Did you know that there are trillions of bacteria that live in your gastrointestinal system? Before you run to the doctor thinking that there is something wrong with you, please relax! Many of these strains of bacteria are essential for digestion and supporting healthy immunity. Keeping gut bacteria in balance is an important part of good health. Stress, travel, illness or taking a course of antibiotics can disrupt and even eliminate colonies of beneficial bacteria and make you susceptible to digestive problems.
Benefits of Probiotics
What can you do to re-establish the balance of gut flora or maintain the healthy balance of bacteria in your GI tract? Living microorganisms called probiotics can be beneficial in establishing healthy digestion and immunity. Probiotics can help ease irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), promote regularity, and prevent and treat yeast infections. New studies suggest that probiotics may prevent vascular disease, depression and even cancer!
Because probiotics help restore equilibrium to intestinal bacteria, their effects are most easily seen when gut flora balance has been disrupted. This is not to say that probiotics are not beneficial when you are feeling healthy, but they are not magic. Probiotics are to digestion as premium gas is to fuel efficiency. Not all probiotics are equal, though, so you have to read labels carefully. Food manufacturers know that “Probiotics” is a buzz word now, and many foods claim to contain probiotics.
Fermented is Best
The most natural forms of probiotics are in fermented foods, but do not assume that fermented means rotten. Fermented foods, by definition, have undergone chemical alternation that produces digestive-friendly enzymes, bacteria and nutrients. Look for words like raw, lacto-fermented or unpasteurized (Source: Women’s Health). This means that the beneficial bacteria have not been killed in the manufacturing process. Some examples are:
- Yogurt is a multi-billion dollar industry today. Look for yogurt that has live cultures, preferably billions of live cultures.
- Kimchi is a mixture of spicy, pickled vegetables like cabbage, carrots and radishes that are full of lactobacilli. Kimchi is an acquired taste but has some of the best health benefits.
- Kefir is actually cultured milk that contains beneficial bacteria and yeast. It tastes like drinkable yogurt. Most people cannot tell the difference between kefir and thin yogurt.
- Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage that is tart and zingy. Do not over-eat sauerkraut, however, because it is fermented with salt and is high in sodium.
Read Labels and Consult Your Doctor
When going to a health food store or especially the health food aisle in your grocery store, read labels carefully. Look for supplements that contain at least 20 billion live organisms per dose. Doses that contain less than 20 billion may be ineffective, and probiotics can be expensive. Before beginning any probiotic, talk to your doctor. Your physician will be able to advise you whether the probiotic you want to take will be helpful to you and whether it will affect any of your other medications.