Just what are probiotics and why are they so good for you? Probiotics are "viable microorganisms" that can confer lots and lots of health benefits if they reach your intestine while they're alive. You may have heard them described as "friendly bacteria."
Even if you're not dealing with any of those ailments, you want to make sure your GI tract is flourishing, and pre- and probiotics are necessary to maintaining your digestion—which is, in turn, key to your general health (not to mention pooping).
Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460 BC—c. 375), widely considered the father of medicine, famously said, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Which is all well and good, but if your digestive system is out of whack, you're not going to get full delivery of all those invaluable nutrients.
Food has to be broken down into molecules in order to nourish your body. NYU Langone Medical Center points out that the digestive process starts in the mouth, where you chew and break down food, and is finished, so to speak, in the small intestine.
When the natural balance of bacteria in the small intestine is thrown for a loop, (you're ill, you've decided to fast for a few days, you're taking antibiotics, which kill off all bacteria, good and bad), then your digestive processes are impaired. Probiotics can help things get back on track.
And if you live on a diet of highly processed food, well, it's safe to say that your poor digestive system is doing its best to get that crap out of your system—literally.
Fortunately, it's easy to get lots of probiotics in your diet. They naturally exist in fermented foods like kombucha, kefir, yogurt, buttermilk, kimchee, sauerkraut, miso paste, and even some soft cheeses like Gouda (which may also boost the immune system in older people). You can also buy probiotics in pill form if you don't eat a lot of the foods listed above, although supplements can be pretty pricey.
However, you need to use your smarts when choosing a good source of probiotics. Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, is an expert in probiotic microbiology. She explains that "…no legal definition of probiotics exists in the United States or in other countries, which allows the marketing of products labeled as "probiotics" that do not meet the fundamental criteria stipulated in the scientific definition."
In other words, there's a lot of fuzzy marketing speak on food labels out there. Plus, companies really want to cash in the probiotics craze, so much so that they're adding probiotics to foods that don't make sense, like pizza crust (the high heat will kill off the microorganisms once it's cooked).
Prevention has a good list that walks you through what probiotic foods to look for and how to tell they're legit. In short, the label on yogurt should read "live and active cultures." Or read the ingredients and look for terms that start with lactobacillus, Streptococcus, or Bifidobacterium.
As for pickled foods like, well, pickles, as well as kimchee and sauerkraut, you're better off making your own. Most pasteurization processes kill off the probiotics that we need. Plus, homemade kimchee tastes terrific—you can customize how spicy and salty you want it to be.
If you have a specific condition you'd like to see improve, then Dr. Sanders suggests you seek out products that have been tested for your particular concerns—not all strains of probiotics are created equal.
Okay, what if you're already on board the probiotics train? You can now take the extra step of giving the probiotics you ingest an extra boost by making sure you eat prebiotics with them. Prebiotics are "nondigestible carbohydrates" that probiotics use as food.
Fermented dairy products naturally contain both pre- and probiotics, which make them synbiotic. Prebiotics are easy to come by from food as well: just make sure your diet includes leeks, asparagus, onions, bananas, garlic, honey, whole grains, chicory root, and Jerusalem artichokes (also known as sunchokes).
Scientific American points out that the more prebiotics you eat, the more hospitable an environment you create so probiotics can flourish.
In fact, a study at the BBC shows that you might be better off focusing on a diet heavy in prebiotic-rich vegetables, which was even more effective in improving bacterial health than a probiotic one, at least in the short term.
If you're looking for a supplement that contains prebiotics, make sure you look for the words inulin, oligosaccharides (the most complex kind being found in human breast milk—but come on—you're not going to go there), GOS, (short for galactooligosaccharides), FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides), or polydextrose.
But if this is all too much to digest, why not pour yourself a glass of wine instead? Turns out preliminary studies have shown that red wine may have some healthy prebiotic effect on the human body. Now that's reason to celebrate, yes?
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