It’s no secret that probiotics have taken a spotlight in recent years, and for good reason. These tiny microorganisms are true superheroes against many inflammatory and digestive conditions, support our immunity, and are even a vital aspect of mental health. But they are certainly not a new phenomenon – these symbiotic microorganisms are quite literally a part of us – living within our GI system, and even on the surface of our skin. While people have consumed beneficial microbes in the form of cultured or fermented foods for thousands of years, science has only recently begun to explore the profound impact and influence these microbes have on our overall health. And we still have a lot left to learn.
What are they?
When you hear the word bacteria, you may think of disease-causing germs. However, not all bacteria are associated with illnesses – in fact, many actually help keep us well. Beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Acidophilus (to name just a few) are vital for a healthy gut microbiome - the world of microorganisms (roughly 100 trillion of them!) inside our gastrointestinal tracts. This is where about 80% of the body’s immunity lies.
These microorganisms are important as they promote healthy digestion, support the body’s ability to fight pathogen invasion and infection, and help to synthesize, break down and properly absorb key nutrients like B12. It’s easy to see how an imbalance in the gut can wreak havoc on our health–any one of these areas not functioning properly means bad news for our overall wellness.
Our mental health will also greatly benefit from a well-balanced gut microbiome since as much as 95% of the body’s serotonin (the feel-good hormone) is produced in the gut. Meaning, if the gut isn’t healthy, we experience negative physical symptoms as well as psychological ones.
What do they do?
Some areas in which a healthy gut can benefit us include promoting regular, balanced elimination, improving mood, anxiety, and depression, supporting heart health, supporting balanced hormone levels, reducing allergies, reducing inflammation in the bowel, and aiding in weight loss and skin health. This occurs because our health essentially begins in the gut. These beneficial microbes aid in everything from how well we’re digesting food to how our body responds to pathogens, and can even influence the balance of neurotransmitters in our brain.
Where can you find them?
While usually associated with dairy products such as yogurt and milk kefir, there are many tasty plant-based sources you can choose from. Things like kombucha, vegan cultured yogurt (try cashew or coconut!), raw sauerkraut, kimchi, or probiotic-infused snacks like organic probiotic-enhanced sprouted almonds. Look for things that have been cultured or fermented, which typically means they contain the beneficial microorganisms we need to thrive.
How to add more probiotics into your diet
If you’re dealing with any of the chronic diseases mentioned above, and especially if you are struggling with bloating and digestive issues, consider adding more probiotic-rich foods into your diet, as well as taking a daily probiotic supplement. If you’re craving something sweet, you can still indulge healthfully! Try a probiotic-enriched ginger spice chocolate bar just in time for fall. You’ll satisfy chocolate cravings while supercharging your gut health at the same time. Look for foods and supplements that also contain prebiotics - special carbohydrates that our bodies don’t break down as fuel, but that act as a food source for our beneficial microflora. These can be found in many fruits and vegetables such as artichokes, sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes), yacon root, bananas, sweet potatoes, blueberries, garlic, onions, and rye.
Other ways to protect your gut flora
Factors such as too many refined starches or sugars in the diet, fluoridated water, certain medications (especially antibiotics), chemicals in our environments and self-care products, and even overall stress levels can allow the bad bacteria to outnumber the good. By consuming probiotic-rich foods we can help to bring our gut biomes into a state of balance. Refined sugar should be especially avoided if you are struggling with gut health, as it causes pathogenic bacteria and things like candida to spread rapidly, and can lead to issues like insulin resistance. It’s important to note that antibiotics, unhealthy foods, stress, and radiation can all be harmful to your gut, so they should be avoided as much as possible. Instead of relying on antibiotics to kick a cold – which kills both bad and good bacteria – support immunity holistically with things like herbs, superfoods, and essential oils. Stay hydrated and drink filtered water only. Avoid processed foods and instead eat a plant-based diet rich with fiber to help sweep the GI tract of waste. If you do find yourself in a situation that compromises your gut, consider adding as many probiotic-rich foods into your diet as possible, and add a daily probiotic supplement to your wellness routine.