By now, you’ve heard all about the microbiome, the trillions of probiotic bacteria that live in and on us.
And you probably know how good these bacteria are for our health: they help us digest our food, protect against disease and even help regulate our weight.
But, do you know how to best care for your gut bacteria? Should you take probiotic supplements, eat fermented foods, or focus on prebiotics?
Here’s the lowdown.
The supplement industry would like us to believe that when you can take probiotics, they will colonize your gut and become part of your microbiome.
But, the truth is that most probiotics simply pass through the digestive tract and never take up residence.
It is tough to survive the acids & enzymes in the digestive tract. And if they do make it all the way to the intestines, they’re often kicked out by the normal healthy bacteria who are there, defending their turf.
Quality is also an issue with all supplements. Of roughly 650 supplement-making facilities that the FDA inspected in 2017, around half had violations such as failure to accurately report the identity, purity, and strength of their supplements.
Since the industry is so loosely regulated, when you purchase a supplement, you may not actually be getting what is listed on the label.
BOTTOM LINE: Taking probiotic supplements is most likely a waste of money.
PROBIOTICS IN FERMENTED FOODS
There are a wide variety of fermented foods that have naturally occurring probiotic bacteria, including yogurt, kefir, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles and kombucha.
As with probiotic supplements, much of the bacteria in these fermented foods may not make it to your intestines, and even when they do, their stay may be relatively short-lived.
However, as they pass through our systems, these food-based bacteria can have anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting effects.
Plus, many fermented foods are nutrient-dense to begin with, and the fermentation process increases the levels of some nutrients and makes others more bioavailable.
BOTTOM LINE: You may get some benefits from the probiotics in fermented foods, and you’ll also get a variety of other nutrients. However, be aware of the sugar content (especially in yogurt & kombucha) and sodium content (especially in pickled vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut). Look for the highest quality foods and make sure they contain live & active cultures.
With all the hype about probiotics, people sometimes forget that we already have lots of good bacteria living in our guts.
Rather than spending so much time, energy & money trying to introduce other bacteria to our systems, we’ll get more reliable results if we focus on nourishing the bacteria that are already there.
That’s where prebiotics come in!
Prebiotics are the indigestible carbohydrates (fiber) that provide food for our friendly bacteria. What these bacteria thrive on most is the insoluble fiber found in garlic, onions and leeks. Other good sources are vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and whole grains.
BOTTOM LINE: To get the health advantages associated with a healthy microbiome, it’s far more important to eat prebiotic-rich foods than it is to consume fermented foods or probiotic supplements.