Did you know that you are more bacterial than you are human?
In fact, you have trillions of bacteria that live in and on you, outnumbering your own cells by a factor of 10 to 1! As researchers begin to unravel the impact of bacteria on human health, we are learning that a host of concerns have a bacterial connection, from chronic inflammation to irritable bowel syndrome and even anxiety.
As you might expect, interest in probiotics is reaching a fever pitch. But just what are probiotics, exactly? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), probiotics are beneficial bacteria that, when given in adequate dosages, help to improve human health. The potential for probiotics to impact your health is enormous. Currently, we understand that probiotics have a number of basic advantages for digestion, from helping to improve the absorption of minerals to creating lactase enzyme and fighting off harmful bacteria.
Even more interesting is the impact probiotics have on the immune system. Roughly 80 percent of your immune activity is centered within your gut. If the gut isn’t functioning well, or if bacteria living in the gut are infectious, the immune system goes into overdrive. A good probiotic can help fend off infection, protect the gut lining itself, and even help cool the flames of chronic inflammation.
The challenge we find is that there is quite a gap between the research on probiotics and what’s on the shelves. Very few commercial probiotics are rigorously tested, meaning that you might not be getting what you pay for in that bottle.
Eating fermented foods is a wonderful way to bring beneficial bacteria to the table. Yogurt is probably our most famous fermented food, but most commercial yogurts don't pack much of a probiotic punch. Luckily, there are so many other options to explore. If you love yogurt, try kefir, a unique drinkable milk that is fermented with bacteria and yeasts that lends itself well to smoothies. Miso makes delicious sauces and salad dressings. Kombucha is a wonderful, low sugar alternative to soda (and a great cocktail mixer!), and fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles can fit in at the dinner table daily. What’s great about pickles is that they are so easy to make yourself, which saves you money and ensures that your cultures are live. For the beginner, making sauerkraut or kimchi is a great way to get started because all you need are vegetables, some salt, and spices.
Of course, while fermented foods are an important part of incorporating beneficial bacteria, a clinical strength probiotic is a way of harnessing what is found in nature and concentrating it to therapeutic levels.
If you have a serious digestive condition such as ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, or even if you have to take an antibiotic, talk to your doctor about boosting your fermented food intake with a good probiotic.
Desiree Nielsen, RDN, is a Bio-K+ advisory board member and published author of Un-Junk Your Diet.