Healthy eating is an essential habit from childhood all the way through to adulthood. When putting together your game plan for eating healthy meals, you have to separate the fads from the fact. Crash diets and carb moratoriums might be all the rage, but they aren’t the key to a healthy diet. You’ve also probably heard the term “probiotics.”
What exactly are probiotics? Probiotics are “good” bacteria. Typically, bacteria invoke images of sick days and trips to the doctor, but not all bacteria make us sick. Humans play host to trillions of bacterial cells that live everywhere in our body. Bacterial cells actually outnumber human cells. While this may sound strange, these bacteria help keep us healthy. For example, our digestive systems have a unique bacterial blend that helps us process our food. This helpful, microscopic team is known as the gut microbiome. Researchers are still in the process of fully understanding how much the gut microbiome affects our health, but it is no secret it plays a big role.
Different things can throw the natural balance of the gut microbiome out of balance. For example, taking antibiotics to kill an infection caused by bad bacteria will cause collateral damage — some of your natural, helpful bacteria will die too.
Luckily, probiotics can be incorporated into your diet to help maintain a healthy balance of good internal bacteria. You can take a probiotic as a dietary supplement, or you can add foods that already have plenty of probiotics. Here’s what you need to know about probiotics.
Should I Take Probiotics?
Approximately 1.6 percent of adults in the United States, or 3.9 million people, take a probiotics supplement, while 294,000 children, or 0.5 percent, take probiotics.
Probiotics have plenty of benefits, including:
- Immunity benefits — Probiotic supplements and naturally occurring probiotics can help you prevent and fight off certain infections. For example, an imbalance of bacteria in your gut microbiome can lead to uncomfortable symptoms like diarrhea. Bad bacteria, such as coli, are often the culprit of food poisoning and all those unfortunate trips to the bathroom. Taking a probiotic supplement can help restore balance to your gut bacteria, which will put a stop to your abnormal digestive activity.
Probiotics can also play a role in preventing urinary tract infections (UTIs). Bacteria that shouldn’t be there find their way into the vagina and the urinary tract, causing a painful infection that requires antibiotic treatment. Probiotics help maintain a healthy balance of the right bacteria and help to discourage the growth of the bacteria notorious for causing UTIs. Probiotics can also help prevent the overgrowth of yeast in the vagina and the resultant infection.
- Digestive benefits — Just as probiotics can help resolve diarrhea issues caused by an infection, they can also help manage constipation issues. Approximately 14 percent of adults suffer from constipation, resulting in 3.2 million annual doctor visits. Probiotics have been shown to soften stool and make it easier to pass.
Promising research indicates people who have digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may benefit from probiotics. IBS suffers often experience diarrhea, constipation or both, as well as other symptoms like gas and cramping. Probiotics can help effectively manage those symptoms. They have also shown promise for helping people who have ulcerative colitis, a type of IBD.
- Healthy weight benefits — Probiotics are not a magic weight loss solution, but they have the potential to be helpful combined with other healthy habits, like diet and exercise. Some particular types of probiotics might prevent absorption of dietary fats.
Who should take probiotics? Many different types of people have reason to consider probiotics. If you are taking antibiotics for an infection, adding a probiotic to your diet can help maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria and prevent some of the unpleasant side effects of taking an antibiotic. If you have a digestive issue such as IBS or IBD, a probiotic is worth considering. If you are simply looking for something with overall health benefits to add to your diet, probiotics could be the answer.
What Are the Different Types of Probiotics?
“Probiotics” is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of bacteria. Here are some of the most common probiotics.
- Bifidobacteria animalis — animalis is often found in popular yogurt brands — it has the ability to survive in dairy products, even if they are acidic. Researchers have found B. animalis is able to survive in the human digestive tract, but it usually passes through, rather than setting up a permanent residence. This type of probiotic is known for its digestive benefits.
- Bifidobacteria breve — B. breve is found in the human digestive tract and vagina. This helpful probiotic helps your digestive system by breaking down sugars and plant fiber. It also can reduce uncomfortable symptoms like cramping, bloating and gas. breve also hinders the growth of yeast in the vagina, discouraging yeast infections. This probiotic naturally occurs in a number of different foods, such as kombucha.
- Bifidobacterialactis — lactis is found in raw milk. It is often taken from raw milk and used as the basis for foods such as buttermilk. This probiotic helps you digest milk, which may mean it is a key tool in the fight against lactose intolerance. Other benefits of this particular probiotic include overall digestive tract health and reduction in diarrhea associated with taking antibiotics. B. lactis might even be able to help you maintain healthy levels of cholesterol.
- Lactobacillus acidophilus — acidophilus is found in your digestive tract. The probiotic produces lactic acid, a byproduct of digesting lactose, and hydrogen peroxide, which creates an unfriendly environment for bacteria that cause infections. L. acidophilus has a number of potential benefits, including reduction of cholesterol, improvement of IBS symptoms and prevention of vaginal yeast infections.
- Lactobacillus casei — L. casei is commonly found in fermented milk products. This handy probiotic can have positive benefits for multiple areas of the body. It can help your digestive system more effectively absorb nutrients and reduce the uncomfortable symptoms associated with lactose intolerance. It can also help prevent a number of different infections by giving your immune system a boost.
