If you have been anywhere near the health food industry these days, you have probably heard of probiotics. Probiotics are advertised in yogurts and pills and liquids. Everyone is talking about them. But what exactly are they? And do we need them?
What are Probiotics?
The official definition of probiotics is “live microorganisms administered in adequate amounts which confer a beneficial health effect on the host.” Um…okay… The easy version: Probiotics are friendly bacteria. They live in your gut and if you don’t have enough of them it will effect your digestion, your immune system and your ability to extract nutrients from your food. Hippocrates believed that all disease began in the gut — turns out he was right. Or at least, if your gut isn’t working right, your immune system won’t and little else will either. Those friendly little bacteria are pretty important. There are two main strains of these little guys are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, with various species within those two strains. The microbes each person carries around in his gut are a bit varied and different from the next guy, so if you are supplementing with probiotics you may find that you respond better to one strain or the other. It depends on what strains you are deficient in or if you are deficient at all. You may want to experiment with each strain or you may want to make sure you are getting both. Personally, I go for the latter.
Who Needs to Take Probiotic Supplements?
If you eat a traditionally prepared (i.e. cultured foods, soaked grains, lots of veggies, & whole foods) and eat absolutely no processed, manufactured foods, you’re probably good. You’ll be getting the probiotics you need through your food.
But, if you eat the Standard American Diet, you are getting virtually no probiotics in your food. And if you’ve ever taken antibiotics, guess what? Antibiotics aren’t very discerning. They kill bacteria. They don’t really care if those are good bacteria or bad. So if you’ve ever had antibiotics, you probably need to help your good bacteria recover from the hit.
What Can Probiotics Do for You?
Probiotics are being researched for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, several kinds of infections (including, but not limited to skin infections and yeast infections), tooth decay, gum disease, stomach infections and respiratory infections in children. People also use probiotics to help with food allergies, seasonal allergies, lactose intolerance, and to reduce gas, diarrhea, gastrointestinal upset, poor digestion and a weak immune system. People report having more energy and just feeling better when they are getting plenty of probiotics.
One word of caution, though. If you’re balance of gut bacteria is “off”, you may experience some unpleasant symptoms when you first start supplementing. If you have a candida overgrowth, the friendly bacteria will begin to colonize and the candida will begin to die off. That candida die off can cause you to feel like you have the flu for a few days while your body dumps all those toxins. Drink plenty of water, get lots of rest and if you need to, slow down on the probiotics a little to give your body time to catch up. You will feel better. Pinky promise.
Which Probiotics Should You Take?
I have taken several different kinds over the years. Some were better than others. I will say this. The stuff at your local warehouse store is probably not going to do you much good. If you really want to make a difference in your body, you need a high quality supplement. It will cost. I recommend going to a good health food store and asking about their selection. In order to really recolonize your gut, you may need to take them for a long time. That can get really expensive, especially if you want your whole family to take them. But wait! Maybe there’s a better way.
An Alternative to Store Bought Probiotics.
Traditional cultures did not go to a health food store to pick up a bottle of probiotics, yet their bodies needed probiotics for good health. What did they do? In America, we have lost touch with traditionally prepared foods, but many cultures around the world still eat or drink probiotic rich foods every day. Some examples: Miso, kimchi, traditionally fermented soy sauce, kombucha, milk kefir, water kefir, yogurt (not the sugar laden stuff at the grocery store), and traditionally prepared cultured sauerkraut — just to name a few.
When I was in South Africa, I noticed that many of the people left their milk out on the counter to sour before drinking it. Their milk was raw and full of enzymes. It naturally cultured into a probiotic rich drink. At the time, I was horrified because I could only imagine soured pasteurized milk — yuck! DON’T try that at home, unless you can verify that your milk is clean and raw. Pasteurized milk uses heat to kill all the bacteria and enzymes. That may keep you from picking up a rare disease, but it also kills the good bacteria and enzymes that help the milk properly culture on the counter. If you drink pasteurized milk that has been left out, you will get sick. Don’t do it. Only culture raw milk. Just so you know. Many people culture various foods into probiotic superfoods, but in America it is mostly a lost art.
Next time I will tell you about some of the ways our family incorporates traditionally prepared probiotic rich foods into our diet. It’s easy, it’s cheap and it’s delicious. What could be better? Until then,
Update: Here is the link to the follow-up post “3 Ways to Grow Your Own Probiotics”
Have a great day!