com lists 18 of the best. Here are the top five listed, along with a little bit of information about what makes it a good choice.
- Streptococcus thermophilus: this promotes healthy small intestine tissue, and can break down cheese protein that can trigger allergies
- Bacillus laterosporus: this is described as a “hardy strain,” one that fights against multiple harmful organisms, including candida (a common culprit in frustrating vaginal yeast infections, as well as ones found in the mouth, throat and gut)
- Pediococcus acidilactici: this strain can help to prevent harmful substances from damaging the environment of the gut and helps to prevent undigested food from causing problems
- Bifidobacterium breve: this is an excellent one to choose if you’ve taken antibiotics
- Bifidobacterium infantis: this aids people who experience occasional constipation or other digestive ailments, and releases an acid that can prevent harmful organisms from becoming entrenched in your gut
If you’re taking probiotic supplements (more about that later), then be sure to avoid ones with added sugar. This sweet substance upsets the balance of your gut, so it definitely doesn’t make sense to take supplements intended for gut health that have sugar added.
Food Sources of Probiotics
They include (but are not limited) to the following:
- cultured dairy products, with yogurt the most common product used to deliberately consume probiotics; quality and effectiveness of probiotics within yogurt varies, with the best using raw milk from grass-fed animals
- fermented dairy products: one example is kefir, a mixture of milk and kefir grains that have been fermented; this product contains anywhere from 10 to 34 probiotic strains, making it even more probiotic-rich than yogurt (but far less well known)
- fermented vegetables: sauerkraut is a good example with its organic acids creating an ideal environment for good bacteria growth; it also contains small amounts of probiotics
- fermented beverages such as kvass, traditionally made from fermented grain but often made today from beets and other root vegetables
- miso: created from fermented rice, barley or soybeans, this as the foundation of much of traditional Japanese medicine; by simply adding a teaspoon of it to hot water, miso becomes a quick and healthy broth to drink
- tempeh: this food is created by fermenting soybeans and has been a staple food of vegetarians and vegans; it was originally produced in Indonesia
- beverages with soy: one example is soy milk; probiotics are added during processing, and this drink is often consumed by people who are lactose intolerant, with probiotics thought to possibly help improve digestive abilities of lactose-intolerance people
Here is an article that provides links to 17 recipes containing probiotic-rich foods. One of them is kimchi, a food that offers healthy probiotics and more, also shown to manage blood pressure and blood sugar levels. This food has also been “shown to lower cholesterol, prevent constipation, and combat colon cancer. In addition, it can help to reduce stress, relieve depression, combat osteoarthritis, reduce atherosclerosis, and fight liver disease.”
Then there is hot pink jalapeño garlic kraut described this way: “Vibrant in both flavor and color, the sauerkraut also packs a bit of heat that mellows with time and brings a solid punch of pure salty-sour flavor you’d come to expect from any good quality ferment.”
And, here’s one more: the pineapple turmeric sauerkraut and gut shot; it’s also a gut shot because you can pour leftover brine into a glass and chug down a healthy shot that “packs a ton of nutrients in a tiny glass.”
Overall, foods that are probiotic-rich also have numerous additional health benefits.
Probiotic-Rich Food Versus Probiotic Supplements
This isn’t really an either/or question. You’ll definitely want to eat foods that contain probiotics and/or support their function, including those described in this post. To create and continue to encourage a positive environment for probiotics, make sure you get enough fiber in your diet. Then, supplement appropriately for a quality approach.