Digestion 101: Probiotics
The importance of our gut health cannot be understated. The health of our gut determines the health of our entire body! In this last installment of the gut and digestive health series on the blog, we will be discuss probiotics and how they can play a huge role in our gut health.
First, let's look at what probiotics are. Contrary to popular belief, probiotics aren't just a pill. They are a culture of live bacteria and yeasts that are beneficial to our health. They mostly live in our large intestine, and have a variety of functions which we will cover later on.
The body contains a mixture of "good" and "bad" bacteria. Probiotics are often called the "good" or "beneficial" bacteria because they help keep our gut strong and healthy. Having enough “good” probiotic strains also helps keep “bad” gut bugs from overtaking the gut.
Probiotics are important for a variety of reasons:
1. Probiotics help protect against a leaky gut
A leaky gut is a break in the gut lining barrier, which compromises our gut health. A leaky gut can be formed from a variety of factors, including stress, gluten, refined sugar, processed vegetable oils, and lack of sleep. Leaks in our gut lining let the bad stuff in and the good stuff out, leading to an immune system response and inflammation.
2. Probiotics boost the immune system
About 60-80% of our immune system lives in our gut. If our gut isn't healthy, we can't fight off bad pathogens or bacteria.
3. Probiotics assist the digestive system
Beneficial bacteria in the gut help our digestive system properly break down food so that our body can absorb the nutrients we need. If we don't have the proper digestive elements to aid in digestion, we can suffer from bloating, IBS, constipation, and more.
4. Probiotics improve our brain, mood, and mental health
Most of our body's serotonin (our happy hormone) is produced in our gut; therefore, it is critical to have the proper balance of good bacteria to support the brain and mind.
5. Probiotics keep our metabolism strong
Because our gut flora and gut health ties closely in with our thyroid function, a healthy gut leads to a strong, properly functioning thyroid, which also strengthens our metabolism.
6. Probiotics help us recover from antibiotics and trauma
Frequent doses of antibiotics over the course of year or even a lifetime add up quickly and is devastatingly damaging to the gut flora, both good and bad. In order to heal from antibiotics, we must have a strong gut flora to keep our body healthy.
On the other hand, if you suffered any sort of "health trauma" in your life (not being breast fed, frequent antibiotics as a child, being born via C-section, poor gut health of your parents, etc), your gut health and gut flora can also be compromised. Our gut constitution starts before we are even born, so if your parents' health wasn't great before you, chances are it was passed along to you!
KNOW THIS: All disease begins in the gut.
Basically, if you have struggled with improper digestion, mood issues, frequent illnesses, or other health issues, your gut could be the root cause of all your problems. So often we treat the symptoms (the headaches, insomnia, constipation, etc), but we don't look for the root cause!
A pill to "fix" the symptoms doesn't solve the problem. It just allows it to fester and get worse. Instead of reaching for the quick fix, focusing diligently on your gut health could be life changing for you, and it all starts with probiotics.
"A pill to 'fix' the symptoms doesn't solve the problem. It just allows it to fester and get worse."
When beginning any routine with probiotics, make sure to take it slow! A little bit goes a long way. Start small and slowly increase the amount your are taking over time.
Let's start with where to find probiotics in food.
Let food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food
Probiotic foods contain live and active bacterial cultures. The carbohydrates in the food are broken down and are easier to digest. Note that pasteurization kills bacteria, so food can be fermented without containing probiotics.
1. Raw Fermented Sauerkraut, Pickles, or Vegetables
Choose refrigerated products for all varieties of fermented veggies, as the shelf-stable products will have been pasteurized thereby killing all the good bacteria. Look for raw and organic on the label. Add a little bit of fermented veggies to your breakfast - a little will go a long way. And when you are looking to save a little money, make your own sauerkraut. It is simple and cheaper than buying sauerkraut in stores.
My picks: Bubbies and Farmhouse Culture.
Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage that contains probiotics. Look for real kombucha (unpasteurized, organic, etc), not a "probiotic drink" that claims to
have probiotics added to it (along with extra sugar too of course!)
My picks: GT Synergy and Live Soda.
Real food doesn't have ingredients. Real food IS ingredients.
This is a tough one, as crappy yogurts like Activa are marketed as containing lots of probiotics. Don't believe those lies. Look for a plain, full fat, grass fed, organic yogurt whenever possible to reap the true rewards of probiotics in yogurt. Avoid low-fat/fat-free and flavored varieties at all costs. Simply add your own fruit and nuts to switch up the tangy flavor. I also like GTs Synergy’s fermented coconut yogurt as well.
My picks: Maple Hill Creamery and GT's Synergy
Look for raw, unpasteurized, and organic vinegar. My favorite is apple cider vinegar. I add it when I make homemade bone broth to pull nutrients from the bones.
My pick: Bragg
Now it's time to move to supplements. Probiotic supplements are becoming more and more popular. It is important that you look for quality over quantity. Here's what to look for on the label:
1. Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains are preferred
These are the most studied and common strains of probiotics.
2. No extra ingredients
Make sure there is no sugar, corn, wheat, dairy, soy, or other additives.
3. 10-30 billion CFU’s (colony forming unit) is preferred
4. Look for numbers after the strains of bacteria
This numbering system is an optional extra step that shows that they strains have been purified, tested, and registered.
5. 6 strains or more
Make sure there are at least 6 strains in your probiotic. You can definitely have more, but be cautious of brands that advertise 100+ strains - it's often a ploy.
Megasporebiotic or Ther-biotic– Practitioner only brands
I typically recommend Megasporebiotic or Ther-biotic in my practice when working with clients as they are practitioner-grade probiotics. If you would like to learn more about these supplements, please reach out to me via the contact form on my website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember, when purchasing a supplemental probiotic, it is important to spend a little bit more for quality, rather than going the cheap CVS route. Trust me, your gut will thank you!
If you want further information, this blog post and podcast have great information.