Happy Gut, Happy Life? Probiotic Foods and Supplements, Explained
Hippocrates once said that "all diseases begin in the gut," positing that an unhealthy gut environment may affect not only the way our tummies feel, but even more than we realized. If this is true, what might be the answer? You got it -- PROBIOTICS. Probiotics are one of the latest buzzwords in and around the health and nutrition world. As with all the topics I cover here, there are a lot of claims out there, and it's hard to decipher the truth from the outrageous. Also, even if probiotics do work, how do you choose the best product for you, with entire shelves full of options at your local health food store, pharmacy, etc? Fear not, little eaters -- Sam The Dietitian to the rescue.
First... What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that are similar to beneficial
microorganisms that are found in the human gut, and may elicit health benefits. You may have heard these healthy gut organisms referred to as "good bacteria". Probiotics can be found in food sources such as yogurt, and fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, and sauerkraut.
Additionally, probiotics come in the form of pills that can be taken daily.
Next... Why would I need probiotics?
Hippocrates knew his stuff... While current research is lacking, and it may be hard to conclusively agree with the guy with 100% certainty, I have no doubt that a healthy gut is a crucial piece of the wellness picture. Our health can often depend on the environment inside our intestines -- this means, the ratio of beneficial to harmful bacteria present. One of the more common reasons your gut environment might be thrown off is recent use of antibiotics (ANTI = against, BIOTIC = bacteria). Unfortunately antibiotics don't necessarily discriminate by only getting rid of the bad guys! Some folks want to write off antibiotics for this reason, so let me be clear with my message: antibiotics are an incredible medical advancement that should be used as appropriate to treat bacterial infections. Be sure to follow your prescription exactly (i.e. don't stop taking them early just because you feel better), and talk with your doc about how you can repopulate your gut with the good guys after your anti-gut-bug course. Current research supports that intake of probiotics may be helpful in the prevention or treatment of:
Urinary Tract Infections
Digestive diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome
So.... Do they work? Are they safe?
More research needs to be done in the area of probiotics. A lot of current evidence is very promising, and there is personal testimony in support of this from individuals who have seen noticeable improvements in their own gut health and overall wellbeing with the inclusion of probiotics in their diet. We run into challenges in knowing exactly what strains and what dosage is appropriate for an individual, due to lack of current research and understanding. Probiotics are generally safe for healthy people. Some side effects have, however been seen in those with medical conditions. Whether you are otherwise healthy or not, it is a good idea to consult your personal healthcare provider before beginning a probiotic supplement. It is also important to note that as a dietary supplement, probiotics are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the same way drugs and medications are. What this means is that probiotics are not subject to a strict, thorough regulatory and testing process, and are therefore not necessarily tested for a high standard of safety and effectiveness. This means these supplements could potentially contain harmful ingredients that are not disclosed on their labels. Additionally, probiotics supplements may not contain the strands of good bacteria that they claim to, or may not contain cultures in the amounts stated on the label.
More research is definitely needed in this area of nutrition and wellness. At this time, it appears safe to recommend naturally fermented and probiotic-rich foods to most people. Try to get more of these healthy gut buddies through foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut. If you're not seeing any improvement after some time with regular intake of these foods, you might want to speak with your doctor about a probiotic supplement. Certain strains in certain amounts may be effective for different conditions, so speaking to someone with a thorough understanding of your current conditions and past medical history is very important. Probiotic supplements can be dangerous for those who are immunocompromised due to cancer treatments, or who are prone to infection for other reasons, so please avoid them if this is the case for you.
Bonus Nugget: Prebiotics!
Prebiotics feed probiotics, and may be able to help your body utilize those healthy gut bacteria. They can help probiotics do their job, so these two guys work hand-in-hand. A balanced overall diet can also help probiotics do their job -- this includes eating enough (#1 priority), and including varied sources of all nutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat, sources of which will provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber). If you're having trouble figuring out this balance for yourself, please reach out for a consultation. I'd love to hear from you about your experience with probiotics and gut health. Comment and tell us about it below! Have you had success (or not had success) with probiotics?
<3 Sam The Dietitian