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”.
*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).
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.
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).
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).
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!!!