- Lactobacillus reuteri — L. reuteri can be found in the human digestive tract, but it isn’t the biggest bacteria population there. It is often used in probiotic supplements. This probiotic can help reduce cholesterol and combat pylori, the bacteria often responsible for causing ulcers.
There are many other types of probiotics found in your body, in food and in supplements, but you might come across those listed above more often when looking at supplements and nutrition labels.
How Do I Choose the Right Probiotic?
With so many different types of probiotics on the market, it can be difficult to pick out one that is just right for you. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when evaluating the different available options.
- What benefits do I hope to gain from taking a probiotic? The best place to start is by asking yourself why you are considering a probiotic. Do you want help managing your IBS symptoms? Do you want to avoid some of the side effects of an antibiotic you are taking? Once you know what you want the probiotic to achieve, you can research the strains — and the products that contain those strains — that offer those benefits.
- How many live bacteria does the product have? Probiotics are only useful if the bacteria are alive. The label should tell you how many living bacteria the supplement contains. The unit of measure is usually “colony-forming units.” If the label does not specify the number of living bacteria or says the microorganisms are already dead, this product will not be very beneficial.
- How many different strains of bacteria does the product include? In addition to checking if the probiotic you want to take contains live bacteria, you should also check how many different types of live bacteria it contains. Different types of bacteria do different things, and often work together to achieve a certain effect, such as improved digestion.
- How is the product packaged? Probiotic packaging is incredibly important. The way the product is packaged will determine whether or not the live bacteria it is advertised to have remained alive. Packaging not only means the box or bottle the probiotic comes in, but the packaging of the probiotic itself. Does it come in a pill form or a tablet? Does the way the pill is delivered into your body ensure the bacteria survive your stomach long enough to reach their intended destination?
- How do you need to store the probiotic? Always check the label for storage instructions. Light and heat can affect the strength of a probiotic or even render it useless. Make sure you follow the instructions on the label. You can also look for packaging that helps protect against those elements. For example, a dark bottle will shield probiotics from the light.
- How quickly does the probiotic expire? Probiotics are like any other type of supplement — they have a shelf life. Make sure the product you choose has a clearly labeled expiration date. It’s best to avoid products that do not include this information.
What Questions Should I Ask My Doctor About Probiotics?
You do not need a prescription to buy a probiotic supplement, but your doctor can still help you pick out the right product. Here are a few questions to keep in mind if you want to discuss probiotic supplements with your doctor.
- Who should not take probiotics? Probiotics are generally safe to take, with mild side effects or none at all. Probiotic can be a higher risk for very young children, seniors and people with compromised immune systems. Your doctor will review your health history with you and let you know if there is any reason you should avoid probiotics.
- Why should I take probiotics? Probiotics can be a great supplement, but not everyone needs to take an individual supplement. Some people can benefit simply by adding foods that contain natural probiotics. Ask your doctor if you should pick out a specific supplement or try adding some different foods to your diet. Your doctor can help you make a decision based on why a probiotic is indicated.
- What probiotic should I take? This can be one of the most confusing questions to answer on your own. Maybe you are taking an antibiotic, and you want a companion probiotic. Maybe you are suffering from digestion problems. Whatever the health issue is, your doctor can help steer you to the right probiotic choice. Your doctor will likely know specific strains and which brands contain those strains.
- How often should you take a probiotic? Trustworthy probiotic labels should have instructions, but this is still a good question to ask your doctor. He or she can tailor instructions specific to your health condition. Depending on why you are taking the probiotic, you might only need to take it for a certain period of time. For example, you might only need to take a probiotic while you are on a course of antibiotics.
How Do I Incorporate Probiotics Into My Regular Diet?
Taking a supplement is not the only way add more probiotics to your diet. There are several foods that contain plenty of natural probiotics. Here are some foods you can add to the menu if you want more probiotics in your life.
- Kefir — Kefir, much like yogurt, is a type of fermented dairy. It is made of fermented grain and goat’s milk. It has plenty of probiotics, including lactobacilli and bifidus.
- Kimchi — Kimchi is an Asian food. This pickled and fermented cabbage has plenty of vitamins, as well as the bacteria you find in many common probiotic supplements.
- Kombucha — Kombucha is fermented tea that contains a lot of different probiotics.
- Miso soup — Miso soup is a salty Japanese dish. The soup is made using fermented grains, beans and rice. This nutrient-rich food contains probiotics and plenty of vitamin B. The dish is also fairly low in calories.
- Sauerkraut — Like kimchi, sauerkraut is a type of fermented cabbage. Check the label before you buy this food. If it has been pasteurized, most of the probiotics it naturally contains are probably no longer alive, which means you won’t receive any benefit from them.
- Soft cheese — Finally, a reason to indulge in a little bit of cheese. Soft cheeses, such as gouda, are often fermented. This means they contain a good amount of probiotics.
- Yogurt — You can eat yogurt straight from the cup, or you can try adding it to smoothies. Yogurt contains tons of probiotics, but make sure you check for brands that contain live cultures.
As a bonus, you can add some dark chocolate to your diet. The chocolate itself does not have any probiotics, but it can help probiotics from other sources survive the trip through your stomach.
If you aren’t in the mood to cook or shop for a probiotic supplement, you can order fresh, delicious dishes that naturally incorporate beneficial probiotics. Take a look at our menu, and learn more about having Yalla Mediterranean delivered right to your door.