Are bloating, gas, or constipation a part of your day-to-day life? If so, you may want to consider trying probiotics.
Before you dismiss probiotics as just another health buzzword, keep reading. They may be able to help with your digestive woes and ease your tummy troubles.
How does the gastrointestinal system work?
To understand probiotics, it’s important to have a general sense of the gut and the larger gastrointestinal system. The intestines are full of bacteria, literally hundreds of trillions of bacteria. Bacteria come in two forms — the “good” and the “bad”. Both types of bacteria help digest and process food.
Having the right amount of “good” bacteria means that the intestinal system is healthier and can function properly. Having an overabundance of “bad” bacteria may contribute to conditions such as colon cancer, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, arthritis, diabetes, and obesity.
The term gut flora is used to define this complex system of “good” and “bad” bacteria and microorganisms. When your gut flora is in balance, your stomach and intestinal tract is happy and healthy.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics, which literally mean “for life,” are healthy and beneficial sources of bacteria. They can help balance and regulate the normal gut flora.
Probiotics are the opposite of prebiotics. These are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as the food for probiotics. Essentially, probiotics need prebiotics to live and thrive. They work together to improve gut health.
What do probiotics help with?
Research shows probiotics may have many health benefits, including:
- helping digest food
- assisting in absorbing essential nutrients
- regulating gut flora
- boosting immune system
- alleviating or improving skin conditions, such as eczema
- helping with weight loss
- preventing certain types of cancers, especially colon cancer
However, more research is needed to support these claims.
What are the best natural sources of probiotics?
Probiotics can be found naturally in some foods. Whether you realize it or not, your current diet probably already includes some probiotics.
Probiotic-rich foods include:
- Yogurt. This morning breakfast staple can be one of the best sources of probiotics. But always check the label and make sure it contains “live and active cultures” to ensure that you’re actually reaping the benefits.
- Kefir. Similar to yogurt but with a tangier taste, kefir is a fermented milk drink. It’s more popular in Eastern and Northern Europe but is growing in popularity in the United States.
- Sourdough bread. The next time you’re at the neighborhood deli, you may want to think about opting for turkey on sourdough instead of turkey on rye. Sourdough is made with a starter that contains lactobacillus bacteria, a type of bacteria that gives this bread its distinctive taste.
- Miso. If you’ve gone to a Japanese restaurant, you’ve probably had miso soup. But you may not have known that miso, a seasoning made by fermenting soybeans with other natural ingredients, is a probiotic. Besides soup, you can enjoy miso paste as an addition to salad dressings, marinades, and other sauces.
- Sauerkraut. This traditional German side only has two main ingredients: cabbage and salt. The cabbage sits for several days (or months), which aids in the fermentation process.
- Kimchi. Because it’s also typically made from cabbage, kimchi can be seen as the Korean version of sauerkraut.
- Tempeh. Vegetarians may be the most familiar with tempeh, a meat-substitute made from fermented soybeans. It’s full of protein, fiber, and magnesium.
- Kombucha. Not only does this fermented, bubbly tea drink taste great, but it’s also may be good for your gut. And Americans are taking note: Sales of kombucha worldwide are expected to be upwards of $1.8 billion by 2020.
A new food trend of adding probiotics to certain foods has also become popular. While probiotics can be safely added to foods, it’s not the same as getting them naturally. So before thinking that a probiotic chocolate bar, granola snack, or infused water is just as good for your gut, think again.
What are probiotic supplements?
Besides being found naturally in food, probiotics can also be taken as supplements. These supplements are available in liquid, tablet, or powder form. It’s important to know that these supplements are generally sold as over-the-counter dietary supplements, which means they are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
People with severe or chronic gastrointestinal disorders or those taking antibiotics may want to consider taking a supplement. Always talk to your doctor before taking a supplement.
There may be many benefits to increasing the amount of probiotics in your diet. While they may not completely resolve your stomach or gastrointestinal issues, they may help ease your symptoms by restoring and promoting gut health. Still, more research needs to be done on their actual effectiveness in particular conditions.
If you’re experiencing regular stomach or digestive problems, make an appointment with your doctor and discuss your symptoms with them. They may be able to recommend a probiotic formulation that is right for you.