Probiotics: Healthy Gut, Healthy You

By Heidi Mcindoo, MS, RD, LDN

I recently attended the annual conference of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. At the conference scientists from around the globe present the latest nutrition research to thousands of registered dietitians and students. It’s a great opportunity to learn what’s happening in the field of nutrition. However, in addition to the multiple sessions each day, there’s a huge exhibition hall. In it hundreds of food boards, associations, and growers, such as the egg board and the wild blueberry growers, as well as food companies and manufacturers share their product and information about them. This is where a good chunk of the learning goes on as well, as dietitians learn about the newest foods and ingredients available to consumers right from the horse’s mouth.

Every year there’s always one or two foods or ingredients that are hot. These usually end up being the latest and greatest trend for the following year(s). In the past, these trends have included soymilk and gluten-free products. This year, there was no mistaking the trending item—probiotics. Probiotics were in drinks and foods in almost every aisle of the very large exhibit hall. There’s certainly enough buzz about probiotics to warrant a primer on what they are, what they do, and where you can find them.

What exactly are probiotics?

Probiotics are bacteria, but before elaborating on that, let’s talk a bit about bacteria in general. When we think of bacteria we often think of illness and disease. But believe it or not, there are several types of bacteria that are actually beneficial to our body. In fact, your body is full of good bacteria. The “good” bacteria not only offer benefit of their own, but they also help regulate the amount of “bad” bacteria in your body. Having too much of the bad bacteria can lead to digestive health problems such as diarrhea or constipation. In addition, an imbalance of good and bad bacteria has been linked to weight gain, skin conditions, depression, and other chronic diseases.

Taking antibiotics can effect the mix of your gut bacteria because the precise job of antibiotics is to kill bacteria. Unfortunately, the medicine cannot differentiate between the good and the bad guys. You also are born with bacteria from your mother. But the majority of your gut bacteria can be linked to your lifestyle, and more specifically, your eating habits. An unhealthy diet does not promote healthy bacteria. In addition, those who eat less-than-healthy diets tend to have less variety or fewer types of bacteria in their system. It would appear that those who eat a healthy diet consisting of a wide variety of foods have the healthiest amount and combination of gut bacteria.

How can probiotics improve your health?

Probiotics are all the rage in the scientific world right now and are being studied quite a bit. In addition to the benefits a healthy balance of bacteria can provide mentioned previously, probiotics offer their own benefits. I expect research to reveal more and more about these interesting little bugs, but at this point researchers, and many medical doctors, believe they are helpful in treating and improving:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Diarrhea, both infectious (caused by a bacteria, parasite, or virus) and antibiotic-related
  • Skin conditions
  • Boosting immune system
  • Urinary and vaginal health

Back to the question of What are probiotics? They are live bacteria that are healthy for us. They promote a healthy digestive system and a healthy gut. In doing so, they may help improve our overall health.

What are the main types of probiotics?

There are hundreds of types of bacteria that are considered probiotics. And they all offer different benefits, many of which overloap. The majority of those we consume regularly come from two main groups, or genera (the plural of genus).

The first is lactobacillus. It’s probably the most common. Within this group, there are smaller groups. When we discuss bacteria, their full name includes both their genus and species. You’ll often see them written with only the first initial of the genus. For example, if we were talking about a bacteria in the genus lactobacillus and the species acidophilus, you may see it written as L. acidophilus. This may be a bacteria you recognize if you’ve ever looked at the back of a yogurt container. It can be helpful in improving/preventing diarrhea as well as problems with lactose intolerance.

Another common genus is bifidobacterium. It may play a role in helping the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. It’s also believed to help restore the good bacteria in the intestinal tract that was killed or damaged by taking antibiotics, radiation, or chemotherapy. This probiotic can help prevent or treat diarrhea that may be a result of those treatments.

Those are the main groups and commonly found bacterium that act as probiotics. Most foods contain a variety of different bacterium that work together. While it’s nice to be able to recognize the names of a few, there’s no need to know the names and purpose of every single bacterium.

What foods contain probiotics?

Now that you have a better understanding of what probiotics are and what they do, you may be wondering where to find them and how to include them in your diet.

Currently there is no recommended daily dose. But based on many of the research studies, it appears that somewhere between 1 billion and 10 billion live bacteria cultures daily will produce the desired benefits. Most foods don’t list their bacteria content, though with the popularity of probiotics continuing to climb, I suspect you may start seeing it on food labels. If you do see bacteria content on labels, it will be measured in Colony Forming Units, or CFUs. Fortunately you don’t have to worry about all of that. Just aim for one or two servings of a probiotic-rich food per day to give you the amount you need to reap the benefits.

Probiotic Choices

There are a variety of foods that contain probiotics, and the number and type are increasing all the time.

General Products

There are some foods and drinks that naturally contain probiotics, no matter what company makes them.

  • Yogurt: Yogurt is a fermented dairy product that can now be found in a semi-solid form as well as in liquid form. Not all yogurts are created equal in regard to probiotics. Greek, Australian, and Icelandic yogurts are all more concentrated than traditional yogurts. This is because they don’t contain the watery whey. Therefore, those types of yogurts have more probiotics. In addition, yogurt cups that include mix-ins for you to stir into your yogurt, such as nuts or cookie bits, contain less yogurt than cups that are only yogurt. So, the mix-in type yogurt also contain fewer probiotics than yogurt cups containing just yogurt. Flavor doesn’t impact probiotic content.
  • Kefir: This is a fermented milk drink. It can be made with cow, goat, or sheep’s milk.
  • Miso: A fermented soybean paste. Often used to make miso soup.
  • Tempeh: A fermented soybean cake. It’s often brined and fried and then can be eaten as is, or used in stews, soups, chili, or salads.
  • Kombucha: A fermented, slightly bubbly, sweetened tea drink.
  • Kimchi: A fermented vegetable side dish that originated in Korea.

Name Brand Products

Because of the blossoming interest in probiotics, there are several companies that have jumped on the bandwagon and begun selling probiotic products.

  • Farmhouse Culture: This brand offers a variety of foods rich in probiotics. They include:
    • Fresh Sauerkraut—their sauerkraut contains live probiotics, unlike most canned and other packaged sauerkraut sold at the grocery store. Most other sauerkrauts are pasteurized. That process kills the bacteria, and therefore the probiotics.
    • Kraut Krisps—Crispy chips made from sauerkraut
    • Fermented Vegetables—They ferment cauliflower, carrots, beets, and other vegetables similar to the way they prepare the cabbage to create their sauerkraut
    • Gut Shots—A tangy, fermented drink
  • Go Live: A pro- and prebiotic drink company offering:
  • Alive: cultures in a special cap. You release them when you open the bottle. This helps to ensure the probiotics stay fresh until you’re ready to drink it. Their products include:
    • A flavored drink blend you can add to any food or drink.
    • A flavorless powdered blend you can add to any food or drink.

You can also find probiotics in an array of supplements. However, obtaining your probiotics from whole foods is the better choice. At this point probiotic supplements aren’t well regulated. You have no way of knowing for sure if what’s listed on the label is what you’re actually getting. In addition, as with any other vitamin and mineral supplement, when you take pills, you have a greater risk of getting too much. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Eating one or two probiotic-rich foods a day will give you all you need, without the risk of overdoing it.