Probiotics have been on trend for a while now.
Bottles of probiotics in capsule form are all over the shelves of health food stores.
Some are refrigerated…
We’re told yogurt is a FANTASTIC source…but is it?
We’re told that fermented foods like sauerkraut are also a good source.
Maybe you’ve heard of cultured cashew cheese…
Perhaps you had some kombucha, jun, or kefir, and learned that these drinks have probiotics…
What are probiotics, and why do we need them?
Probiotics are often referred to as good bacteria.
They are living bacteria and yeasts that are either the same as or very similar to the bacteria living in your body.
You may have heard that you contain more bacteria than human cells in your body, and this is true!
Most of these bacteria live in your gut.
The good bacteria help you digest food, destroy disease-causing microorganisms, and produce vitamins!
Unfortunately, most people have more of the “bad,” pathogen-causing, junk food-craving bacteria than healthy bacteria…or their bodies think they do! More on this later…
What Probiotics Do For Us
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH), probiotics may:
- “Help to maintain a desirable community of microorganisms
- Stabilize the digestive tract’s barriers against undesirable microorganisms or produce substances that inhibit their growth
- Help the community of microorganisms in the digestive tract return to normal after being disturbed (for example, by an antibiotic or a disease)
- Outcompete undesirable microorganisms
- Stimulate the immune response.”
Probiotics are incredibly helpful for mental health.
Over a century ago, depression was successfully treated with vegetarian diet and probiotics. The study subjects felt better psychologically and became more regular in their bowel movements.
Recently, a field of study called enteric neuroscience has emerged to explore the enteric nervous system in our gut. This is commonly called our second brain.
We have as many nerves in our gut as in our spinal cord, which makes sense because the digestive tract has a larger surface area than our skin.
Research in this field has shown that our mental state (e.g. stress before exams) affects our gut.
On the other hand, our gut also affects our mental state.
Studies have shown that people with chronic fatigue syndrome reported improvements when taking probiotics.
Another study showed that one month of probiotics decreased symptoms of anxiety, anger, and hostility in healthy people.
How? Intestinal bacteria communicates with our brain and influences our mental well-being.
The science shows us that probiotics appear to affect mental and brain processes. So cool!
Treatment & Prevention
According to Harvard Health, clinical studies since the mid-1990s indicate that probiotic therapy is beneficial in the treatment of various gastrointestinal illnesses, delay allergy development in children, and prevent and treat vaginal and urinary infections in women.
Studies suggest that probiotics help treat and/or prevent:
- irritable bowel syndrome
- ulcerative colitis
- Crohn’s disease
- H. pylori (the cause of ulcers)
- vaginal infections
- urinary tract infections
- recurrence of bladder cancer
- infection of the digestive tract caused by Clostridium difficile
- pouchitis (a possible side effect of surgery that removes the colon)
- eczema in children.
Probiotic vs. Prebiotic vs. Synbiotic
Probiotic capsules commonly contain two groups of bacteria that are found in your lower digestive system: Lactobacillus (the bacteria used in cultured dairy products) and Bifidobacterium. Often, they include yeasts such as Saccharomyces boulardii.
You may also see prebiotics in the store. Prebiotics are dietary substances that encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria over harmful ones.
Synbiotics are products that combine probiotics and prebiotics.
But you don’t have to take a pill to get all this good stuff…
Both probiotics and prebiotics are found naturally in whole plant foods!
Natural Sources of Probiotics
Raw fruits and veggies are a source of prebiotics, fiber, and natural probiotics.
You don’t have to add probiotic starter culture to cabbage to make it ferment. Probiotics are already present in the leaves! We usually add salt to sauerkraut to prevent the outbreak of “bad” bacteria.
Studies have shown that each type of fruit and veggie has its own kind of probiotics.
Conventional and organic produce appear to have different types of bacteria as well. Although, we do not have research presently that shows which type is better.
Studies also indicate that plant-based eaters harbor more good bacteria and more copies of butyrate-producing genes.
Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid produced naturally by us as a byproduct of fiber digestion. It has been shown to prevent cancer and reduce inflammation, as well as protect the one cell thick layer that lines our gut.
Our Symbiotic Relationship With Bacteria
Our good bacteria make butyrate from the fiber we eat. The good bacteria take prebiotic fiber and in turn, provide the fuel that feeds the cells that line our colon.
Good bacteria want us to be as healthy as possible, because they have set up camp to live in us for the duration of our lives. They are grateful for their moist, warm, cozy home environment where food keeps coming in.
Bad bacteria, on the other hand, are not interested in our well-being. They want us to get sicker and sicker, and produce more diarrhea, so that they can leave the body and increase their chances of getting into another body.
Our trusty immune system constantly maintains a balance of tolerating good bacteria and attacking bad bacteria. You can understand that this would be tricky to figure out at times…
When the immune system starts attacking good bacteria, we see autoimmune illnesses.
Good bacteria signals to the immune system that it is in fact good bacteria by producing butyrate.
Butyrate calms our immune system down, and tells it our good bacteria balance is where it needs to be.
If we don’t eat enough fiber, we don’t create enough butyrate. Sensing low butyrate, our gut assumes we have a bunch of bad bacteria, so it attacks full force.
Lack of fiber means greater inflammation in the gut, because our immune system senses a threat. “No butyrate, oh no, ATTACK!”
For this reason, fiber from whole plant foods is exceedingly anti-inflammatory. Our gut can just chill out and do its job digesting food.
- Probiotics are microorganisms that live in our gut, and help us digest food, destroy disease-causing microorganisms, and produce vitamins.
- In our bodies, there is more of them than there is us…
- When all is well, good bacteria do loads for us in preventing and treating chronic mental and physical illnesses.
- Probiotics are actual bacteria. Prebiotics favor the growth of good bacteria. Synbiotics are products that contain both probiotics and prebiotics.
- Raw fruits and vegetables are natural synbiotics. They contain probiotics, prebiotics, and fiber.
- We have a symbiotic relationship with our gut bacteria driven in large part by FIBER and BUTYRATE. Butyrate is produced by bacteria when we feed them fiber from whole plant foods. Butyrate prevents cancer and inflammation. It also signals to the immune system to stand down.
- Low fiber intake means low butyrate production. So our immune system thinks we have too many bad bacteria. As a result, it attacks, causing inflammation.
Stay Tuned For Probiotics: Part 2. I’ll be sharing how I synthesize this information into an actionable, daily life strategy to support my good bacteria as much as possible.
Are you serious about improving your health?
Do you want ongoing support in achieving your health goals?