Most people are now aware of just how important a healthy gut – by which we mean digestive system – is to your overall wellbeing. A healthy gut microbiome influences our brain health, our weight and blood sugar levels, and our heart health.
And the key to a healthy gut microbiome? A diverse range of healthy bacteria. How can you make sure that you have those bacteria? One of the best methods is to consume probiotics.
But you might be thinking, “what, yet another supplement”. No. The best way to consume probiotics is through real foods that are rich in natural probiotics.
In this article, we are going to take a closer look at what probiotics are and why they are good for your health. We will also share some of the natural foods that are rich in the right kinds of probiotics and how to easily incorporate them into your diet.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are a group of beneficial live bacteria and yeasts, many of which live naturally in your body, mainly in the intestines. Together the colonies of good bacteria that exist in your gut are called your microbiome.
The microbiome does a number of things that help the body stay healthy, including fighting the bad bacteria that can make you sick. A healthy microbiome is essential to the strong functioning of your immune system. Bacteria also help you to digest food, break down and absorb medications, and even create vitamins.
Everyone’s gut microbiome is different and is formed by a number of different factors, including the birthing process, breastfeeding, exercise, and diet. Your microbiome can also be damaged by a number of things, such as taking antibiotics, which can kill much of the healthy bacteria that you have in your gut.
Probiotics are defined as bacteria that can be isolated from the human in which they live, that they can survive in your intestine after digestion, and that are beneficial to your health in some way.
The most common probiotics are Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces Boulardii, which is a yeast. Ideally, you should be consuming all three to diversify your gut bacteria, and many probiotic supplements contain a mix of them.
Probiotics are measured in colony-forming units (CFU), but there are no firm recommendations on exactly how many probiotics you need. Healthy levels can be as little as 1 billion CFU per day, or you might need as much as 20 billion CFU per day.
Fortunately, there are no known negative side effects associated with extremely high amounts of probiotics, but for each individual, there does seem to be a threshold at which there are no additional benefits.
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Natural Sources of Probiotics
Many natural foods contain high levels of probiotics that can enrich your gut microbiome. But whenever you are looking at foods, always check the label to see if they contain active or live probiotic cultures. Often the food preparation process can eliminate the probiotics, so just double check that they are present.
So, let’s take a look at 10 foods that are high in probiotics and how you can incorporate them into your diet.
Yogurt is made from milk that has been fermented using the friendly bacteria that you want in your gut. The production process means that yogurt naturally has probiotics, and many yogurt labels also add additional probiotics to enhance the health benefits of the product.
There are a variety of dairy products on this list, but yogurt can be one of the best choices for anyone who is lactose intolerant, as the fermenting process converts some of the lactose into lactic acid. This means it is kinder on the stomach and gives yogurt its sour flavor.
Yogurt is easy to introduce into your diet as it makes a great snack, or dessert when mixed with fresh fruits or honey.
Kefir is another dairy-based source of probiotics that is made from adding Kefir grains to either goat’s or cow’s milk. But Kefir is not a cereal grain, rather that are cultures of lactic acid bacteria and yeast, which produce probiotics that you want in your body.
Depending on the brand that you choose, you can find Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, Lactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens, Lactococcus lactis, and Leuconostoc species.
Kefir is a stronger source of probiotics than yogurt, but anyone who is lactose intolerant should steer clear of this option.
Many companies create small Kefir-based drinks that let you can gulp down as a quick afternoon or evening snack.
3. Traditional Buttermilk
Buttermilk refers to a range of fermented dairy drinks, but they aren’t all good sources of probiotics.
The two main types of buttermilk are traditional and cultured. Traditional buttermilk is the liquid leftover when making butter, and this is rich in probiotics. Cultured buttermilk is produced by other means and does not naturally contain probiotics.
Buttermilk can be used as a replacement for pasteurized milk in a variety of recipes including cakes and other baked goods. It can also be added to coffee as both a whitener and sweetener.
The last dairy product on your list, some cheeses are also rich in probiotics. Probiotics may be present if the cheese is prepared through fermentation, but they do not all contain them, so you need to check the packaging carefully.
Some of the best options if you are looking for probiotics are Gouda, Mozzarella, Cheddar, and Cottage Cheese.
Simply replace whatever cheese you usually eat with one of the various options from this list to easily enhance your probiotics intake.
Moving on to fermented vegetables, let’s start with sauerkraut, which is finely shredded cabbage that has been fermented in lactic acid bacteria. The resulting food contains more lactobacillus than yogurt, so a little goes a long way.
It has been a staple in the European diet for centuries and is often used as a tasty and salty side dish. The garnish is also rich in vitamins C, B, and K.
When buying sauerkraut, make sure to choose unpasteurized varieties as pasteurization kills healthy bacteria. Add it to salads or use it as a side to spice up any meat dish.
Kimchi is another cabbage-based dish, but this one hailing from Korea. It is usually made from cabbage, but it can also be made from other vegetables.
