Madison, Wisconsin – The gut does so much more than just digest food. It’s home to the majority of our immune system, and keeping a good balance of bacteria — in part by incorporating probiotics into a healthy diet — can positively influence what’s happening from head to toe.
And new research is starting to reveal how the trillions of tiny bacteria in our guts can affect everything from mood to allergies to obesity. That’s why adding some yogurt to your plate, or any one of the variety of other probiotic products on the market, can give the good bacteria in your gut a helping hand, and often relieve some of the worst symptoms of digestive health issues.
Probiotics: Hard Working Bugs
One way to understand why probiotics are so important to overall health is to look at the word itself: derived from Latin, it means “for life.” In the microbiome of our gut, probiotics are the good bacteria that keep bad bacteria in check and promote healthy body function in a number of ways. There are actually about ten times more living bacteria in our colon than there are human cells in our entire body.
“Probiotics create ways to keep other bacteria from colonizing or reproducing in the gut,” says UW Health Family Medicine physician Dr. Adam Rindfleisch. “They can communicate with our body in ways we don’t even yet realize.”
Probiotics are hard-working bugs. They fight off the bad bacteria that can lead to various health issues. Patients suffering from digestive problems — from inflammatory bowel disease to traveler’s diarrhea — can usually find some relief from ingesting a probiotic product.
UW Health clinical nutritionist Kelley Ligocki sees many patients at the Digestive Health Center with antibiotic-associated diarrhea and says probiotics can help reduce those symptoms. Probiotics may also help those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome who often can’t tolerate foods that are categorized as prebiotics, or the fibers that feed probiotics.
“If you don’t have enough gut bacteria, or probiotics, to eat up the prebiotics — anything from lactose to onions and garlic — that can cause abdominal pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea,” she explains.
Probiotics have also been shown to help with overall inflammation in the body, fight urinary tract infections and even improve skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis. “Probiotics have a role in so much more than digestive health,” says UW Health registered dietitian Cassie Vanderwall.
That’s why most experts agree healthy individuals can benefit from incorporating probiotics in their diets to maintain good health. Some people, such as those with a compromised immune system, or who suffer from severe pancreatitis, should avoid probiotics. Otherwise, Rindfleisch says it’s rare to find patients who experience any severe complications, and probiotics are very safe for most people, including children. There are even options for those who might avoid probiotics because of a lactose intolerance. That’s a common misconception, according to Vanderwall. She says both yogurt and kefir, which are great sources for probiotics, are also relatively low in lactose sugar, which is what can trigger negative reactions.
Check Your Grocery List for Probiotic Foods
Yogurt is the most popular source for probiotics. Most yogurts you’ll find on store shelves have the live, active cultures needed to grow the bacteria—even those that aren’t heavily advertised as containing probiotics—but Vanderwall says it’s still important to read the label. Here’s what to look for:
- A well-rounded variety of bacteria (most commonly a combination of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidus and Lactobacillus casei).
- Some manufacturers all add prebiotics to their product, so if that’s the case, make sure there are at least 1-3 grams of fiber.
- Most importantly, beware the overly-sweetened stuff. Vanderwall says there’s no reason to eat excessive amounts of sugar just to get your probiotics.
There are plenty of other products that contain probiotics. Kefir, which is thinner than yogurt and often comes bottled like a smoothie, is gaining in popularity. Kombucha, or fermented tea, contains a lot of healthy gut bacteria (though it’s also high in sugar). Vegetarians and vegans often choose tempeh and natto, fermented soy products that are also high in protein. You’ll also find probiotics in pickles, sauerkraut, kimchee and miso soup.
Vanderwall says supplements are another option for those whose dietary lifestyle doesn’t allow for those extra calories, but again recommends reading labels carefully and sticking to trusted brands.
Finally, make sure the probiotics in your gut are eating well themselves. Prebiotics, those fibers that feed the good bacteria, can be found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, especially wheat and barley.
“Bacteria are alive, and require energy to survive,” Ligocki says. “If we’re not feeding them, they won’t flourish.”
The Future of Probiotics
“Incorporating probiotics into one’s diet is not a quick-fix or a cure-all,” Vanderwall explains. “But it can have a strong influence on one’s health.”
Both Rindfleisch and Vanderwall are careful to emphasize probiotics are not a magic bullet for perfect health, but they are excited about research on the connection between gut bacteria and everything from brain function and mood, to obesity, cardiovascular health, allergies and diabetes.
Rindfleisch speculates someday, physicians might be able to tailor a course of probiotics specifically for a patient’s genome and diagnosis.
“There have been so many recent studies on the benefits of probiotics, it’s mind-blowing,” Rindfleisch says. “I think we’re just getting a glimpse of what’s to come.”