Probiotics: What Are They and Why Do They Matter?

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Via Giphy

By Jessica Hamlin

Probiotics are a big buzz word right now and for good reason.

Chances are you’ve heard of them if you’ve come across supplements, yogurt or fermented drinks like Kombucha in the grocery store or some of the many articles about probiotics and gut health.

Some of those "live cultures" we've long known about in yogurt are now being added to nut butters, nutrition bars, granolas and even burritos.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are good bacteria that are the same or similar to the bacteria found in a person’s body, namely the gut.

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Via Giphy

There are a few probiotic species but two main species of probiotics that people consume most are:

  • Bifidobacteria: These bacteria are commonly used in foods and supplements.
  • Lactobacillus: This species of bacteria helps breaks down lactose, or milk sugar. It is found in the mouth, small intestine and vagina.

Several strains (species subtypes) of probiotics exist and have a variety benefits. Try saying all those names ten times fast!

Why are probiotics important?

Probiotics have gained momentum because of the growing focus on gut health. And we’re not talking about the physical gut you see and may try to shape up with crunches.

Turns out, our gut (aka digestive tract that includes the stomach and intestines) is filled with trillions of bacteria. Medications like antibiotics and foods with refined sugar, oils, gluten and food additives can throw the healthy bacteria balance out of whack.

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When too much bad bacteria overtake the good bacteria, you can get health problems ranging from constipation and PMS to vitamin deficiencies and leaky gut.

An imbalance of gut bacteria has also been linked to serious conditions including autism, obesity, diabetes, allergies, autoimmunity, depression, cancer, heart disease, fibromyalgia, eczema, and asthma, according to functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, MD.

If you’re wondering how bacteria in your stomach can be linked to autism or depression, keep in mind the gut has also been called the “second brain” since it can influence mood and other forms of well-being.

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In addition to digestion, here are just some of probiotics’ benefits, according to a medically reviewed article:

Bifidobacteria are thought to:

  • support the immune system
  • limit the growth of harmful bacteria in the intestine
  • help in breaking down lactose into nutrients the body can use

Lactobacillus bacteria produces lactic acid, which:

  • helps control the population of bad bacteria
  • serves as muscle fuel
  • increases the body’s absorption of minerals

How much to take

Opinions differ on how much probiotics people should consume. It’s tough to overdose since our bodies have trillions of bacteria, but anything can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. Probiotic supplements and foods will usually list the amount as CFUs (colony-forming units).

Each person’s gut health varies depending on diet, medications and pre-existing conditions. If you have health issues and want to add more probiotics to your diet, you may want to advise a health professional. In any case, start slow if you’re new to probiotics.

How to consume probiotics

A few tips

Diet plays a big role in gut health.

We hear a lot about probiotics but prebiotics play a role too. We can’t digest these substances that come from carbohydrates but prebiotics help feed probiotics. Prebiotic foods include bananas, beans, peas and legumes, oats, garlic, asparagus and more.

Thankfully, probiotics are in an array of products and foods. But just like “gluten-free” is slapped on some food labels to appear healthy, probiotics are added to many foods and drinks but that doesn’t automatically make them healthy. Try to avoid products with ingredients like excess sugar and most vegetable oils that can cause inflammation and actually harm your gut bacteria.  

Supplements

It’s easy to feel like a deer in headlights among the mass of supplements in stores or online.

Here are tips on how to choose the best probiotic supplement and here are a few recommendations.

Kombucha

This fermented tea drink is all the rage right now but not all are created equal. Sugar is a part of Kombucha since it feeds the healthy bacteria during the fermentation process, but your Kombucha shouldn’t be packed with sugar. Brands like GT’s and Health-Ade have varieties on the lower end with 4 grams of sugar per bottle.

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Yogurt

A lot of dairy and non-dairy yogurts exist. You can also make your own.

What to look for to find a good yogurt that works for you:

  • live and active cultures
  • raw yogurt from grass-fed cows, sheep and goats (if you can have raw dairy)
  • organic yogurt 
  • no added sugar

Fermented vegetables

You can pickle that! Or rather, ferment it. There is a difference.

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Via Giphy

You can also find quality sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, and kimchi in some stores or farmers markets with a variety of seasonings. Look for a label that mentions the live bacteria or ask a farmers market vendor if it has live cultures.

Sauerkraut and fermented vegetables can be eaten as is or on top of meat, eggs, salads or whatever your gut feels like.

Kefir

This fermented drink can be made with milk, coconut or water. You can make your own or try to find a good brand that’s low on added sugar.


Jessica Hamlin is an LA-born and bred journalist and editor who started taking pictures of food back when everyone used film cameras. A graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s health coach training program, she’s passionate about wellness and enjoys making and discovering delicious and healthy food. Her work has appeared in Clean Plates, NPR affiliate KPCC, AOL, and Eater LA.

 

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