Your gut doesn’t just tell you swiping right on Tinder after 2 a.m. is always a bad idea. Your gut is your body’s entire digestive tract. Its work begins the moment you open your mouth to take a bite and ends in the bathroom (where, let’s be honest, most Tinder swiping takes place).
The gut is actually a pretty complicated system: Food moves from your mouth through the esophagus into your stomach, where digestion occurs. Once food is digested, the contents of your stomach move into the small intestine, where amino acids, fats, and sugars are broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream. Any material left over is sent to the large intestine, where unabsorbed sugars and proteins are turned into energy. From there, what’s left in your large intestines solidifies and is excreted as your so-called morning constitutional.
Living inside the gut are probiotic bacteria, which help the digestive tract do its job.
But what exactly are probiotics?
Kara Landau, gut health expert and founder of Travelling Dietitian, explains:
“Probiotics are live microorganisms that line our gut and have a symbiotic relationship with us, the host. We have evolved together over the years, and require a healthy balance of good to bad bacteria in order to maintain a strong immune and digestive system.”
Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, elaborates: “Probiotics help control the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut and help restore the balance of good bacteria affected by antibiotics and poor diet. They aid in the proper digestion of food, preventing issues like gas, bloating, cramps, diarrhea, or constipation.”
Gut microbes, like probiotics, are ultra-important to our overall health.
According to a resource hosted by Harvard Health Publishing, not only do gut microbes metabolize nutrients from food, protect against infection, and help prevent blood clots, they can also help prevent certain diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease from developing.
“What the science has shown is that the more diverse our gut microbiome is, the better,” says gut authority Mahmoud Ghannoum, PhD.
So how do probiotics play into gut health?
Jaimi Jansen, a holistic nutritionist, breaks it down this way:
“The human body has thousands of bacterial cultures that live in the large intestine, the stomach, the skin, and the urethra amongst other places. Probiotics help promote good health and proper function in each of these areas. Communities of microorganisms found in parts of the human body are known as flora. The gut flora, for example, refers to the many microorganisms that live in the digestive tract.”
Jansen goes on to say, “Some antibiotics—which kill gut flora—can disturb the microbial balance and leave the body prone to infections. Maintaining a well-balanced microbial environment is extremely important to good health.”
In addition to overall wellness, probiotics can also play a significant role in weight management.
“When it comes to weight loss specifically, while we aren’t aware of probiotics specifically proven to reduce weight, there is a growing body of evidence showing that people that are overweight have different levels of different germs than people who are not overweight. That seems to indicate that our microbiome does play some role when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight,” says Ghannoum.
Problems in the gut can often arise because the ratio of good to bad bacteria gets out of whack.
According to an article by Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse from New York City and founder of the natural health resource RemediesForMe.com, “At times our beneficial microbes are accidentally wiped out by external factors that are intended to get rid of only the bad bacteria.”
Lee breaks down the most common culprits of bacterial imbalance in the gut as follows:
Antibiotics can be introduced into our systems both as prescriptions and from animal food sources since antibiotics are sometimes used to treat animals—giving them an opportunity to find their way into milk, meat, poultry, and fish products.
Antibiotics are used to combat a bacterial infection, hence their name. However, once they’re in the body, antibiotics can’t tell which bacteria are good and which are bad, which means, depending on the dose, the antibiotics in your system may wipe out all the bacteria your system needs to function properly.
Not only are gut-disrupting antibiotics routinely given during surgery, but anesthesia can also have a negative effect on gut health. That’s because anesthesia can paralyze your digestive track, which stops probiotic bacteria from doing its job and allows the bad bacteria to take over.
Unless you’re scheduled for a colonoscopy, a colon cleanse is never a good idea. Not only is it like the worst diarrhea of your life times a million, but it wipes out the good and bad bacteria from your gut, wreaking havoc on your digestive system.
Too Much Fiber
Yes, you need fiber as part of a well-balanced diet. Fiber can help control weight and prevent certain health conditions like heart disease and diabetes. But too much fiber can be bad for your digestive health. According to the website GutSense.org, when you get too much fiber in your diet, “the intestines are colonized with symbiotic bacteria (normal intestinal flora), which are essential for many health-sustaining functions. Normally, mucin—a component of mucus—provides bacteria with the nutrients they need. But when fiber—soluble as well as insoluble—reaches the lower intestine, the bacteria go wild, ferment everything in sight, and multiply prodigiously.”
It’s no secret that mental health plays a huge role in how you feel physically. The physical manifestations of stress, like muscle aches, fatigue, and an upset stomach can then exacerbate the stress you’re feeling, leading to a terrible cycle. An estimated 90 percent of serotonin is created by good gut bacteria, so when you’re stressed, the amount of serotonin (the feel-good hormone) that the body releases is drastically reduced, and bad bacteria can take over.
Osteopathic physician and cofounder of DrFormulas Bryan Tran says that boosting probiotic intake not only helps manage stress, but can aid in weight management as well:
“Through their effect on mood, probiotics may have a role in weight loss. Differences in diet also change the composition of probiotics in the gut which can then affect mood and appetite. Obese individuals also have a higher level of inflammation in the body. Probiotics … are able to lower systemic levels of inflammation and dampen the inflammatory response, which could support weight loss.”