Prepared in a similar way to sauerkraut, it is often seasoned with spices such as red chili pepper flakes, garlic, ginger, scallion, and salt.
The dish is rich in the lactic acid bacteria lactobacillus kimchi, which is what gives the dish its name.
This is another item that can be added to salads to give them a spicy taste or put on the side or noodle or meat-based dishes.
Pickles have long been an American favorite and not everyone is aware of just how good they are for your gut health.
Also known as gherkins, they are made from cucumbers that have been pickled in a solution of salt and water. Left for a sufficient period of time, they ferment in their own naturally present lactic acid bacteria, resulting in the tasty sour treat.
Pickles are low in calories but high in salt, so they do need to be eaten in moderation. Add them as a salty addition to salads or sandwiches, or a lot of people like to eat them alone as a bar snack.
But remember that pickles that have been made in vinegar don’t contain probiotics, so always read the label carefully to get the right sort of pickles.
Now let’s move on to soy-based products, which can also be a great source of probiotics. The first on our list is Tempeh, which is traditionally from India. It is a fermented soybean product that is made into a patty. In terms to have a nutty, earthy taste that is similar to mushrooms.
Gain, avoid varieties or tempeh that have been pasteurized, as this kills most of the bacteria that you are looking for.
Tempeh can be used as a protein replacement in a variety of dishes, much like tofu.
Miso is another soy-based dish, this time from Japan. It is made from fermenting soybeans with salt and a type of fungus called koji.
In Japan, the resulting paste is often used to make Miso soup. This is a popular breakfast as it makes you feel fuller for longer. You can also add a tablespoon of Miso to dishes such as stir fry to fill them out and give them a nice salty taste.
The last option on our list is Kombucha, which is a fermented black or green tea-based drink. It often has a slight sparkling consistency, so can make a great replacement for your favorite soft drink.
Trendy restaurants often sell kombucha bottles, or you can find more affordable options online. But many people like brewing at home since it can be brewed in as little as a week. All you need to do is maintain a life source of yeast at home.
What is the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?
While probiotics are healthy gut bacteria in their ultimate form, prebiotics are a type of fiber that stimulates the growth of probiotics in the gut.
Prebiotics can be taken as a supplement or can be found naturally in foods such as artichokes, bananas, asparagus, oats, and apples.
Are there side effects to taking probiotics?
Most changes in your diet can leave you feeling a bit strange for a while. If you suddenly increase your probiotic intake significantly, you might notice that you get a mild stomach upset, diarrhea, or regular flatulence as your body adjusts to the change in diet. This usually passes in a few days and is nothing to worry about.
However, if you have a weakened immune system or you have recently recovered from surgery or a critical illness, probiotics can contain a risk of infection. Consult your doctor before making any significant changes to your diet in these circumstances.
Do I need to take probiotics after I take antibiotics?
Antibiotics are used to fight infections and kill bad bacteria, but they often kill a lot of good bacteria as part of the process. This can undermine your gut microbiome, and it can take months for your gut to recover without a bit of additional help. The result can be suffering from either diarrhea or constipation after a course of antibiotics.
Increasing probiotic intake after a course of antibiotics can help restore your gut to equilibrium more quickly, and also means that your body will be more prepared to fight off any bad bacteria that the antibiotics might have missed.
Can Probiotics support weight loss?
Studies have shown a strong connection between the composition of gut microbiomes and weight. Studies on twins, in which one is overweight, and the other is not, show that the two have very different gut bacteria. Moreover, when the gut microbiome of the overweight individual was transferred to mice, they gained weight quickly.
Studies suggest that maintaining a good gut microbiome can support weight loss along with a calorie deficit and exercise. Unfortunately, researchers are yet to identify a magic probiotic recipe for losing weight.
Are there foods that I should avoid for better gut health?
If you want to limit the bad bacteria in your gut in order to give your good bacteria the upper hand, one thing that you can do is avoid artificial sweeteners. They have been shown to stimulate the growth of unhealthy bacteria like Enterobacteriaceae in the gut.
The research is in, and a healthy gut is essential to a healthy mind and body. But what exactly is a healthy gut and how do you maintain one?
A healthy gut has well-balanced bacteria levels in its microbiome, with healthy bacteria outweighing bad bacteria so that they can fight infection and boost your immune system. The gut microbiome has also been linked to brain and heart health, as well as a healthy weight and blood sugar levels.
You can give you gut microbiome a boost by eating a diet that is rich in probiotics. While supplements are available, they aren’t necessary as there are many goods out there that are rich, natural sources of probiotics.
These included fermented dairy products such as yogurt, Kefir, buttermilk, and some cheeses, fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles, and soy-based products such as tempeh and miso. You can then wash this all down with a glass of kombucha.
But whenever you are buying these products, always check the label to ensure that they have live cultures, as the manufacturing process can sometimes kill probiotics where they are expected.