The Real GI Superstars {All About Probiotics}

I got really excited when I first got the idea to write this post, because I think probiotics are something that most people have heard of, but that many have a pretty foggy understanding of. I figured it would probably take an afternoon of research, an hour to summarize into a pretty little package and that would be that.

But as it turns out, probiotics are pretty complicated. Rude, right?! ha

I did quite a bit of reading and sifting through studies and feel like I barely scratched the surface of the topic. And while I’m sure I could have put in more time researching, I think a big part of the equation is that there is very simply still a lot of grey zone that has yet to be confirmed about probiotics. And the thought of all the discoveries patiently waiting to be stumbled upon in the next few years is such an exciting one for me! Hashtag cutting edge stuff here people.

So today I thought I’d share my findings. I hope next time you’re at the grocery store walking past the sauerkraut you’re like “I know a bit about you and also that you’re hella complex”.

DSC_0111*For the record, I have no affiliation with the brands in the photos.
I just really like these products! 


First of all, what ARE probiotics? 

The FAO describes probiotics as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host” (source).

Another way I saw it described and loved was that we have three groups of bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract (this is our gut microbiota, by the way)
1) One that is pathogenic or transforms food into harmful substances (aka the bad guys).
2) One that is beneficial and suppresses the harmful bacteria (aka the good guys).
3) And another that is “intermediate” and which isn’t usually harmful unless our immunity is lowered.

What recent research is indicating is that probiotics could have the ability to restore the balance between these three groups when it gets thrown out of whack by things like antibiotics, excess hygiene, stress, diet, diarrhea, and all those other great things that are part of living (source).

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How do probiotics end up in our food?

Though they are certainly a hot-topic right now and busy getting all trendy (8 dollar bottle of Kombucha, anyone?) probiotics are nooooo new concept. Many foods ferment naturally, which makes them last longer, and started being enjoyed by the masses AGES ago. Think grape juice turning into wine and milk turning into yogurt.

In this type of naturally-occurring fermentation, yeasts and/or bacteria from the air combine with the food, and undergo a reaction that very much changes the composition and taste of the original food. You can google ‘fermentation’ if you want the deets of the chemistry behind it. But put very simply, the carbs in the food get broken down and end up as alcohol (like that in wine) or acid (like the lactic acid in yogurt) (source).

These days, we eat products that have undergone the same reaction, but we just take the process into our own hands, so to speak. As opposed to just letting the bacteria/yeast in the air do its thing, we isolate specific cultures and inoculate the foods with them. This way, companies can make products that are safe, consistent and predictable.

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But why all the hype about fermented foods and their probiotics? 

As implied by the title of this post (I don’t go throwing the word superstar around for just anything) probiotics come with some big benefits. As mentioned, they have the ability to enter our intestinal tract, see that our microbiota isn’t looking so hot and take it upon themselves to restore it to optimal health. In doing so, the harmful bacteria hanging out stays in check (source). In addition, probiotics are also known to alleviate diarrhea and symptoms of lactose intolerance (source).

They’re also associated to a whole bunch of other benefits that are promising and being investigated for confirmation. These include improving IBS symptoms, fighting inflammation, modulating allergic reactions and even things like reducing risk of certain cancers (source).

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Are all probiotics created equal?

So this is the part where things start getting a little bit muddy. I keep saying “probiotics” as an umbrella term but there are SO MANY strains of probiotics, depending on the bacteria/yeast that they’re inoculated with. Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are probably the two most common and well-studied strains (source). And what’s important to bear in mind is that these strains do NOT all work the same way in our bodies. Aside from having different benefits, they also have varying abilities to take up residence in our intestines, as opposed to passing right through. The bile in our intestines and the acidity in our stomachs make being a probiotic tricky! What some people recommend to account for this is to be sure to consume probiotics continually (source). That way, even if they’re not adhering to your intestinal cells per se, you can still reap the benefits of having a dose of probiotics at work in your GI tract just about all the time.

So how do I get them?! 