Where can I get these magical micro-organisms?
Ideally, probiotics will come from your regular diet rather than probiotic supplements.
One of the best ways to get your daily dose of probiotics is through fermented foods, which naturally contain probiotic bacteria.
“Fermented foods were some of man’s first probiotic supplements and are still effective choices today for helping introduce healthy bacteria into the body,” says Elizabeth Trattner, an acupuncture physician.
That’s because fermented foods often contain lactobacillus, a common probiotic strain of lactic acid bacteria that can help alleviate diarrhea and fight infection.
If you feel your gut health isn’t up to snuff, you can change your diet to make sure you’re getting right amount of probiotics in your system.
Tran recommends these probiotic-rich foods:
Brine Cured Olives
Olives are a great source of probiotics because the brine, which is simply a saltwater mixture, ferments the olives, loading them with lactobacillus probiotic bacteria. Not only are olives great for gut health, they are also one of the most nutrient-dense foods available, full of antioxidants and healthy fats.
Similar to olives, cultured vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi are fermented using a saltwater process, which allows lactic acid bacteria to multiply naturally. In addition to probiotics, sauerkraut and kimchi are great additions to your regular diet because they are full of vitamin C. Kimchi in particular has been used for centuries in Korean culture as a regular menu staple and is now readily available in many grocery stores.
Cultured Dairy Products
Kefir, a fermented milk drink, contains thousands of probiotics as a result of the fermentation process. In addition to its probiotic benefits, the fermentation process involved in making kefir helps break down lactose, so even if you have a lactose intolerance, you may be able to enjoy kefir.
Yogurt is another cultured dairy product that contains probiotics, but you have to be especially careful when purchasing yogurt in the grocery store, as not all yogurts contain probiotics. When shopping for yogurts containing probiotics, look for packaging that includes a seal from the National Yogurt Association. If yogurts claim to contain live probiotic cultures but do not have the seal, read the ingredients on the back. If the yogurt contains probiotics, they will be listed there.
Kombucha is a black tea and sugar mixture that has been fermented using a bacteria and yeast culture. As the tea ferments, the bacteria and yeast grow thousands of probiotics. While kombucha is having a moment right now, it’s definitely an acquired taste as the sour flavor make take some getting used to.
Tempeh is a meat substitute made of fermented soybeans, but unlike many of the other foods Tran recommends, it has a rich nutty taste. Tempeh is different from its cousin tofu because it derives its probiotic goodness from the fermentation process it undergoes. Tofu, unlike tempeh, is a processed soy product that does not contain probiotics.
Opting to Supplement
If you’re a picky eater or you have dietary restrictions that prevent you from eating some of the probiotic-rich foods on this list, you can still get beneficial gut flora from probiotic supplements.
Before purchasing a probiotic supplement, do your homework. There are thousands of different strains of probiotics, and some are better than others at helping to manage certain gut issues. For example, a probiotic that helps alleviate diarrhea may not the be same probiotic that will help relieve constipation.
Additionally, Lee recommends “buying from a reputable brand that contain[s] strains like bacillus coagulans, lactobacillus rhamnosus, lactobacillus acidophilus, saccharomyces boulardii, bacillus subtilis, or other longer-surviving probiotic[s]. You want probiotics that will survive past your stomach.”
Can I make my own probiotics?
Making your own fermented probiotic foods is easy, especially since the fermentation process kills most harmful organisms that might otherwise contaminate food. Still, contamination can happen, so make sure to practice good food safety, which means washing all fruits and veggies, sterilizing storage containers prior to use, and allowing food to ferment at the right temperatures.
Ready to make your own probiotics at home?
Lee shares her two favorite probiotic recipes:
- A large pot
- A coffee filter
- Large glass jars for storage
- 2 gallons of water
- 8 black tea bags
- 1 ½ cups organic sugar
- SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Yeast and Bacteria)*
- Heat 2 gallons of water in a big pot with 8 black tea bags.
- Add 1 ½ cups of organic sugar to the tea and boil about 15 minutes on low heat.
- Turn the heat off and let liquid cool completely.
- Once it’s cooled, carefully pour the tea into a glass jar that contains the SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Yeast and Bacteria).
- Place a coffee filter or paper towel over the top of the jar and keep closed with a rubber band.
- Let the jar sit somewhere in the kitchen that is warm and not in direct sunlight for seven to 10 days.
- Pour and enjoy!
*It’s easy to make your own SCOBY from scratch. Here’s a great tutorial from Emma Christensen at The Kitchn.
Yogurt with Active Probiotics
A note from Lee: “This type of yogurt is good for people with slight lactose intolerance. The majority of the lactose (milk sugar) is converted into strong probiotic cultures. Make sure to mix or scoop out the curd with plastic spoons and not metal spoons.”
- A bowl
- Saran wrap
- 4 Tbsp. curd or dahi—also known as Indian yogurt
- 1 cup organic milk
- Add the milk to the curd in a bowl and cover gently with saran wrap.
- Let the mixture sit on the kitchen counter undisturbed and out of direct sunlight for 6 to 8 hours. After a few hours, if it is still not as firm as soft yogurt, let it sit out for longer.
- Enjoy your yogurt!