You are what you eat. Or more accurately, you are what you feed the trillions of little critters that live in your gut.
The lining of your gut, like every surface of your body, is covered in microscopic creatures, mostly bacteria. These organisms create a micro-ecosystem called the microbiome. And though we don’t really notice it’s there, it plays an oversized role in your health and can even affect your mood and behavior.
While we think of bacteria as invisible villains, your body is actually teeming with bacteria heroes. The gut bacteria (what scientists call gut microbiota) that live in your gastrointestinal tract are magical creatures. They help:
- Break down and digest food.
- Communicate with your immune system.
- Keep inflammation at bay.
Not surprisingly, what you feed your microbiome may have the biggest impact on its health. And the healthier it is, the healthier you are. The key to a healthy microbiome is nourishing a balance among the nearly 1,000 different species of bacteria in your gut.
There are two ways to maintain this balance — helping the microbes already there to grow by giving them the foods they like (prebiotic) and adding living microbes directly to your system (probiotic). Probiotics and prebiotics both help those friendly bacteria with digestive and vaginal health, but in different ways.
Probiotics can come from foods or supplements. Ideally, probiotics should come from fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, beet kvass, Lacto-fermented vegetables, yogurt, and kefir. These contain a wider variety of bacteria than can be supplied in supplements.
These food-based probiotics are vulnerable to heat, so do not heat or add to hot food. Added sugars can damage the probiotics in these foods.
Supplements are live microorganisms isolated from humans and then cultured in a lab to be used as a supplement. When we ingest them (whether in food or supplement form), they survive in the gut and provide benefits to us like the good bacteria that we naturally have.
If you choose to take a probiotic supplement, choose a probiotic that has as many different strains as you can get, lactobacilli being a major one. Refrigerated types often have more living bacteria.
This is a food source for the friendly bacteria in your intestinal tract. Our digestive system can’t break down prebiotics, so they survive the journey through the digestive tract. They eventually reach the part of the colon where the friendly bacteria hang out. The bacteria have the chops to break down the prebiotics into nutrition that helps them grow and thrive.
Prebiotics are fibers that cannot be digested. This fiber feeds the probiotics, which are the good bacteria that inhabit the gut. Inulin is a common prebiotic found in many foods and is available as a supplement.
Examples of good prebiotic foods include chicory root, dandelion greens, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, jicama, konjac, Jerusalem artichoke, bananas, barley, oats, apples, cocoa, flaxseed, burdock root, yacon root, and wheat bran.
The list of prebiotic foods is long, from asparagus to yams. A quick internet search will yield dozens of examples, as will a consultation with a registered dietitian.
Nowadays, the list of prebiotic supplements might be even longer, but they usually contain a complex carbohydrate such as fiber. Supplement companies market products to specific conditions, such as bone health and weight management, claiming that their ingredients enhance the growth of specific kinds of bacteria.
Keep in mind
One thing to understand about supplements is that there are many, many kinds. For instance, one type of bacteria commonly used is lactobacillus. But there are more than 120 species of lactobacillus, and at least a dozen of them are used as probiotics.
What’s more, there are several other types of bacteria, each with dozens of species, making for a dizzying variety of available probiotics. And even when you select a kind of bacteria, the amount in the supplement can vary between brands.
When taking a probiotic, research the condition you wish to address and select the probiotic based on that condition. Also, keep in mind that while a probiotic may show promise in treating a condition, it’s likely that the research is still in early stages. As always, when considering taking a supplement, talk to your doctor first.
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