Lucky for us, there are a whole bunch of fermented products on the market and they’re becoming more and more mainstream! Everything from kefir (my fave!) and cottage cheese, to sauerkraut, miso and Kimchi, to pickled vegetables to Kombucha. Sadly, aside from yogurt, I wasn’t able to find many solid statements about specific foods being associated to specific benefits or potency. It’s also unfortunate that oftentimes foods aren’t very well labelled, which makes it hard to know for sure that the cultures are live and thriving, since processes like pasteurization can kill them (source).

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What’s the bottom line? 

I simply try to be mindful of eating fermented foods whenever I can and in as many forms as I can! Because I focus on my dietary intake, I don’t personally take a supplement but it’s definitely something I would consider if I were to go on antibiotics.


If you are still reading THANK YOU for sticking with me and I hope you learned a thing or two.

Have a fantastic week!!! 

 

18 thoughts on “The Real GI Superstars {All About Probiotics}

  1. I’ve taken probiotics before in capsule form. Now I’m considering a new probiotic. Specifically VSL3. They have over 450 billion bacteria! It came to my attention via Rhonda Patrick. I understand they’ve helped a lot of people out. Good post. People need to know!

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  2. Kefir!!
    I took acidophilus for a little while, but I am so bad about remembering to take supplements. I do love kefir though. I need to start fermenting my own vegetables, because fermented veggies are not in my grad student budget, lol. I imagine doing it myself is so much cheaper.
    Thanks for an informative post! Our guts are so interesting.

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  3. Oooo my kind of post!! I am such a fermentation nerd. I love it so much. Making it, buying it, eating it, drinking it … all of the above. Mostly the making part though. I love seeing how foods naturally break themselves down to become something totally new and actually gain so many beneficial properties in the process. I’ve never thought of cottage cheese as being a probiotic! Thank you for this! I need to do more practice with my sauerkraut and kimchi – I’ve never been able to master it. But Kombucha and miso? My babies.
    I’ve never had Kefir. What is your favorite way to have / use it?

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    • SO cool that you ferment, Cora! How I wish I could try the fruit of your labour :) I love having Kefir as an on-the-go snack. I just pour some into a mason jar, add a bit of maple syrup (I find the plain ones a bit too tangy and the sweetened ones a bit too sweet haha) and then just bring it with me and drink it later – usually in class. I find it so filling and delicious!

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  4. Very interesting to say the least, it sure is much more than I ever thought it was.

    My wife likes a particular brand of yogurt that has probiotics in it that she really likes; I have to admit that I have never tried it but I am sure in time I will.

    Are you getting a lot of snow? We don’t have any where we live but I am sure the east coast folks would gladly send us some.

    Have a great week Jacklyn and thanks for educating me on probiotics today….the sauerkraut looked good to me.

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    • That’s great that her yogurt has probiotics!
      We have relatively little snow here right now actually. We weren’t affected by the storm and we haven’t had a big snowfall for about a week, so a lot of it is gone. haha I’m sure the East Coast would indeed be happy to share!!
      Have a GREAT week, Randy :)

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  5. Jacklyn, I can always count on you to be my “what I learned today”! I often struggle with digestion issues, so what a great post to help educate me on something that can help me out everyday. Monday win :)

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  6. I wonder for people who don’t consume dairy products, it would probably be best for them to take supplements right? I feel like we don’t eat enough pickled veggies to make it a substantial source of probiotics! Great post, I learnt a few things which is awesome!! I’ve been having GI issues lately and am trying to link in to a specific food (at the moment I’m trying to see if it is lactose), but maybe fermented foods might help my little issues?! Who know, I will be buying Kefir next time I visit the grocery store though!

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    • Yeah that’s a really good point. I imagine supplements would be a good idea for dairy-free folks unless they’re eating all the other fermented foods all day everyday haha. Ahh making connections like that is SO tough eh? I hope you’re able to get to the bottom of it. Keep me posted!

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  7. This was really great! I eat yogurt every morning but never thought that much about the probiotics in it. I’ve been having some GI issues lately and am trying to sort some of it out. I’ve never had sauerkraut but I love pickled veggies and pickled ginger! I just don’t know how to make one or choose one with probiotics and that won’t be too acidic! When I’m at the store, how can I tell if fermented stuff has probiotics?

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