Guts in a rut? There’s a bacteria for that!
Probiotics. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot—and you may know a little (or a lot) about this mysterious bacteria. While the benefits of probiotics are still being heavily researched, they’ve been making waves in the news lately for potentially leading to a peanut allergy cure, protecting newborns from a deadly infection, and are being called one of the most important “new food categories to emerge in the last 20 years.”
But what are these “good bacteria” and what should you know about them?
According to Marsha Barnden, Corporate Director of Infection Prevention and Clinical Standards at Adventist Health in Roseville, California, we’re mostly made up of bacteria already. “Ninety percent of the cells in our body are microbial—that’s just a general term for bacteria and other molecular organisms,” she says, explaining that all these cells make up a microbiome in our bodies that we need to keep in balance—not just for our brains and immune system, but our digestive system, too. Sometimes these get out of kilter and the normal intestinal flora are interrupted. Taking antibiotics, for example, can disrupt the balance by killing the good bacteria along with the bad bacteria. And simple stomach upsets like diarrhea can also throw off our gut balance.
So what can we do? We can add a little culture to our diets with probiotics.
Probiotics are living microorganisms that help stop bad bacteria from overgrowing in our gut. The most common are bacteria that belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Each of these two broad groups includes many types of bacteria. Lactobacilli live in the small intestine, and Bifidobacteria live in your colon. Whew!
Here’s the thing about probiotics: a lot of products in the grocery stores that are marketed as featuring “probiotics” aren’t necessarily good for you—all they are is, indeed, good marketing. Marsha says that when you’re looking for a quality probiotic, “You want to look for a high CFU count—at least 40 billion.” CFU stands for “colony forming unit” and the higher the count, the better. She also recommends a probiotic containing a varietal of bacterial strains and sub strains.
And if you weren’t already taking notes, here’s one more thing for your to-do list: Prebiotics.
“Prebiotics nourish the friendly bacteria in the gut—they essentially serve as a food source for the probiotics.” says Marsha. “They work in concert with probiotics to make them work better.” So taking a prebiotic can essentially “fertilize” the good bacteria in your gut. While probiotics are living bacteria, prebiotics are not. A good source of prebiotics in foods would be garlic, asparagus, leeks, onions, lentils, bananas and beans.
Jennifer Holman, dietician and health plan coach at Adventist Health says there’s a few easy ways to work probiotics into our diets. She says that while each individual need is different, probiotics can be taken as supplements (such as pills or powders) or in certain types of foods, like yogurt. “While most Greek yogurts can be a trusted source of protein, not all will provide probiotics. Some yogurt products are heat-treated after fermentation, which typically kills most of the beneficial active cultures, so be sure to check the label for the phrase ‘live active cultures.’" She also says steer clear of the yogurts with added sugars, as the sugar does more for the bad bacteria than the good.
And if you’ve seen the kombucha drinks promising to deliver a slew of probiotic benefits, there’s bad news: “Kombucha is made up of water, tea leaves, sugar and a substance called SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast),” says Jennifer. “Some kombucha brands are pasteurized which kills the live bacteria. This defeats the purpose of drinking kombuchas as a probiotic. And unpasteurized kombucha drinks have been linked to bacterial infections, allergic reactions, and liver damage.”
Jennifer recommends we stick to probiotic-rich fermented foods, such as pickles, raw sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and miso. Marsha adds that there are several ways we can try to keep our guts happy before we start to think about probiotics. Eliminating sugar, not drinking alcohol and getting proper sleep can help keep your guts in good shape.
Jennifer reminds us that the FDA regulates probiotics like food, not like medications. “Unlike drug companies, makers of probiotic supplements don’t have to show their products are safe or that they work. Food manufacturers are not required to show a specific dose of a specific probiotic.”
So before you add a probiotic supplement to your daily routine, consult a doctor first to make sure you take the proper types—and maybe nibble on a few pickles and Greek yogurt snacks while you’re waiting.